KaizenTaiichi Ohno

Words of Taiichi Ohno Sensei: Kaizen by Inspiration is Not Kaizen

By Jon Miller Updated on May 19th, 2017

I was flipping through some Japanese books on sayings and speeches given by Taiichi Ohno looking for inspiration for a quick blog post when I found this passage:

“Within the Toyota Production System, a lack of ability to do kaizen becomes a critical flaw. Does this mean that if you do kaizen that is the Toyota Production System? In fact the reverse is true.”

Taiichi Ohno explains that the type of kaizen that you do when the survival of your company depends on doing kaizen is the most important kaizen. As the term kaizen becomes more popular, Ohno observes that people do kaizen that don’t really need to be done. He calls this “omoitsuki kaizen” (思いつき改善) or in English “kaizen by inspiration” or “hit-upon-an-idea kaizen”.
This is quite counter intuitive. Isn’t kaizen all about people’s ideas, finding things to improve, and inspiration? Ohno would say “Oh, no”. He gives examples of inspiration kaizen such as “we can automate this” or “we fixed this” where in fact money was spent to improve something without proving that it contributed to profit. In fact these types of kaizen may increase output or efficiency, but the money spent may actually increase cost.

Bluntly, Taiichi Ohno points out that productivity improvements that do not result in actual whole number headcount reduction (1 person instead of 0.5 persons) is a poor kaizen. The process may have changed, and it may have measurably improved, but unless we can be show that it has reduced cost, it is a “stumbled upon kaizen” and not a step towards survival. Ohno is not advocating cost cutting through cutting headcount. Toyota kaizened their way to TPS because they had to find their way in the dark. Many companies try to kaizen their way to the TPS, and use headcount reduction as a cost driver. Taiichi Ohno warns us against following this path lightly.

Ultimately Taiichi Ohno is placing the responsibility on leadership to challenge people to use their creativity towards “life or death kaizens” that are critically important for the company to continue its operation, instead of “inspiration kaizens” that are directionless and of questionable bottom-line merit. At the time when Taiichi Ohno gave this speech both kaizen and the Toyota Production System were becoming fashionable and many companies were adopting these practices without really understanding the life and death struggles the Toyota Motor Company faced while building their system. His words are worth reflecting on even today.

Some have called such improvements based on inspiration rather than driven by top level goals “popcorn kaizens”. Perhaps this is because popcorn is light, plentiful, and tends to fly out of the pan and onto the floor as the corn is being popped. In my experience it is not good to completely discourage inspiration and popcorn kaizen. Taiichi Ohno is absolutely right, and kaizen should not be primarily inspiration-based. It should also be policy-based, target driven and meaningful enough for the leadership to take an active interest in supporting it. Both top-down and bottom-up kaizen are needed.

Sandwich kaizen, anyone?

  1. Boje

    October 14, 2009 - 1:37 am

    I think Ohno wants to point out that doing kaizens where they seem to be appropiate will not finally lead to a TPS-like system but instead, a kaizen is one tool (among others) to reach the goals derived from the ultimate goal (“true north”) of the company. So the system is not an outcome of an ongoing series of kaizens but the kaizens are an outcome of living the system.

  2. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    October 14, 2009 - 2:25 am

    Great post Jon. Here’s what I think the solution to this is. People think that looking for ideas is the beginning of kaizen. They set up a suggestion system or idea program and then want people to start. But what they miss is the process that should be generating the ideas. What drives it? We need to be thinking about what drives the ideas because this is what ensures that we work on things that make a difference.
    I’ll disagree with Ohno a little here however (yes, it’s OK to disagree with Ohno). Kaizen is a skill and a habit, one that doesn’t develop if not applied. Every time I go through an improvement cycle of PDCA I not only make an improvement but I learn something and I get better at making improvements. Development of this skill is value to the organization because sometimes I don’t know in advance which ideas are worth $5 and which are worth $500k. If we throttle people back too hard, sometimes the skill can be lost. Even Toyota says “building people before building cars” and the skills and habits of kaizen is a part of that.
    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  3. mikere

    October 14, 2009 - 9:20 am

    I would agree that wasting time doing a trivial kaizen in which there will obviously be a non-trivial cost is not so good. However the headcount reduction is relative to the size of the operation. My father only has a few people at his company. A 0.5 person headcount reduction kaizen would be big for him unlike a toyota factory.

  4. Mike Parkinson

    October 16, 2009 - 12:03 am

    At the core of TPS is the need to drive business goals from the top of the organisation but deliver the solutions from the bottom up. Why?
    • Because the people who build the product understand better than anyone else what is involved in each element of the process of manufacturing and thus what constitutes value and waste.
    • The people at the top understand better than anyone else what the challenges of the business are. If you can draw a line between the two and put in place clear aligned goals, communication, transparency, teamwork and buy in to the system at all levels you can maximise the combined contribution of all employees.
    • With everyone steering in the same direction you maximise the contribution of everyone towards the business goals
    • With everyone involved and valued you increase engagement which in turn increases performance. “The sum of the collective is greater that the sum of the individuals”
    Ideas are essential but they need to be placed in the context of “What the business needs to survive and thrive”. Any ideas that support this should be encouraged and acted upon. TPS is an aspiration for many and most of us will never quite get there but the important thing is to keep momentum. We don’t always make the right decisions and in fact making mistakes and not choosing the best route is sometimes an essential part of learning and making incremental improvements – one step back two steps forwards.
    It’s also worth noting that TPS teaches us not to benchmark off others because we then only aspire to be equal or nearly equal – never better. Maybe just an importantly every business has different challenges, different needs and different processes. The philosophy remains the same but the approach may need some customization.

  5. Alexander Zubov

    October 18, 2009 - 2:07 am

    Thank you for your great blog. I appreciate it very much. Every time I read it I learn something new and valuable about Lean.
    But today I cannot agree with you. Maybe words of Taiichi Ohno were not correctly interpreted. In my opinion, there are only two cases when productivity improvements that do not result in actual whole number headcount reduction is a poor kaizen.
    1. When you stop doing further improvements.
    Attitude, that such improvements are poor, is actually widely spread. But it results in not paying any attention to small possibilities. And it kills culture of daily improvements. Instead of considering such improvements as poor ones you must just continue making kaizen. Finally you will remove other waste, redistribute workload, free up a worker and reduce cost.
    2. Second case is, when these improvements are initiated by management. Simply because it is their job to focus employees on getting business results. Managers should lead by example and cannot afford themselves to fail here.
    I believe that truth is somewhere in the middle. Management should welcome bottom-line “kaizen by inspiration”, but also it needs to help people to transform these inspiration improvement ideas in ones that finally will reduce cost. The role of line managers and supervisors cannot be overestimated here.

  6. Jon Miller

    October 18, 2009 - 11:29 pm

    Hi Alexander,
    Thanks for your comment. Taiichi Ohno’s words and their meaning were very clear. Based on what I know of his other writing and his thought in general, I think we can safely say that he was mostly criticizing engineers or managers who think up new, innovative methods and call it kaizen. Often this involves new technology, or a change in the process that requires capital. When these changes aren’t offset by whole number headcount reduction, in fact it may be a cost increase. That is a point Ohno has made before in different ways.
    He is also stressing that kaizen should not be frivolous but practically a life and death matter. Now, that may seem severe or even unpleasant, but how many of us daily use the language of battle, competitive sports, war or other violent human pastimes in business? Many of us, much of the time, I think. So without taking anything away from the gravity of Ohno’s words, we can understand that he was saying, “Take this seriously. Don’t play around with kaizen. Focus it on what’s important for the survival of your business.” If that part is done properly, there can certainly be room for creative ideas and experimentation away from the business plan.

  7. Stewart Smart

    November 5, 2009 - 7:17 am

    Some really interesting points raised – there can be a tendency to try to improve for its own sake (in fact ISO 9001 could be said to require this with continuous improvement – but that’s another discussion). Knowing where you are and where you want to get to will drive improvement, based on accurate and relevant performance measurements, and investing in the really important stuff will yield the most benefit. In my experience a lot of time and effort is spent on improvement projects without actually assessing business benefit (including looking at the time-span for the gains) first. In many cases, the figures can be ‘massaged’ to justify a project, with no rigorous examination of the business case being done before granting approval to go ahead. Even where this is done, there are cases where the business case is not followed up after project completion to assess whether or not the projected gains, over the projected period, were actually achieved. On the 0.5 headcount topic, I think the point is that you may save 50% of someone’s time, but that person is still on the payroll, so unless you find them other productive work that adds value to the bottom line, you haven’t actually saved anything, unless you put them onto a part time basis, that is!

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