OH NO You Didn't Really Say That!

By Jon Miller Published on September 16th, 2013

It pains me to even write these words again:
“All we are doing is looking at the time line, from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing that time line by removing the non-value-added wastes.”
Attributed to Taiichi Ohno, this all-star lean management quote is taken out of context at best and used to claim that lean is all about speed and not about quality or other things, at worst.
Who has seen the original quote? 99.9% of us saw this quote for the first time on a PowerPoint slide or somewhere on the internet. Maybe in a book, without attribution other than to Ohno.
I’ve looked. The closest I’ve come to the source is a reference by Norman Bodek to getting this answer to the question “What is Toyota doing now?” in the mid 1980s. I read this in a foreword to one of the books from Productivity Press.
When a lean learner or lean leader quotes these words out of context and without disclaimers to the very specific and time-bound nature of the question that led to this answer, we are guilty of one or more of these things

  1. Not really thinking about what these words imply
  2. Relying on the Taiichi Ohno name to carry the day, i.e. name-dropping
  3. Taking at face value that Toyota’s secret to success is all about reducing time through the process
  4. Accepting that the scope of the pursuit of lean starts at order entry and stops at cash collection
  5. Comically, overlooking the implication that there must be “value-added wastes” since Ohno refers to “the non-value-added wastes”

I don’t even believe that this is a quote from Taiichi Ohno. He may have said something close to this, as he and others at Toyota were certainly concerned about reducing lead-times, freeing cash and being ever more flexible to market demands shifting from mass production to high mix, lower volume production. I don’t doubt that Norman asked Ohno this question or that he got an answer. I doubt the quality of communication that led to the quote above.
The phrase “All we are doing” can be taken in more than one way. It can be a quantitative answer, as in “What things are you doing? Please list them.” to which one can reply, “We are doing A, B, C…” or “All we are doing is A.” Another response is the qualitative one, when one answers the question to mean, “We aren’t doing anything sophisticated, all we are doing is to map our value streams end to end in order to systematically drive out all losses, variability and waste.” Note that this is not a list so much as a way of saying, “Oh, it’s nothing, we’re just doing some commonsense kaizen things to speed up the call-to-cash cycle.” The Ohno of the 1970s would probably have scolded the questioner and told them to go stand in the factory to see for themselves. The Ohno of the 1980s had mellowed, and was no doubt being humble in answering his foreign guest’s question about what Toyota was doing in those days with kaizen.
I’ve never seen this quote or its equivalent in Japanese attributed to Taiichi Ohno. And I’ve read, viewed and listened to a lot of interviews, articles, books, and lectures from Taiichi Ohno. It has the hallmarks of a bad translation. I would love to see the original, or hear from someone else who heard him say this in Japanese.
All I am trying to do is to look at the entire body of learning on Toyota-style continuous improvement, from the 1930s to the present day, and I am trying to reduce the intentional or accidental ambiguations.
Your move, lean six sigma continuous improvement operational excellence universe.
Follow me on Twitter jmiller_kaizen

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