Seneca’s “On Shortness of Life”:

Time- Life is Long

Lucius Seneca (4 BC- AD 65) was a Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman. He was Emperor Nero’s tutor and unfortunately was forced by the emperor to take his own life. One of Seneca’s famous works is “On Shortness of Life”, a collection of letters and essays he wrote. Seneca’s ideas and thoughts on time gel very well with the concepts in Toyota Production System, and are still appropriate today.

There are two concepts that stuck out to me in reading the collection “On Shortness of Life”, and these both have the underlying theme of “personal time”. The first concept is about learning the value of personal time. Seneca said;

  • I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself — as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap — in fact, almost without any value.
  • Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing… We have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.

Along the same vein, the second concept is about productivity and improving productivity by spending your time wisely. People often complain about “not having enough time”. Seneca said;

  • It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.
  • Life is long if you know how to use it.

The Value of Time in the Toyota Production System:

One of the core themes in the Toyota Production System is time – respecting other’s time and reducing the time spent in getting the product in to the customer’s hands from the factory floor. In a similar vein to Seneca’s view on the value of time, Eiiji Toyoda, a strong supporter of Taiichi Ohno, said;

  • A person’s life is an accumulation of time – just one hour is equivalent to a person’s life. Employees provide their precious hours of life to the company, so we have to use it effectively; otherwise, we are wasting their life.

This is a strong statement as Michel pointed out in his post, and it exemplifies the idea of Respect for People. Respect for People is about respecting the person’s time – not allowing him to squander it away on non-value adding activities. Wasting others’ time is a cruel activity.

Taiichi Ohno has said the following about productivity;

Measure your performance based on productivity and not by how busy you are.

Ohno’s first challenge to anybody on the floor was to find a way to get the job done with fewer operators. I should point out that Ohno never wanted to get rid of the operators. His view was that every operation or process is full of waste and this leads to operators being engaged in non-value adding activities. Being busy and getting things done are not always the same.

Similar to Seneca, Ohno pushed the supervisors and operators to use their time well and find ways to eliminate waste. It was not about working longer or bringing in more people to get the job done. It was about eliminating the waste in the operation – thus increasing the value of the operation. Toyota challenged every employee to view their production system as the Thinking Production System. This challenges people to spend their time wisely and not squander it. It is about knowing how to wisely use time in your life.

These two ideas align very well with the two pillars of the Toyota Way;

  1. Respect for People – value other’s time
  2. Continuous Improvement – learning how to use time wisely

Final Words:

I will finish off with an Ohno story that clearly shows an appreciation for others’ time (source: Pascal Dennis);

Taiichi Ohno was visiting a supplier’s plant in the early 1950’s. He spent his time observing the operators on the floor. He observed one particular operator on a machine. The operator stood in front of the machine, watching it. Ohno observed him for a few cycles of the machine.

He then asked the operator, “How often does this machine break down?”

“Never”, the operator replied.

“So what do you do all day”, Ohno continued.

“Well, I watch this machine, Ohno-san”, was the response.

“So you watch this machine all day, and it never breaks down?”

“Yes”, the operator responded, “that is my job.”

“What a terrible waste of humanity”, Ohno exclaimed to himself.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Colors of Waste.


2 thoughts on “Seneca’s “On Shortness of Life”:

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