How to Do Yokoten

A particular Japanese word has been on my mind a lot lately. Yokoten means “horizontal deployment” and refers to the practice of copying good results of kaizen in one area to other areas. Yokoten applies more broadly to copying product design ideas as well as better practices in general. “Best practice sharing” comes close to the meaning of yokoten. In modern business that phrase often means e-mailing PowerPoint presentations, comparing results between divisions and debating the differences between various round fruits. What sets yokoten apart and persuades me to retain the Japanese is the fact that this 6-letter word contains not only the practice of copying better practices (there is never best) but also the culture of “go see” information sharing between departments, and crucially that this sharing includes both successes and failures.

Like many Japanese words we find within the lean lexicon the phrase yokotenkai is in common use in the language, outside of the community of people who practice kaizen (as not all Japanese firms do). We can do “yokoten of yokoten” by studying Toyota and how they do it. They began 60 years ago when their managers and engineers traveled to the USA to learn from leading American manufacturers. At Toyota today the expectation is that kaizen is not complete until yokoten is confirmed and the learning is shared with others. Yokoten is part of the culture. It may not be too strong to say that it is a job requirement.

Kaizen must result in a standard, and yokoten means standards must be copied by others. However it is not enough to copy good kaizens as is, one must adapt and improve the learning for one’s own process. Yokoten is not only to copy the physical best practice process but also the thinking that resulted in success and any background information (how it was achieved).

Within the 8 step practical problem solving process known as TBP (Toyota Business Practice) the yokoten activity happens in step 8.

1. Clarify the problem
2. Break down the problem
3. Set a target
4. Analyze the root cause
5. Develop countermeasures
6. See countermeasures through
7. Evaluate both results and process
8. Standardize successes, learn from failures

Within the PDCA cycle yokoten happens in the Act (A) stage, corresponding to step 8 above.

Yokoten is on my mind recently because I am faced with an epic opportunity to strengthen the yokoten culture within my new company, Kaizen Institute. We are 350+ people with offices in 27 countries, active in more than 40. We are far from perfect but collectively we are an organization full of awesome half-buried treasures. My colleagues have shared some fantastic examples of taking kaizen culture deeply into healthcare, retail, government, hotels, banks, non-profits and of course various manufacturing industries, all over the world. While these examples are inspiring, the opportunity to take the successful consulting business management practices from one business unit to another is what truly excites me. This will not be easy, and will require more than simply translating procedure books and checklists. Just as Toyota has learned, it is not enough to copy the result of good kaizen, we must also copy the thinking that resulted in the good kaizen. It’s not only a great opportunity for us; with a company name like Kaizen, not doing aggressive yokoten would be an integrity issue.

Yokoten is a essential part of long-term success in a lean culture, but can also have a big impact on short-term results. Yokoten is a success multiplier. Perform a good kaizen and copy the results, and you immediately duplicate the impact. Yet we don’t hear so much about yokoten. Why is this? In a typical company the best practices can become lost among the noise, buried beneath the day-to-day fire-fighting or even deliberately hidden from others in to make one’s own self or group look good. There may be localized incentives in place that prevent yokoten from happening. There are other obstacles to yokoten, including a lack of documented standard as a result of kaizen, weak “go see” culture, or no metrics or ways to agree on what is in fact a better practice.

Once these cultural issues are addressed the answer to “how to do yokoten?” becomes relatively simple and can be summarized in one word: communication. Senior leaders must actively go see, recognize good work and require others to go see. Management must organize presentations of successful kaizen projects and invite colleagues to attend and learn. Team and department leaders must actively engage members in studying kaizen examples, motivating them to start kaizen on their own. Project leaders and continuous improvement professionals must put yokoten on their checklists and follow up rigorously.

There is another Japanese phrase which is often associated with building a yokoten culture. It is kaze toushi ( 風通し ) and literally means “ventilation” or “wind blowing through” but refers to the openness or ease of communication within an organization. When this ventilation or information flow is poor, yokoten does not happen. The way to do yokoten is just to start sharing better practices and asking to learn from others. As behaviors, norms and incentives are identified that block the information flow and sharing of success and failure, this becomes an opportunity for kaizen at the organizational or system level. That is a particularly rich are for yokoten, and one I am hoping to tackle very soon at my company.


  1. Matt Wrye

    March 21, 2011 - 11:15 am

    Great post about the benefits and importance of carrying successes across the organization. It isn’t about the actions but the thinking. Even carrying across the learning from a manufacturing environment to an HR environment.
    A few years ago, I worked with an HR group. During the kaizen event I explained how the Toyota andon system worked on the production line. I also explained the thinking behind it. During the event they came up with a way to put in an andon system for resume review. It worked very well. They understood the thinking and were able to apply it.

  2. Jon Miller

    March 21, 2011 - 5:49 pm

    That is a fine example of yokoten Matt.

  3. Zane Ferry

    March 21, 2011 - 7:35 pm

    Thank you for sharing this nugget of wisdom, Jon, and for humbly placing your own company within the call to action. Consistent with its origins in Japanese culture, this brief expression has such far-reaching implications that it’s difficult to say too much…or to say it too often. There just doesn’t seem to be an equivalent expression in English (or, specifically, American culture) that conveys all that you’ve explained so well.
    I suspect a cultural cause here too. Very often it seems that individuals, and individual departments, don’t believe their company’s overall success has much impact on them directly. Therefore, the lack of motivation or sense of urgency in sharing, promoting, and adopting great improvements they’ve made or have heard others “in the Denver office” have made. If the connection between company-wide/industry-wide success and personal benefit/success were stronger, then “enlightened self-interest” would naturally drive out more yokoten from us all.
    One large obstacle I see in even good companies is the “localized incentives” you mentioned. I also see genuinely opposing incentives and, in some cases, no meaningful incentives for yokoten at all. Motivation is the engine for human behavior, right? And yet, as obvious as that sounds, accurately discerning and harnessing employees’ motivations with appropriate and sustainable incentives is not done well in US companies. The older the industry, the truer this tends to be. Throw this issue into the fat “Culture Change” folder if you will, but long term success (and talent retention) won’t happen without it.
    As a seasoned consultant yourself, have you spent much time helping executives to better incentivize yokoten behavior and practices among their people? If so, sharing examples of success in that arena (here your forum) would be some powerful yokotenkai indeed. – Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

  4. Joseph

    March 23, 2011 - 6:59 am

    I despair.
    Every walk of life in the Western World is filled with waste that ends up as a massive burden on our society and people who are in positions to fix it want to be nice.
    There must be a paradigm change at all levels of society and the sooner the better.
    People must understand that if you are not part of the answer then you are part of the problem. The previous poster says that getting people to put forward ideas that save waste is difficult if jobs are lost due to the implementation of these ideas. I would say that managing this situation is easier than closing down a plant or company with 100% loss of jobs. People at all levels should be educated to see that you are all on a ship in the middle of the ocean and there are no life boats. When it sinks you all go down with it. This is not a nice situation to be in but for many companies it is a fact of life. If you bury your head in the sand like an Ostrich then don’t be surprised if a Lion comes along and starts eating you from your exposed end. This is life in the capitalist system that we all know and love, to the Lion goes the spoils.
    You can not be a True Ninja Master and not be prepared to kill a few people now and then. The two ideas are light years apart.
    You can always put the name of the person who gave a suggestion in next to the savings. Any one that has not given any suggestions should be moved further up the list of people first to go. If this was known at the start of the KAIZEN EVENT then you may get more and better suggestions ???
    What stops people from putting forward ideas that can save waste, is when this great system removes people from the lower levels of the company but does not get implemented in the offices, management and indeed the board rooms. In short the areas where we all know the highest percentage of waste is. It is not the people at the bottom that put all of the waste into the system. If you turn this debate on its head the lower levels should be asked to put forward ideas to facilitate the removal of their Bosses. Now that is a what I call a good idea. Having done this with great success they will understand better when the axe falls on some of them but it will at lease be fair. So will cause less rebellion. In this new world every one is pulling in the same direction with a common goal. So we will not need so many people at the top.
    Enough of this blood curdling stuff. Here are some ideas to absorb the labour waste that is thrown but by a deep dive into Lean. People can first be lost to natural wastage, they can be put onto training courses to improve the company in the long term. Send some clever one to university with the proviso that they will stay with the company for 5 years when they pass their course or degree.
    They can be used as a training resource to raise the FTT of the product.
    They can be promoted to departments like sales, marketing, HR or some other field.
    They can be fed back into the system to find and resolve customer concerns with the product or services that the company deals in thus saving more waste.
    They can be trained as Lean Consultants and used to drive down the cost by increasing the number of people doing Lean.
    I watched a video of Jim Womack on U-tube yesterday and he said that Lean was not difficult. Much of it is just good common sense. Now he is a Ninja Master. Work hard on the basics.
    From the previous Blog they can be trained as high grade “Gamers”. To those who did not read that blog it is people who add value to society by purchasing computer war games then spending their whole day in their room playing them to the betterment of society. These people end up so good at war games that they volunteer to be dropped into Fallujah like Rambo. I think. You can work that one out ???
    Lean is not just about the removal of waste (people) it is also about using an excess in one area to found a short fall in another area. So put people in where they are needed to make the system work. It may be short or long term. It may be required to support changes. Improve the OEE. DTD. FTT. BTS. etc.
    The last thing any one wants is to put people out of work but to quote Peter Drucker ” there is nothing so wasteful as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
    I think it was Karl Marx that said that you could not have a bloodless revolution. Change is what it is but if you always do what you have always done then you will always get the same results.
    Life is not a rehearsal and we must move forward out of the caves.
    Thus end’s the first lesson.
    Have a nice day.

  5. John Santomer

    March 29, 2011 - 11:16 pm

    Dear Jon,
    All the good comments have been said…And Joseph has certainly put on a lesson to be refelcted about.
    On another note, I like the “kaizen” look of your blog…What brought about this change eh?!

  6. Jon

    March 30, 2011 - 12:19 am

    Hi John
    We are gradually changing our websites, blog, and other corporate identity materials to match Kaizen Institute’s look and feel.