Getting onto the shop floor

Thanks to the essential Agile Radar, I found my way today to Pete Abilla’s review of The Toyota Mindset by Yoshihito Wakamatsu. It’s fascinating to read a distilled version of Taiichi Ohno’s thinking, and the core concepts really stand out.

Having often listened to John Seddon I’m wary of “lean”. He, too, learned from Ohno, and regards lean (which is the production approach extracted from Toyota) with disdain. His view is that lean is a version of Ohno’s approach which has been packaged by business school professors to sell to Western executives who want easy answers handed to them on a plate. Ohno’s real approach, he says, is to get people as close to the work as possible, and let them solve any problems that arise.

So while reading the summary of The Toyota Mindset I was curious as to what I would find, especially as it proclaims to hold “The Ten Commandments of Taiichi Ohno”. That sounds a bit packaged-for-resale to me. But in fact I was pleased to be wrong.

The “ten commandments” are much more ways of thinking, and ways of approaching business problems, than actual commandments. Two things really stand out from the stories of Ohno that Wakamatsu relates, via Abilla.

First, the number of times the phrase “the shop floor” appears. This is the reason lean might be considered packaged for resale: because Ohno’s real lessons are about getting onto the shop floor and seeing problems first hand, something that most executives in large companies would like to think they are beyond. Some examples from Abilla’s 10-part review:

  • On standard work: “Standard work must be realistic and applicable on the shop floor”
  • On how to know things: “Taiichi Ohno believed that one should base their judgments on his or her experience on the shop floor, not from a document alone.”
  • On learning from the masters: “What you read from books is not usually useful when it comes to improving the shop floor. You will find much better ideas by just trying different methods on the shop floor.”
  • On truth and understanding: “Stand and Observe the Shop Floor”
  • On disclosing mistakes: “One day, Ohno stepped into the shop floor…”

Okay, that last one wasn’t such a big deal, but it’s notable that there aren’t any Taiichi Ohno stories that begin “One day, Ohno was sitting in his office…”

The second thing that stood out for me was how frustrating it must have been to work for Ohno. There are so many stories in which he asks an employee to do something, they do it, and he scolds them for doing exactly what he says (and in one case, for doing it immediately).

But the lesson here is that the staff should be thinking for themselves, solving problems for themselves, and always going beyond mere instructions.

Of course there is much more to the lean — sorry, the Ohno — way of thinking than these two observations. There is, for instance, the mindset of the continuously watching for waste and acting on it.

The stories related by Wakamatsu seem to be fascinating, and it’s yet another book to add to my growing reading list.