Masaaki Imai Remembers Taiichi Ohno

Reflections on the 100th Birthday of Taiichi Ohno
Taiichi Ohno was born on February 29, 1912 in Dalian, China as the son of Ichizou Ohno, who was at that time an engineer of refractory bricks at the Manchurian Railway Company, a Japanese government arm for managing and developing Manchuria.

His first name “Taiichi” was taken from the “taika renga”, which means refractory or fire-resistant bricks. The word “tai” means to endure and persevere. “Ichi” means number one. It also means to concentrate.

After returning to Kariya City in Japan, Ichizou set up a refractory bricks company and became its chief engineer. Later, he went into politics and became the mayor of Kariya City, a member of the prefectural congress, and finally a representative in the Japanese National Diet. While he was mayor, Ichizou assisted Toyota management in identifying locations for setting up new plants. Today, many Toyota group companies are located in Kariya.
In his middle and high school days, Taiichi Ohno was an active sportsman and a member of football teams. Perhaps this influenced him as he was fond of saying later in life:

“Teaching means to teach something unknown. Training means to repeatedly practice something you know until your body remembers it.”

Upon graduation from the engineering college in 1932, he joined Toyoda Spinning and Weaving Company where he learned such practices as jidoka and multiple-machine handling developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota group of companies.

In 1943, he was transferred to Toyoda Motor Company when his company was absorbed by it. His experiences at his former company helped Ohno to develop Toyota Production System which embraced many unique practices like jidoka, multiple-process handling and continuous flow which he had learned during those years.

The rest of Taiichi Ohno’s career is now history. Today, he is remembered as a person who built a management system called in such names as Toyota Production system, lean production, and just-in-time production, all over the world. Ohno changed the way to make products, and increasingly how we deliver service in hospitals and even the public sector.

I had the unique privilege of spending time with Taiichi Ohno while accompanying him on his journeys to USA, New Zealand and Australia. This allowed me to stay close to the great man’s “voices and coughs,” as we say in Japan. I even played golf with him!

Once he asked me how the terms kaizen and kairyo (reform) were differentiated in the West. I said that while kaizen means to make improvement by using brains, kairyo means to make improvement by using money and that in the West, most managers only think of improvement in terms of money. He liked this definition and quoted it on several occasions during his public speeches.

Although very few of today’s business leaders have met or heard directly from Taiichi Ohno, the impact of his ideas and deeds is widely felt. He left an anthology of his sayings and axioms on management. I will mention a few of them in his memory.

“Let the flow manage the processes, and not let management manage the flow”.

In the lean approach, the starting point of the information flow is the final assembly process, or where the customer order is provided, and then the flow goes upstream by means a pull signal such as kanban. On the other hand, the flow of materials moves downstream from the raw material stage to the final assembly. In both cases the flow should be maintained smoothly without interruption.

Unfortunately, in a majority of companies today, the flow is disrupted and meddled with by the convenience of the shop-floor management.

“Machines do not break down; people cause them to break.”

His life-long pursuit was to make a smooth and undisturbed flow as a foundation of all good operations. He believed that wherever and whenever the flow is disrupted, there is an opportunity to do kaizen.

“The gemba and the gembutsu have the information. We must listen to them.”

Taiichi Ohno always placed respect for the worker first in his approach to kaizen. His focus was always on the customer, both external and internal.

“Just-in-time means that customer delight is directly transmitted to those who are making the product.”

Ohno was a man of deeds. Learning by doing was his motto and he did not engage in empty discussions. You pay money to buy books and go to seminars and gain new knowledge. But knowledge is knowledge, nothing more.

“Knowledge is something you buy with the money. Wisdom is something you acquire by doing it,”

But you gain the wisdom only after you have done it. The real understanding of the lean operations is gained only after you have done it. No matter how many pages you may read on lean books, you know nothing if you have not done it.

“To understand means to be able to do.”

It is with fondness and tremendous gratitude that I remember the great man Taiichi Ohno in this 100th year of his birth.

Masaaki Imai
Tokyo, Japan
About Masaaki Imai
Mr. Imai is the founder of Kaizen Institute, a leading global operational excellence consultancy. More than any other business authority in the world, Masaaki Imai has championed the practice of kaizen over the past three decades. In 2010 Masaaki Imai was honored for his lifetime of contribution with the first ever Fellowship of Quality Council of India, the apex quality body of the Government of India.

Mr. Imai continues to write, lecture and inspire audiences worldwide to strive for continuous improvement. To learn more about Mr. Imai and his upcoming schedule, please visit

His book Kaizen is the reference on the subject and the sequel Gemba Kaizen introduced real-world applications of continuous process improvement methods in production and service businesses. McGraw-Hill will release the fully revised Gemba Kaizen 2nd edition in June 2012.


  1. Enrique Herrera

    March 4, 2012 - 8:30 pm

    A brief look into a great man’s life. Thank you for this post.

  2. david k waltz

    March 5, 2012 - 3:49 pm

    I have read several of Taiichi Ohno’s books but never got the sense of his personal history from this, thank you for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.