Taiichi Ohno

Six Degrees of Taiichi Ohno

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017


I was recently asked my view on an idea going around the community of lean thinking people. This notion goes that in order to be a sensei one must be separated by no more than two or three degrees from Taiichi Ohno. Without any disrespect to the people in the so-called direct lineage from Taiichi Ohno (in the interest of disclosure, my teachers are among these) creating this sort of requirement is not only self-serving on the part of those who number among this clique, but also threaten to codify and stunt the development of the lean philosophy itself. Certainly there is a difference between someone who has worked at or with Toyota and those who have not. Yet I have met and worked with people who possessed the proximity to Taiichi Ohno but were not qualified to act as sensei. I have also worked with people who grew up in Youngstown, never read a book about Toyota and possessed all of the experience and wisdom to be called sensei.

For anyone unfamiliar with the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, it is named after the American actor who can be connected to seemingly any other actor with fewer than six degrees of separation. “Actor A was in a movie with actress B, B was in a movie with C, C with D, and D with Kevin Bacon!” Or so it goes. The “six degrees” exercise demonstrates that anyone who crosses a certain threshold of connectedness with other people will be connected with practically everyone else active within the same circles. It is a small world we inhabit, and any particular subset interest community such as TPS / Lean is inevitably even smaller. In other words there is nothing special or magical about the six degrees and some may say it’s well nigh inevitable.

In a similar way, the idea that one must be a only two or three degrees separated from Taiichi Ohno in order to claim status as a TPS sensei seems somewhat suspect. Closeness to or having studied directly under great masters certainly conveys a certain expectation of access to the unfiltered truth, but does not guarantee it. In fact some of the best work on maturing and expanding the Toyota Production System was done by those in the immediate generations after Ohno, active in the 1980s and 1990s. So a third, fourth or fifth degree of distance may be even more desirable than a second or third degree.

In fact even a complete lack of direct exposure to the “lineage” should be no great concern. Eminent scientists, inventors, mathematicians and philosophers across the ages have independently and repeatedly come up with the same ideas without crossing paths. After all, lean is not an attempt to copy TPS but to understand and apply the underlying thinking and behaviors. We should seek to learn from anyone who grasps this and can pass it on, if if that person is a 5 year old child. Most of the time these teachers are closer to 50 years old and have had close exposure to Toyota.

Science would never advance if we required that all quantum physicists studied under someone who studied under someone who studied under Einstein. It would certainly be cool to study under someone who knew Einstein and could tell personal stories about the man. However, a teacher with access to the latest thinking built on but not limited to the ideas of Einstein and others, with great communications skills would be the better choice almost every time.

Who were Taiichi Ohno’s teachers? Based on my unqualified understanding, there were three: the shop floor (gemba), a sense of urgency and the scientific method. The numbers that matter most are not the ones that measure degrees of separation from Ohno but those that measure one’s distance from the gemba, the speed to correct faults and the number of spins taken on the PDCA wheel. Those of us preoccupied with the degrees of separation between the sensei and Taiichi Ohno must surely be missing or at a distance from one of these three.

  1. Rick

    October 26, 2010 - 11:58 am

    I had a freshman calculus class that was taught by one of Einstein’s Mathematicians. It wasn’t very cool. He was teaching so far below his level, he was not an effective teacher. No stories, just disdain for us morons.
    Good lineage does not insure a good teacher

  2. Sr.Juan M. Cotto

    October 26, 2010 - 5:53 pm

    Im Training On Continous Improvent Learning For The First Time I Want To Know More About Lean Manufacturing I Work For Remcon Plastic

  3. Dan Markovitz

    October 26, 2010 - 8:55 pm

    And of course, Supreme Court justices wouldn’t be qualified to interpret the constitution unless they knew the Framers — Gouverneur Morris, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, et al.
    You’re dead right, Jon. To quote Winston Churchill, this is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put. It’s self-serving puffery, nothing more.

  4. Asghar Gill

    October 27, 2010 - 5:52 am

    Hi Jon,
    I 100% agree with your approach that degrees does not make any difference. Being a teacher at University level in the past and currently as senior engineer my experience support your point of view. I have seen people more than six degrees away showed a great command on their subject and I have also experienced the people just first degree away but far away from the subject.
    You are doing excellent work and hope to see continuing in future.

  5. sharma

    October 27, 2010 - 7:14 am

    Dear Jon,
    Incidentally thats that mark zukerberg of facebook wants to achieve, everyone on this planet just 6 degrees away from each other.

  6. John Santomer

    October 27, 2010 - 9:17 am

    Dear Jon,
    With all that has been said and testimonies of the above, should the claim for the (2-3)Six Degrees to be a sensei come to pass? I say Jon oh chap… Woe is ME! I guess there will be no more salvation for us all. 😉

  7. John Hunter

    October 27, 2010 - 3:18 pm

    I agree completely. It is a silly metric. There are plenty of great people without a direct link. Now sure, it might be fun to see a direct link. And there can even be some value. But I think, after those that worked directly with him for a long time the variation makes any comment essentially a useless metric. That said the degrees of separation can be fun to look at but I think that is about it.

  8. Juan Alfredo HERRMAN

    February 22, 2011 - 8:16 am

    All this subject is about EGO, not about pursuing excelence. It´s pure MUDA.
    J.A. HERRMAN, Caracas, Venezuela

  9. Tony Chamblin

    November 16, 2011 - 12:54 pm

    I do agree with your premise that degrees of seperation doesn’t mean much in the way of teaching ability, but, I would say that it does have something to do with the purity of the message. Having said that, I can trace myself to 4 degrees of seperation of Mr. Ohno, as-well-as 2 degrees from Dr. Deming. That does not mean that I am a sensai. In fact I would never refer to myself as a sensai. That should be a title bestowed by those who are learning from you.
    My point is that titles are irrelevant and if someone holds to the true message of Mr. Ohno, then degrees are not as important. But I can’t agree that it is of no significance.

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