Taiichi Ohno

Toyota’s Top Engineer on How to Develop Thinking People

By Jon Miller Updated on May 15th, 2017

The August 4, 2008 Nikkei Business Online article titled Top Engineer Explains How Toyota Develops People (技術最高職が語る「トヨタはこう人を育てる」). The article is an interview with Nanpachi Hayashi, Toyota’s top engineer. He was a student of Taiichi Ohno, and much what he talks about sounds like it came out of the pages of Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management. The importance of making people think and struggle on their own, following up, and going to see are a few of the familiar themes. The following is my selected translation, summary and commentary.

Hayashi began working with Taiichi Ohno in 1970 in developing the Toyota Production System. What was it like to work with Mr. Ohno as a boss?

Hayashi: I was really afraid of Mr. Ohno when I was young. But I think he was developing thinking people. He never gave us the answer. When he gave us an assignment, he would just stand by and watch us fail, even if he knew the answer.

Taiichi Ohno would give his subordinates nearly impossible challenges. But from the moment he gave these challenges, Ohno himself would be thinking about the solution, so he followed up. Hayashi says that Ohno always came to see for himself the next day. When the solution was inadequate Ohno would yell “What is this?!” but this helped people recognize where their perspective had been inadequate. According to Hayashi, “Mr. Ohno scolded us after first making us really think and struggle, and this helped us to come to a deeper understanding.”

Hayashi says, “Developing people requires physical endurance.” Frequent follow up is necessary, in person. It is not acceptable to give an assignment and follow up or scold only after three months, during a progress report meeting. Specific actions and detailed follow up are necessary. Do Toyota and the people within the organization still have this “physical endurance?” Hayashi raises several concerns he has with the current state of people development at Toyota. First, the emphasis on documentation and standardization, although inevitable to raise level across production facilities worldwide. Hayashi makes it clear that he views the current level of global expansion to be excessive, implying that it is not sustainable from the level of detailed-follow up needed to develop thinking people.

Hayashi reflects on how his teacher would follow up on one thing at a time, rather than multiple topics:

When Mr. Ohno came to the gemba he would only give one assignment, and he would always be back to check the next morning. It was scary, but it gave me peace of mind to know that he would be back to check.

This paragraph struck me as particularly impressive, and deserves to be translated in full:

Also, when we are required to deliver results with speed, we only give our subordinates small projects so that even if they fail they have time to recover. In the end, we give them the solution. We must firmly carry on the practice of developing thinking people. Mr. Ohno often said to us, “Don’t look with your eyes, look with your feet. Don’t think with you head, think with your hands.” He also taught us, “People who can’t understand numbers are useless. The gemba where numbers are not visible is also bad. However, people who only look at the numbers are the worst of all.”

Those are two brilliant new quotes from Taiichi Ohno. Thank you again to Mr. Ohno and Mr. Hayashi for continuing the tradition of teaching us.

On the theme of the importance of follow up, Hayashi answers the question “What is the behavior required from management to develop thinking people?”

Perhaps not every time, but managers need to follow up by “random audit” at least one time in ten.

He tells the story of a time when Hayashi went to report progress to Mr. Ohno, and Ohno followed up by asking Hayashi, “Did you go see for yourself?” Hayashi responded, “Yes” even though he had not and had only presented a report received from the gemba. Mr. Ohno said, “Let’s go to the gemba. Show me the real thing and explain it to me again.” From then on Hayashi always checked for himself and only reported to Mr. Ohno what he had personally seen and understood.

Asked how Toyota was coping with rapid international expansion and the need to develop thinking people, Hayashi provided insight:

Toyota does not have a goal. An increasing number of Toyota people from outside of Japan understand this, but this is something hard to get used to. They think that when a target is reached, they deserve a reward.

Hayashi likens it to Goldratt’s “Goal” in that it can never be reached.
Another recent development at Toyota that concerns Hayashi is the increase in the number of temporary or contract labor.

They (temporary or contract labor) are increasing because it is not possible to rapidly hire the people needed, but reducing cost by hiring people so we can pay them less money to do the same work is not kaizen.

Hayashi recognizes that there are both people who prefer to work as contractors in several jobs, and those people who are term employees who participate actively in QC circles. The important thing, he says, is to develop shop floor leaders who can bring together such a diverse group.

Compared to the past, has the gemba at Toyota become stronger or weaker? Hayashi says both are true. Toyota people have become better with computer skills, the development of technical skills and formal training. However the mental toughness and determination to do whatever it takes, when there is no people and no money and you just have to work through the night, is missing.

Hayashi is encouraged that very few people at Toyota think they are as good as they can be, and most recognize that a lot remains to be done. With a kaizen mind, ever looking at problems as opportunities, Hayashi says:

These last few years have been good ones for Toyota and the use of creativity rather than money to solve problems may have been weakened. Now that the economy is slowing down and investments are harder to make, I think this is a good opportunity.

Taiichi Ohno said, “Your wits don’t work until you feel the squeeze.” Mr. Hayashi sees the latest economic slowdown as just the squeeze Toyota needs to develop thinking people.

  1. Aris

    August 9, 2008 - 4:25 pm

    Hi John,
    I like the two quotes from Taichi Ohno especially the last when he said the worst are the people who only look at numbers.
    These are the smart alecs, the darling of the management team in many companies.I suppose it is not that looking at numbers is wrong but what Hayashi meant was only look at the numbers given without verification. So he tells us the story of how he was ‘caught’ by his mentor ,Taiichi Ohno.
    Most abused is the usage of selected numbers to reinforce their personal objective namely KPIs.
    The notion of Toyota has no goal surely must have shock these KPI’s advocates and perhaps reveal what have been known for a long time.That numbers alone, if it is wrong or not verified,will be better of not used.And how to check when everywhere everybody is posting numbers as KPIs?
    To do one thing at a time.Giving small jobs to new people,letting them learn,heavier jobs to the most experience letting them to excel… is not that common sense? Again Toyota wins hands down.

  2. Woody Brown

    August 14, 2008 - 1:34 pm

    Thank You Jon,
    I am currently reading Ohno book, Toyota Production System, Beyond Large-Scale Production. It’s simple in so many ways. Ohno and his words are simple, and I have worked with managers and engineers like him. People like Ohno who don’t necessarily have all the solutions, but the natural ability to see the problems, and the ability to focus and motivate others to solve the problem for them.
    “Don’t look with your eyes, look with your feet. Don’t think with your head, think with your hands.”
    Wow, is that powerful.
    So often we, those of us that were not there to hear words coming directly from the brilliant minds that said it invent meaning and endless written words for what we think it means when in reality it just that simple.
    Sometimes when someone understands a concept so intuitively, they make statements that are incredibly simple. When we look at these simple statements we can‘t access the profound meaning behind them.
    “There must be something I’m missing, it can’t be that simple”
    In telling our selves this we start to fabricate all kinds of meaning behind it, intern making it far more complex then it is.
    But in an odd way we are more comfortable with the complexity, as adults we only value the complex, and think complex things are worth investing in.
    In all my studies, Ohno, Shingo, (Sakichi, Kiichiro and Eiji Toyoda) as well as a few other brilliant minds I’ve had the privilege to work with and under. It all comes down to some simple truths.
    See the problems (wastes), fix them and improve the process (kaizen). Make it better then it was before you started.

  3. leantyro

    November 7, 2008 - 11:43 pm

    I don’t have yet my own copy of Taichi Ohno’s book – I should have placed this as top priority over other lean manufacturing books. As per some comments here, Ohno’s words were profound. Much like Deming’s i guess.
    My lean books are those from J. Liker, Monden and some from consultants i guess in the field. Still, I feel wanting of other lean mfg (TPS) books – Ohno’s TPS will be my next buy.

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