The Rashomon Effect at the Gemba

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“Rashomon” is a classic Akiro Kurosawa film, based on the story “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. In the movie, the same series of events are described by four people from different backgrounds. Each version of the story varies differently than the others. All of the four characters saw and experienced the same events, yet they all tell different versions of how things unfolded and who did what. This has come to be called as “Rashomon Effect” in pop culture. The opening line of the movie is “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand”, and this lays the groundwork of the whole movie.

This type of “Rashomon Effect” can also happen at the gemba. One of the great stories about Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, is about the Ohno Circle. The story goes that Taiichi Ohno would take the Engineer or the supervisor to the floor, and if Ohno feels that the supervisor does not see what he sees or that the supervisor does not understand his viewpoint, he would draw a circle on the production floor and ask the supervisor to stand inside it. The supervisor has to stand inside the circle until he starts to see the operational wastes. Then his job is to immediately fix the problems. Ohno is seeing all the waste and problems on the floor. The same activity is also being seen by the engineer. He does not see any of the wastes that Ohno sees. Ohno is said to have been short tempered with this and would scold the engineers. Ohno would return to the floor sometimes 6-8 hours later and would ask what they saw after standing in the circle.

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As I was reading through “Toyota Production System (Kanban) Book”, an internal Toyota document from 1970’s, I came across a paragraph about the Ohno Circle. The rough translation is as follows;

It is expected that the supervisors were scolded by Ohno on the floor. Ohno would make them stand on the floor by drawing a circle. This is similar to being scolded by teacher at school as in “go stand in the hallway!” At school, the purpose is quite different, which is to exclude the student from the classroom. On the floor, the supervisor has to see the problem and improve it. This problem can come into view only by continuous observation in that position, inside the circle.

“Why, why, why, why, why”, ask why five times. This is therefore referred to as the observation method.

I enjoyed that the document tries to differentiate between standing in the hallway and standing on the production floor.

The Ohno Circle exercise is just that – an exercise to strengthen your waste sensors. The more you look, the more you observe. The more you observe, the more you become aware of things differently. Why are there three bins of components on the table? Why does the operator spend time picking the “right” component for assembly? Why does the operator check the component 4-5 times? And so on. Pretty soon the Rashomon effect erodes away. Now the waste becomes visible. Once the waste is identified, then Ohno instructs to ask why again and again, until the root cause can be identified and the issue is fixed.

Bicycle Riders – a Zen Story:

The Rashomon effect reminds me of a Zen story I heard:

A Zen Teacher saw five of his students return from the market, riding their bicycles. When they had dismounted, the teacher asked the students,

“Why are you riding your bicycles?”

The first student replied, “The bicycle is carrying this sack of potatoes. I am glad that I do not have to carry them on my back!”

The teacher praised the student, saying, “You are a smart boy. When you grow old, you will not walk hunched over, as I do.”

The second student replied, “I love to watch the trees and fields pass by as I roll down the path.”

The teacher commended the student, “Your eyes are open and you see the world.”

The third student replied, “When I ride my bicycle, I am content to chant.”

The teacher gave praise to the third student, “Your mind will roll with the ease of a newly tuned wheel.”

The fourth student answered, “Riding my bicycle, I live in harmony with all beings.”

The teacher was pleased and said, “You are riding on the golden path of non-harming.”

The fifth student replied, “I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle.”

The teacher went and sat at the feet of the fifth student, and said, “I am your disciple”.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was about “Brooks’ Law – Mythical Man Month”.

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