The Spirit of Mottainai in Lean:

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In today’s post I will be looking at “Mottainai” and the many ways it relates to Lean. The Japanese word “Mottainai” is sometimes used in connection with “Muda”, the Japanese word for waste. Muda literally means “no (mu) value (da)”. Mottainai on the other hand is translated as “wastefulness”. This is a very loose translation. Mottainai literally means “absence of intrinsic value” (Mottai = intrinsic value, and Nai = absence of). The best explanation of the difference between the two is;

  • Muda – Storing rotten food in the refrigerator. There is no value or use.
  • Mottainai – Throwing away food that is still good. There is still some use left.

There are two meanings to Mottainai in the Japanese culture;

  1. Regret about not utilizing something. This can be a regret about not using resources, talent or even time.
  2. Gratitude about kindness or thoughtfulness from others.

In the first context, children are often scolded in Japan for not eating all of their food. The act of scolding children for not eating all of their food is a global phenomenon and the reason generally given is about the starving people in the other parts of the world. However in the backdrop of mottainai, the scolding is about the lack of respect to all of the people who worked hard to produce the food. In the second context there is a sense of humility. People say “mottainai” when they receive blessings or help from their superiors or elders. They are grateful for the blessings or the good wishes, and they are proclaiming that they will not let those blessings go to waste. I will look deeper at the concept of Mottainai as it relates to Lean or the Toyota Production System.

Lean Implementations:

One of the oldest and strongest religions in Japan is Shintoism. The concept of Mottainai has roots in Shintoism. Shintoism teaches that everything has a spirit or soul, including inanimate objects. The idea of Mottainai stems from the belief that it is wrong to not fully use the intrinsic value of a thing, and teaches reverence for your personal things like katana and tea pot. Ignoring this will bring the “wrath” of the spirit of that object.

Hajime Oba, a Toyota veteran was once asked why other organizations cannot replicate Toyota’s success. He responded with an analogy that it is like trying to create a Buddha image without having the spirit of Buddha inside. He said

“What they are doing is creating a Buddha Image and forgetting to put soul in it.”

Simply copying the tools of lean without understanding your problems is Mottainai. As a Lean Leader, your responsibility is to first understand the problems you are trying to solve. This understanding becomes the soul or spirit.

Respect for People:

Respect for People (RfP) is one of the two pillars in Toyota Way. RfP has a strong connection with Mottainai. The inspiration for this article came from an article I read by Toshihiko Irisumi at the Lean-In website. He wrote;

“The fact that women managers are extremely rare in Japanese corporations is a wasteful (“mottainai”) reality for both talented women and for the future of corporations.”

I found the particular use of the word “Mottainai” qute interesting. This is a strong admonition from Irisumi. In the same light, engaging operators in non-value added activities is Mottainai. In the same line of thought, not engaging in the improvement activities is not showing respect to your management. This is wasting their trust in you and calls for Mottainai. Respect for people goes both ways!

Kaizen:

Tomo Sugiyama, in his book “The Improvement Book”, talks about an improvement activity being a “problem-free Engineering” activity. One of the examples he gives is “Air Free” Engineering. Sugiyama was a Production Manager at Yamaha Motors, and one day he started staring at the shelves on the floor. The shelves were storing items in a random order with no thought. There were signs on the floor stating “Don’t store air!” He pointed out that there was lot of wasted space on the shelves and based on his advice the operators rearranged the shelves and was able to generate about 35% more space. Sugiyama may have potentially gotten rid of unwanted shelves and saved production floor space as well. The prior state resulted in wasted space, time and motion looking for things. Thinking in terms of Mottainai leads to kaizen.

Eighth Waste:

“Not utilizing others’ creativity” is often called the Eighth Waste in Lean. Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, identified only seven wastes in manufacturing. The eighth waste was later added by Lean practitioners. The concept of Mottainai puts the right perspective on this and identifies it as a wasteful activity – wasting talent and time!

Final Words:

The concept of Mottainai gives food for thought for a Lean Leader. I will finish off with a story that first talked about Mottainai. This is a story from the 12th century about Minamoto no Yoshitsune in the Battle of Yashima between the Tiara Clan and the Minomoto Clan.

Yoshitsune was on his horse and being chased by the enemies.  Yoshitsune accidentally dropped his bow. His bow was a low quality bow.

“Don’t pick up the bow, let it be”, one of his friends called out. Yoshitsune did not heed his words and went to retrieve his bow.

The Minomoto clan was victorious in the battle. Yoshitsune’s friend admonished him again for going after the bow and used the term “Mottainai” to state that it was a wasteful activity that could had gotten him killed. Yoshitsune’s life was after all more valuable than the bow.

Yoshitsune responded back that if the enemy had seen that inferior quality bow, it would had disgraced his clan and given hope to his enemies.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Labor Day.

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