KaizenTips for Lean Managers

The Importance of Being Columbo

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017

During the 1970s I shared one experience in common with Taiichi Ohno. We both watched Colombo on television, dubbed in Japanese. In fact this is something I share with possibly a hundred million Japanese people, so it only goes to show the wide popularity of Peter Falk’s depiction of the homicide detective.

I only realize it now, but perhaps my exposure in my youth to Columbo’s style of detective work had an influence in my choice of career as a lean consultant and problem solver who prefers to go see for myself. Upon some reflection, there are four (and perhaps more) behaviors which characterized Columbo that should be familiar to any aspiring lean learner.

A humble attitude. For a highly successful detective, Columbo did not put on airs. Instead he put on an old trench coat, left his hair rumpled, chewed on half a cigar, and drove a beater of a car. He was always extremely polite. Although people seldom understood it until they had been found out, placed behind bars and had time to reflect on their encounter with Lt. Columbo, he was often the smartest person in the room. Yet in every encounter he was humble both in his attire and in his manner. This humility served him well many times, as the criminals he pursued would underestimate him.

Go to gemba. Did we ever see Columbo sitting behind a desk reading reports? In fact we never saw him with his family, his social circle or his colleagues at the LAPD. He was almost always on gemba, or on the way to or from it. When Columbo was on the case, he knew that to get the facts and bring the murderer to justice he needed to go out into the field time and time again. In contrast to Sherlock Holmes who spent a good deal of his time sitting, smoking and theorizing or the CSI television program detective team who relies heavily on high tech analysis, Columbo embodied the “go see for yourself” principle.

Persistence. The plot of every Columbo story was built around repeated visits to the gemba, interviews with suspects and persons of interest, and the detective’s dogged pursuit of facts hidden within the inconsistencies found between what people said and the facts on the gemba. The Columbo episodes built to the climax when the detective would seem to walk away from the murderer one last time, failing to crack the case. Then Columbo would turn to the murderer and say “Oh, there’s just one more thing…” and take apart their alibi and catch the criminal.

Respect for people. As a detective of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Homicide Division, Columbo was always coming up against criminals who seemed to have all of the advantages; they were rich, handsome, privileged or famous. Had Columbo gloated or shown pride at having bested these adversaries, he could not be blamed. But he never did, always treating everyone he encountered with courtesy and respect, even the murderers he worked hard to capture.

Many of the Japanese sensei whom I worked with had also been taught by Taiichi Ohno. Mr. Ohno used fierce scolding as a teaching method, but he was also fond of wordplay, used historical events and people to illustrate his points, and even characters from television. This was the case with Columbo. Mr. Ohno stressed the importance of becoming Columbo, not Sherlock Holmes, when solving problems or doing kaizen. We can watch the television program, reflect on the behaviors of the detective which lead to his success, and learn important lessons in lean leadership.

Oh, and just one more thing. Mr. Falk, sir, may you rest in peace.

  1. Zane Ferry

    June 27, 2011 - 12:19 pm

    Interestingly, one of the many newspaper articles yesterday about Peter Falk noted that early in his professional life he worked as an “efficiency expert for the state of Connecticut.”

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