This week I learned about a new book, Kaizen Forever: Teaching of Chihiro Nakao by Bob Emiliani, Rudy Go and Katsusaburo Yoshino. Mr. Nakao was the first Shingijutsu consultant I met and worked with in 1993. Even just one week spent with him would have been unforgettable, but we met many times. He preferred working with female interpreters, so it was a treat when I was called to support him due to scheduling conflicts with other interpreters. I am looking forward to reading this book about the man who may be Taiichi Ohno’s best student from outside of Toyota proper.
It was a challenge to interpret for Mr. Nakao because he spoke tirelessly, seeming not to notice when the heads of his students were full to bursting with all of his insights. He was extremely well-read and not shy about bringing ideas and examples from seemingly unconnected fields into his teaching of the Toyota Production System. As he veered into some arcane topic that was beyond my vocabulary, I would be forced to pause and ask him to put it in layman’s terms. Like Taiichi Ohno he reveled in wordplay, sometimes untranslatable from Japanese to English. He coined many lean terms, such as production preparation process (3P), moonshine and Oba gauge.
Many were the Western manager who Mr. Nakao called a “blockhead.” Or at least this is how many people remember it. Blockhead means a person with low intelligence or little common sense. However, Mr. Nakao never used the term blockhead. He called people “concrete heads.” Concrete head does not mean stupid, it means hard-headed. The expression in Japanese is “atama ga katai” meaning literally “head is hard” or hard-headed, stubborn, closed-minded, not open to change. In the process of translation, “You are hard-headed like your head is made of concrete” was reduced to “concrete head” and eventually “blockhead”. To be clear, it was not beneath Nakao and his colleagues to call people fools from time to time, though in Japan “fool” can almost be a term of endearment between teacher and student.
Whenever I was with Mr. Nakao when he was teaching kaizen, there was a palpable sense of danger. He did not care for petty rules and politics. One never knew where he would go, what he would say, or to whom. If the lobster dinner was taking too long, he walked into the kitchen and taught the chef about takt time, work sequence and standard work-in-process. Even if the agenda said, “kaizen events in processes A, B, C” he would reframe and refocus the teams on Monday morning, making their preparation useless but the week vastly more successful.
He was full of dangerous ideas, such as cutting warehouses, factories, lead-times, inventories, cycle times, defect rates, executive salaries, or anything wasteful by half or more. Dynamite was one of his favorite prescriptions to these ills, though never followed. It was not bluster, and he was a brilliant engineer as well as being a kaizen master. A week with Mr. Nakao was not complete until he heard, saw, sensed or remembered something on the gemba, abruptly changed direction and challenged the safety, quality or productivity standards of a process, often outside the scope of the kaizen event. He would insist on summoning the senior manager and engineers responsible, and forcing them to recognize an urgent abnormality where before they had seen none. One time he did this at a process where aircraft engine turbine blades were being installed prior to testing. He heard something that didn’t sound right, summoned the bosses and told them it was “no good” until they shut the tester down and located the improperly installed blades. He was not an expert in aerospace, just a brilliant and fearless engineer.
As I think back on Mr. Nakao’s various teachings, there is one very dangerous idea that stays with me the most. Above all, he was teaching people to have an open mind. A person who is a concrete head has the opposite of an open mind, but he never used these words, instead asking people, “Why?” and letting them fail to explain their position logically. Having an open mind means being willing to throw out ideas or beliefs that we hold dear. It means accepting new things rather than defending the old. If this is true, by extension it means being willing to throw out every single idea and belief that we hold dear. It means being willing to welcome any new idea into our mind. We are the sum of our experiences, fears, habits, beliefs, drives and desires. Letting ideas in or out of our mind means changing who we are. This can be quite threatening to many of us. That is why “keeping an open mind” is the most dangerous idea in the world.
When we say we have an “open mind”, it is actually quite a limited condition, a mind that is far from wide open. For example, when developing countermeasures to the root causes of a problem we encourage people to have an open mind and an unfettered exchange of ideas. However, in the modern workplace our minds are in fact closed to ideas that are illegal, immoral or unethical. Yet, laws are man-made, differ by locality and are subject to revision and change. Morals and ethics are not universal, or at the very least they differ across history and geography, even if moral and ethical codes have large overlaps across humanity. This is one reason that the “respect for humanity” pillar of lean is quite important, reminding us to continuously improve and open new horizons, but within the limits of what is good for greater humanity. To avoid anarchy or becoming outcasts, we all become concrete heads, to some extent.
There was sense of danger when supporting Mr. Nakao because like many brilliant people, his words and actions were often “crazy like the fox”. Not in the sense that he was cunning or calculated, he was more often quite direct and transparent, but rather because for most people his ideas were “way out there”. He demanded that people open their minds and follow him outside of their comfort zone, but only because he had spent plenty of time in the crazy out-there territory and knew that it was safe. One of the hallmarks of an excellent coach or sensei is their ability to help expand our boundaries or the learner without causing injury or catastrophic failure. Mr. Nakao would lead the horse to water and turn on the firehose.
Taiichi Ohno wrote that people are wrong wrong half of the time. That may be hard to swallow for many of us. If we were to look across history and catalogue the beliefs and practices of humanity, perhaps he would be proven right. How do we know which half is wrong? Ohno’s advice was not to just take anything on faith, but to do experiments, admit quickly when we are wrong and try again until we find the truth. Kaizen is continuous improvement, not just a 5-day event, not just a suggestion scheme, but all of these things and more. In some ways kaizen could be seen as the constant opening and closing the doors of the mind, letting some in and others out. Taiichi Ohno also said, “The Toyota method is practice, not theory”. In theory, keeping an open mind is a great idea. In practice, the door of the mind also needs to remain firmly hinged.