Shisa Kanko, a Different Kind of Checklist:

Shisa Kanko

Regular readers of my blog know that I am a keen Japanophile. I love learning new things about the cultural nuances of Japan. In today’s post I will be looking at “Shisa Kanko” translated as “point with finger and call”.

Perhaps, like many others, when I was the last one to leave my house, I always questioned myself whether I closed the garage door. A mental trick I came up with was to talk to myself aloud as I pressed on the Garage Remote, “I am pressing on the remote”, and as the door closed I would remark again to myself, “look, the garage door is closing”. This action of talking it aloud created a physical and memory record that I could refer to later and recall that I did close the garage door.

Shisa Kanko is a similar process of “checking off” that an action was completed. Shisa Kanko is the process of pointing to something and calling out what happened. This could be a visual indicator for the status of an operation and calling out the status. This idea is said to have originated by a steam-train engineer of the name Yasoichi Hori. Hori started to lose his eye sight and thus began to call out the status signal to the fireman riding with hm. This was an attempt by Hori to not go through a wrong signal by mistake. The fireman would then repeat the status signal back to him and confirm it. This practice was deemed important and was implemented as a practice for railway staff. The practice of Shisa Kanko was published in the Japanese railway manual in 1913.  You can read about the proper way to point and call at the old website of JICOSH (Japanese International Center for Occupational Safety and Health) [1].


This activity involves pointing at target objects by stretching your arm and stating out loud, “Such and such is OK” at important points in the work in order to proceed with work safely and correctly.

Pointing and calling are methods for raising the consciousness level of workers and confirming that conditions are regular and clear, increasing the accuracy and safety of work. This method for ensuring safety is based on the philosophy of respecting human life and can be achieved only with the full participation of the workforce in practice activities across the whole of the workplace.

It is said that implementing the practice of Shisa Kanko can reduce mistakes by about 85% percent [2]. Shisa Kanko is a form of a checklist in some regards. By pointing and calling out, it is similar to the action of checking off on a checklist – “yup, this is done.” The physical and audible actions ensure that an important signal or action is not omitted. This is also an indicator to those around and provides an indication that an action was completed or the status of an operation. An example is the railway staff scanning to ensure that the tracks are free of debris before the train takes off. Instead of just scanning the tracks, the operator will point towards the track, making a sweeping action with the eyes following the hand. Once confirmed, the operator will announce that the track is clear.

Just like a checklist, the absence of Shisa Kanko will not always result in mistakes. However, the presence of Shisa Kanko will always aid in preventing mistakes. Thus it is a positive enabling constraint.

I will finish this post with a lesson from Buddha on learning to meditate;

Meditation can be a really hard skill to master and requires a lot of practice. Buddha’s advice is to make note of what is going on with your breath, similar to Shisa Kanko. Buddha’s lesson for mediation is “Anapanasati”. In Pali language “Ana” means “inhalation”, “pana” means “exhalation” and “sati” means “mindfulness”. Buddha is teaching us to be mindful of our breath going in (saying internally “in”), and going out (saying internally “out”). This practice of mindfulness, acknowledging the status of our breath, will allow us to be in control and in focus.

Buddha teaches about Anapanasati in the Anapanasati Sutta:

Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Concept of Constraints in Facing Problems:



Respect and Yokai:


In today’s post I am looking at Respect and Yokai. “Yokai” is a catch-all word in Japanese which refers to supernatural beings. I have written several posts regarding respect for people [1]. Respect for people is an important concept in the Toyota Production System, and it goes beyond the superficial “let’s be nice to people”. As a Japanophile, I was very enthralled by the “Yokai” culture. One of the things I learned about yokai was the connection between respect and yokai. Yokai originated from Japanese folklore. Later on, yokai was used to represent creatures that originated from material things like an umbrella or a lantern. Yokai are generally mischievous and can be good or bad. Yokai filled the gap to explain the unexplainable or mysterious events. For example, “Tenjoname”, a yokai who likes to lick the ceilings can be used to explain the stains on the ceilings. The word “tenjoname” literally means “to lick the ceiling”. Tenjoname has a long tongue that can reach all the way up to the ceiling, and he comes out when there is nobody around and licks ceilings in buildings and this leaves stains on them.


The respect part in this post comes from the belief in the Japanese culture to use everything to its fullest value. If you have a lantern, and you throw it away to buy a new lantern, the discarded lantern can turn into a yokai, generally called as tsukumogami, and come back for “revenge” or “payback”. I found this to be a fascinating thought. One needs to respect one’s belongings. I can relate to this concept – as a kid, I was scolded by my parents if I left books on the floor. Leaving books on the floor can lead to one inadvertently stepping on them. Books represented wisdom and learning, and a lack of respect for books meant that I will not be able to learn from them.

Japan has limited natural resources and thus the concept of using things to its full value is a very important concept in Japanese culture. In this regard, one can see how being wasteful can extend to the idea of yokai. Being wasteful is bad, and disrespectful to the environment and your neighbors. In my eyes, this also extends to respect for people. In Japanese culture, it is said that at the end of life an item is “discarded” with respect. One may even go to a shrine to pay respect to the item before discarding it. The respect is not only for the item, but also for the numerous people who had a hand in creating that item. In today’s world of use-and-discard and buying the latest tech gadget, yokai reminds us to respect the planet and others.

I will finish by discussing my favorite yokai – kappa. “Kappa” is a yokai that is associated with water bodies like ponds or rivers. Kappa is depicted as a humanoid form generally the size of a child, with webbed feet and hands. Sometimes they are depicted as monkey-like or like frog-like. They have a saucer-like indentation on the head that has water in it. This is the source of their power and losing the water from its head can make them powerless. Even though they are small, they are very strong. Kappa was often used by elders to warn children to stay away from the river or pond.


The most interesting characteristic of kappa is that they are very polite. Thus, the way to capture or defeat a kappa is to bow your head down as a show of respect. The kappa will have to then bow their head back, and this will empty the water in their head thus making them powerless. Thus kappa is most likely the only evil being in any culture that can be defeated with respect and politeness.

Always keep on learning…

If you enjoyed this post, you can read more here.

In case you missed it, my last post was Kant and Respect for Humanity:


In-the-Customer’s-Shoes Quality:


I had a conversation recently with a Quality professional from another organization. The topic somehow drifted to the strict Quality standards in Japan. The person talked about how the product gets rejected by his Japanese counterparts for small blemishes, debris etc. The “defects” met the corporate standards, yet the product gets rejected at their Japanese warehouse. This conversation led me to write this post. My response was that the Japanese were looking at the product from the eyes of the customer. The small blemishes and debris impact the perception of quality, and can bring distaste as the product is being used.

In Japanese, the term for quality is Hinshitsu (hin = goods, and shitsu = quality). With the advent of TQM (Total Quality Movement), the idea of two “Qualities” was made more visible by Professor Noriaki Kano. He termed these;

  1. Miryokuteki Hinshitsu, or Attractive Quality
  2. Atarimae Hinshitsu, Must-Be Quality

These concepts were not exactly new, but Prof. Kano was able to put more focus on this. The “Attractive Quality” refers to something that fascinates or excites the customer and the “Must-Be Quality” refers to everything that is expected from the item by the customer. For example, a new phone in the market is expected to function out of the box. It should be able to make calls, connect to the internet, take pictures, play games etc. But if the phone came with the case or if the phone came with the name of the owner etched on the back, then that particular attribute is exciting for the customer. It was not something that he was expecting, and thus it brings “joy” to the customer. The interesting thing about the Attractive Quality is that today’s Attractive Quality becomes tomorrow’s Must-Be Quality. Would you purchase a phone today without the ability to browse the internet or take pictures? These features were added as Attractive Quality features in the past, and they have become Must-Be Quality features today.

The Japanese Quality guru Kaoru Ishikawa called these “Forward-looking qualities” and “Backward-looking qualities”. He called the special features like “easy to use”, “feels good to use” etc. as forward looking qualities. In contrast, “absence of defects” was called as backward looking. The father of Statistical Quality Control, Walter Shewhart called these as Objective and Subjective qualities.

Sometimes the Miryokuteki Hinshitsu also refers to the “Aesthetic Quality” of the product. Apple products are famous for this. There is a lot of attention paid by the Apple Designers for the Aesthetic Quality of their products. The IPhone should feel and look good. Even the package it comes in should say that it contains a “quality product”. In the Japanese culture, the concept of Aesthetics is rooted in “Shibui” and “Mononoaware”. Shibui can be defined as a quality associated with physical beauty “that has a tranquil effect on the viewer”. It brings to attention the naturalness, simplicity and subdued tone. Mononoaware on the other hand refers to the merging of one’s identity with that of an object. (Source: The Global Business by Ronnie Lessem, 1987).

The Total Quality Movement (Or Total Quality Control Movement as it is often referred to in the Japanese books) was taken quite seriously by the Japanese manufacturers. The following concepts were identified as essential;

  1. Customer orientation
  2. The “Quality first” approach
  3. Quality is everyone’s responsibility – from top management down
  4. Continual improvement of Quality
  5. Quality assurance is the responsibility of the producer, not of the purchaser or the inspection department
  6. Quality should be extended from the hardware (i.e., the product) to the software (i.e., services, work, personnel, departments, management, corporations, groups, society and the environment)

Source: Kaoru Ishikawa

Rather than relying on inspection, the Japanese manufacturers, including Toyota and Nissan, believed in building in quality throughout the entire process. The awareness of quality was seen as essential by the operator involved in making the product. It became a matter of owning the process and taking pride in what the operator did. Kenichi Yamamoto, the previous chairman of Mazda, is quoted to have said by BusinessWeek – “any manufacturer can produce according to statistics.”Yamamoto’s remark is about not focusing simply on quantities. Even when we are focusing on quality we should focus on both the objective and subjective quality. This reflects how our company culture views the ownership of quality.

Final Words:

I have always wondered why the windows in an airplane are not aligned with the airplane’s seats. It appears that the plane’s body is built based on a standard, and the seats are later added based on what the plane carriers want. There is not always a focus on what the customer wants, which explains why the seats are not aligned with the windows. I refer to the idea of the quality of a product as “in-the-customer’s-shoes quality”. If you were the customer, how would you like the product?

I will finish off with a story I heard from one of the episodes of the delightful TV show, “Japanology Plus”. This story perfectly and literally captures the concept of in-the-customer’s-shoes quality.

The episode was interviewing a “Japanophile” who was living in Japan for quite a long time. He talked about one incident that truly changed his view on Japan. He went to a small tea house in Japan. He was requested to remove his shoes before entering the room. After the tea, when he came out he was pleasantly surprised to see that his shoes were now moved to face away from the room. This way, he did not have to turn around and fumble to put his shoes on. He can simply put the shoes on his way out without turning around. He was taken aback by the thoughtfulness of the host.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was “Four Approaches to Problem Solving”.

The Value of Silence:


Today’s post is an introspective post for me. I will be looking at “silence”, its cultural implications in Japan, its use as a form of self-improvement and some stories about silence in the Toyota Production System. I was in a meeting recently, and during my self-reflection time at night, I observed that I did not learn or try to understand the perspective in the meeting. I was not listening because I was trying to prove my knowledge to the other side. I was not being silent or listening. Perhaps, I am a harsh critic of myself. But I have made up my mind that I will be practicing silence more.

One of my favorite sayings about silence is;

Knowledge speaks and wisdom listens.”

This is sometimes attributed to the great musician Jimi Hendrix. However, there is no proof that he did say this. There is a similar quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes;

“It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.”

I am an avid fan of Japanese Culture and interestingly, silence is an important facet in Japanese culture. It is said that it is tough to negotiate with Japanese businessmen since they employ long periods of silence that others are not used to. In the West, silence is generally unbearable. It is viewed as a break in communication. In Japanese culture, silence is viewed as a communicative act. Silence can be effectively utilized in negotiations since it can make the other side nervous. In the Japanese culture, however, silence has several positive attributes which includes being respectful and polite, and avoiding confrontation.

I am looking at silence in four regards as a practice of self-improvement;

  • Respect for others:

Stephen Covey said “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” He identified this as the fifth habit of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In Zen, there is a great lesson that you are given two ears and one mouth, and that their use must be in the same ratio – listen two times more than you speak.

  • Self Reflection:

Engaging in silence is a pre-requisite for self-reflection. This allows the mental fog to clear out and the mind to organize better. Think of silence as an act of clearing up space in your mind to allow deep-felt thoughts to come in.

  • Teaching:

Being silent sometimes prompts the other side to keep on talking and perhaps encourage them to come out of their comfort zone. This can have the effect of being a good sounding board for their ideas. This is similar to the Socratic teaching method of asking questions. But in this case, remaining silent allows the other side to focus on their thoughts more and find the solutions to the problems at hand.

  • Effectively Communicating:

This may seem counterintuitive, but engaging in silence can improve your communication. In Japanese calligraphy, the empty space is as important as the written words. This empty space is quite similar to the “negative space” in design. It is the valleys that point our attention at the hills. The same is applicable for the use of effective silence in communication.

Silence in the Toyota Literature:

There are two instances I have seen where “silence” jumped out at me. The first one was in Masaaki Sato’s “Toyota Leaders”, where Sato talked about the ex-President and Chairman of Toyota. Eiji was a person who employed silence in his communication; he considered each question seriously and provided responses after much thought. EIji is hailed by Forbes as the creator of the Modern Version of Toyota. EIji was also a strong supporter of Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, and his “out of the ordinary” methods.

The second instance is from the book “Just-In-Time For Today and Tomorrow”, co-authored by Taiichi Ohno. In the book, Ohno talked about how the other employees were against his methods that would later become the Toyota Production System. All the hate and resentment were absorbed by his two managers, Eiji Toyoda and Saito Naichi. They both allowed Ohno to continue with his methods and to find ways of reducing manufacturing costs. Ohno referred to their relationship as a silent relationship of mutual trust. They both did not question Ohno and in turn Ohno did not ask for their approvals.

“I knew all too well how they worried about me and what I was doing. Yet they never said “Do This!” or “Do that!” For my part, I never had to say “I’d like to do this” or “Please let me do that.”I just did everything I thought had to be done. Had I asked permission, my resolve would have weakened because of the pressure to prove what I was doing. Had either side said anything, the relationship would have collapsed.”

Final Words:

This post was written as a reminder to myself to use silence more. I will finish with a great Zen story on silence;

There once was a monastery that was very strict. Following a vow of silence, no one was allowed to speak at all. But there was one exception to this rule. Every ten years, the monks were permitted to speak just two words. After spending his first ten years at the monastery, one monk went to the head monk. “It has been ten years,” said the head monk. “What are the two words you would like to speak?”

“Bed… hard…” said the monk.

“I see,” replied the head monk.

Ten years later, the monk returned to the head monk’s office. “It has been ten more years,” said the head monk. “What are the two words you would like to speak?”

“Food… stinks…” said the monk.

“I see,” replied the head monk.

Yet another ten years passed and the monk once again met with the head monk who asked, “What are your two words now, after these ten years?”

“I… quit!” said the monk.

“Well, I can see why,” replied the head monk. “All you ever do is complain.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Spirit of Mottainai in Lean.

The Spirit of Mottainai in Lean:


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!


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.