Great, here comes Mr. “Oh – No!”

By Ron Pereira Updated on June 27th, 2011

As I mentioned in a recent article I had the great honor of meeting Mr. Masaaki Imai, the founder of the Kaizen Institute and author of several lean related books.

As it turns out, Mr. Imai knew Mr. Taiichi Ohno – the chief architect of the Toyota Production System – very well as he escorted Mr. Ohno to several different countries including the United States

Here comes Mr. Oh – No!

Among his many stories, Mr. Imai explained how strict Mr. Ohno was with the managers and leaders he worked with at Toyota. This firmness actually brought many challenges for Mr. Ohno… to put in bluntly Mr. Ohno didn’t win any popularity contests on the gemba, or the place the work is done.

In fact, Mr. Imai explained that managers would often mumble under their breath that Mr. “Oh – No!” as in “oh no, here he comes again,” was headed their way and to prepare for intense scrutiny and questioning.

Mr. Imai went on to say that this strict management style is very hard to come by these days, especially in Western companies, since being liked and seen as friends is more important than challenging the status quo and demanding all associates continue to improve.

Can this style work in the West?

With this said, since most readers of LSS Academy are from the West I’m curious to hear your thoughts and opinions on this “strict” style of management.

Can a Western manager survive as a strict sensei who constantly challenges their associates and demands improvements? Or do you feel this strong management approach simply cannot work in today’s workplace?

What do you think?  Do you have a Mr. or Mrs. Oh-No! in your organization?  If so, are they effective in driving change?

  1. Mike

    June 29, 2011 - 6:25 am

    Yes, Mr. Ohno style can work in the west. In fact, it must work for us to be truly successful in Lean. It not a matter of the content of the message, but rather how the message is delivered.

  2. Mark Welch

    June 29, 2011 - 7:59 am

    Mr. Ohno’s style can work in the west, depending upon the culture of the organization in which it is used. The hard thing is, his style might be perceived somewhat as command and control, with the barking, demanding, threatening, intimidating, etc. Honestly, I could not see his style working in healthcare, which is where I work. In fact, I once observed an Ohno-style sensei at a hospital in action and although there were some good results, he pushed some Directors to tears and it was clear that this style was not welcomed. He was not invited again by that hospital. However, I’ve worked for some manufacturers where that style would fit right in – no one would give it much of a second thought. Again, it all comes down to the specific culture.

  3. Andy Wagner

    June 29, 2011 - 8:38 am

    The key is respect. Holding people to high standards shows them respect. However, too often western managers mistake being “strict” for its own sake, or coming across as tough, for having high standards. Too often strictness in the west comes in the form of disrespect, micro-management, poor listening, and other habits of highly defective managers.

    • Dirk Fischer

      June 29, 2011 - 1:03 pm

      Hello Andy,

      you are absolutely right. I would prefer much more a tough boss, who knows what he is doing and who is pushing/ guiding me in the right direction, rather than the type of boss you are describing.
      I also believe, that the correct management style is depending on the development level of the organization. When Ohno was acting, Toyota wasn´t as good as they are today. In such a stage, a clear direction, that is followed with highest persistence can be very effective. In a highly developed organization like Toyota is today, I think you can much more act in a socratic way (The leadership style described in the Toyota Way).
      Both ways allow people to learn. In a crisis situation, the strict approach can be very effective, when led by a true sensei, in stable situation the socratic approach will be maybe more effective in terms of organizational learning.

      There is nothing wrong in being tough, but you need to be fair.
      However, I also believe in the saying: be tough against the process, but never against the people.



    • Dale

      June 30, 2011 - 11:09 am


      You are correct. I think most people want to be held to a standard but they want it applied fairly and consistently. Also, they want to be able to understand why something is important, not just that they have to do it. Respect treats others as thinking adults and empowers them by giving information; not as children who are told to do something “because I told you so.” We have to keep in mine that we are all equal, just with different roles and responsibilities.


  4. Tommaso

    June 29, 2011 - 11:06 am

    In Spanish we say “Lo cortés no quita lo valiente” (Politeness doesn’t exclude bravery). If a sensei understands this he should have no problems.

  5. Brian Buck

    June 29, 2011 - 4:33 pm

    I inadvertantly became an “Oh No” last week during a follow-up meeting with a Kaizen event team-member. I kept asking questions how their shift in focus to other things was helping them achieve the original target. It took a few of these kind of questions before I keyed in that she was getting flustered with me always bringing things back to how are they producing what is important. We worked through it but later her manager told me she said I pissed her off. Her manager said the team-member needed that kind of push to help her see the urgency in following the process they created.

    The lesson I learned is to be up-front that I will ask those kinds of questions so it is expected. I think I threw her off because prior to the improvement, they had no standards to know what was a priority and what wasn’t important so that kind of questioning wouldn’t have been effective.

  6. Mark Gorgas

    July 6, 2011 - 12:01 pm

    Maybe we misunderstand Ohno to the same degree we have misunderstand lean. If we think of lean systems as tools to technical/flow problems then we have obviously missed the point. If we think of lean as a management system then we still miss the point. If we think of lean as a system of methods to help individuals better understand and develop their own capabilities in the context of an extremely complex environment that is manufacturing then I think lean and Ohno’s true intent come into focus. Ohno’s circle comes to mind where he had employee’s stand in the gemba and observe for hours until he would asked what they saw. If he did not feel they have shown any insights then he would have them observe longer. This is an example of Ohno using the Socratic method in his own way. Can we you agree we must first understand our own intents prior to adopting someone else’s methods?

    Best regards,
    Mark (a former oh-no)

  7. Vance

    July 12, 2011 - 9:28 am

    The successful leader is culturally sensitive, in that he or she takes teams and individuals from where they are to where they need to be in a logical and incremental fashion, appropriate to the situation. Autocratic and abrupt leadership, in our culture, often magnifies resistance, lengthening the time it will take to attain the ultimate goals.

  8. Christian Paulsen

    July 12, 2011 - 9:48 am

    Mr. Ohno’s application of Lean would work here in the US but the delivery is questionable. Strict is one thing – having manager mumbling under their breath is another. I’ve seen that before and it’s clearly not a sign of one who buys in to the message. Respect for the individual would create a culture where you can talk through differences. It should not create an environment where managers cannot openly discuss the message.

  9. Wayne Clite

    July 12, 2011 - 11:04 am

    Mr. Ohno’s style CAN work in the West. However, this type of approach will have to be executed by a seasoned sensei that understands and is experienced in asking these challenging questions by directing them at the process and not the individual. Maintaining the respect of the individual when challenging their thought process will “open their ears” for learning rather than insulting them and “open their mouth ” becoming defensive. There is nothing wrong with driving hard and asking challenging questions as long as you maintain respect of your peers and fellow workers. In fact, I have been in a number of operations that need to be challenged.

  10. Dave

    July 12, 2011 - 5:01 pm

    Whether this “works” or not depends on your definition of “works”. Companies can make record profits using the top down “push” micro-management style. This works. At least for a while.

    But at the same time, I have seen high employee turnover under this style. Seasoned people, the ones responsible for taking a mediocre and inconsistant product to the industry standard for highest quality, are taking early retirement. Highly skilled machine operators at the top of their union line of progression pay scale are taking jobs at half wages and half the grief. End result: workers who are afraid to speak the truth and afraid to try new things, people who are hiding bad results or blaming others, inexperienced but more pliable workers, a creep toward lower product quality, and resentful employees who are demoralized. Leaders are replaced with “Yes Sir” copies of themselves. They are affective at driving change and at driving good employees away. “Tough but fair” is one thing, but “tough and unfair” is another. Nobody likes to work for bullies and thugs, but somehow we still do. Our best hope is they get promoted further up the chain where they can do less damage to the workers.

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