Epistemology at the Gemba:

plato 2

In today’s post, I will be looking at Epistemology at the Gemba. Epistemology is the part of philosophy that deals with the theory of knowledge. It tries to answer the questions – how do we know things and what are the limits of our knowledge? I have been learning about epistemology for a while now and I find it an enthralling subject.

The best place to start this topic is with “Meno’s paradox”. Plato wrote about Meno’s paradox as a conversation between Socrates and Meno in the book aptly called “Meno”.  This is also called the “paradox of inquiry”. The paradox starts with the statement that if you know something, then you do not need to inquire about it. And if you do not know something, then the inquiry is not possible since you do not know what you are looking for. Thus, in either case inquiry is useless. Plato believed that we are all born with complete knowledge and all we need to do is recollect what we know as needed.

Today, philosophers point out that knowledge is possible through two ways;

  • Rationalism –knowledge comes from within and does not need to rely on experience.
  • Empiricism – knowledge comes from experience using our senses.

One of the great empiricist philosophers, David Hume classified all objects of human inquiries into two categories, which aligned with the two above-mentioned sources of knowledge.

  • Relation of Ideas – These are tautological statements that are true by themselves. These can also be called “analytical statements” or “necessary statements”. Examples are “all bachelors are unmarried men” or “dogs are mammals”. We can know this just by looking at the statement and no further inquiry is needed. These ideas and observations do not rely on the world.
  • Matters of Facts – These are statements that needs further confirmation by evidence. These can also be called “synthetic” or “contingent” statements. Examples are “it is sunny today” or “the Eiffel Tower is 15 cm taller in the summer”. These rely on the world and experience in the particular matter.

As Science progressed, epistemology also progressed. There was more value placed on empiricism and one of the most famous of these philosophical movements was Logical Positivism. The central theme of Logical Positivism was verificationism which meant that all claims must be verifiable to make sense cognitively. This approach required an objective look at science and empiricism, and relied on the concept of positivism. Positivism was an approach to explain the world objectively and deterministically. It treated the nature of reality as objective, single and fragmentable. This promoted the idea of reductionism where everything can be taken apart and studied. The world was viewed as a machine where direct cause and effect relationships existed. One of the main criticisms of Logical Positivism was that the claim of verificationism itself was not empirically verifiable. Another main criticism was ignoring the observer as being part of the system. The world cannot be viewed independently of the observer. The world is in fact a social construct relying on multiple interpretations. The knowing and the knower are always interacting, and cannot be separated. This type of approach to creating the reality of the world is called interpretivism.

Stephen Pepper was one of the critics of Logical Positivism. He believed that it is not possible to have pure objective facts. He proposed the idea of worldviews or world hypotheses through which we create the meaning to reality in his 1942 book, World Hypotheses: a study in evidence. Four of his worldviews are:

  • Formism – the worldview where we make sense of things by identifying similarities and differences, and thus putting things in categories.
  • Mechanism – the worldview where we make sense of the world as if it were a machine. We assume that there are direct cause and effect relationships and we can take things apart to make sense of things.
  • Organicism – the worldview where importance is placed on creating an organic perspective of the world, where parts come together to create a coherent whole.
  • Contextualism – the worldview where we place value in the context of the world and its parts. This allows us to see the complexity of the world. Pepper identified the context through the two fundamental categories – quality and texture. Quality refers to the total character of an event and texture refers to the details and relations that make up this total character. Viewing the world in terms of context helps us to adopt the required strategies to meet the unpredictability of the world.

My own thoughts on epistemology favors empiricism but also relies on interpretivism. The four worldviews proposed by Pepper helps us to understand the reality from multiple perspectives. This brings me to some concepts in Toyota Production System. One of the main tenets of Toyota Production System is “Grasp the Situation”. This is preceded by going to the gemba, the actual work place where the action is. Once at the gemba, one has to grasp the reality – what is really going on. This requires one to keep personal biases aside and view gemba through the eyes of the operators. I like the use of the verb “grasp” – this indicates a tactile nature, as if you are actually trying to physically “feel out” the problem. Observation is the first step for empiricism. This can be achieved only by going to gemba.

Most of the time when we are informed of a problem, we do not have a clear understanding. Sometimes, the problem statement can be – “it does not work. Again!” This vague problem statement does not help us much. The problem is experienced by the operator and is external to you. Once we are at the gemba, we can start asking questions and even feel the operations by working at the station where the problem occurred. One of the Toyotaisms is – look with your feet and think with your hands. This tactile nature of learning helps us understand the implicit knowledge of the operator.

Another Toyotaism that is meaningful to this discussion is – There is a difference between Toyota Production System and Toyota’s Production System. Toyota Production System is static. It can be treated as explicit knowledge where every single tenet, every single tool and every single concept is written down. However, what Toyota does on a day-to-day basis is personal to the Toyota plant. This cannot be written down. Toyota’s Production System is dynamic where the solutions are unique to the problems that the specific Toyota plant experiences. Another concept that Toyota emphasizes is gaining consensus. This ensures that multiple perspectives are utilized to create the common reality. The concept of “wa” or harmony is important in the Japanese culture.

Final Words:

How do you know what you know? This is an epistemological question. If you are asked to implement 5S or any other lean tool, you need to know why it needs to be implemented. Do you know which problem it is trying to address? If you are asked to help solve a problem on the floor, how would you know what needs to be done? Empiricism is a great way to gain knowledge. This implies using your senses to gain knowledge. The best way to do this is to go to the actual place where the action is. In addition to this, be open to others’ perspectives. The reality must be built upon multiple perspectives.

I will finish with a Zenful story of mine.

The student was in awe of his master. One day, he told the master, “Master, you are truly wise. Do you have any words of wisdom for me?”

The master replied, “I may be wise today. However, wisdom is a habit. Wisdom comes with knowledge only through experience. Thus, I may no longer be a wise man tomorrow.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Meditations at the Gemba:


Meditations at the Gemba:


In today’s post, I am looking at Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” and how it relates to us today. Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD, was a follower of Stoicism, a type of philosophy that extols a way of life based on moral virtue. It emphasizes logic and rationality, and views man as a microcosm corresponding to the macrocosm of the universe. Man has to use his reason to discern the universal order present in nature and he is obligated to live his life in accordance with nature [1].  I have identified 10 lessons from “Meditations” that I hope will be valuable to the lean leader. I have used the translation of “Meditations” by George Long for my notes[2].

1) Make Time for Contemplation:

“We ought to remember not only that our life is daily wasting away and a smaller part of it is left, but also that if a man should live longer, it is quite uncertain whether his mind will stay strong enough to understand things, and retain the power of contemplation to strive after knowledge of the divine and human.”

Marcus believes in making time for contemplation. He encourages us to “retire” into ourselves to recharge on a frequent basis. This is similar to the concept of “Hansei” in Lean. He continues;

“It is in your power, whenever you shall choose, to retire into yourself.”

Marcus talks of cleansing your soul so that you are free of discontentment and this allows you to return to the “stale things” with a refreshed mind. He reminds the reader that things cannot touch your soul since they are external to you, and that our perturbations come from our own opinions and viewpoints. This too shall pass.

2) Observe the Small Things in the Light of the Big Picture:

“We ought to observe also that even the small characteristics of things produced according to nature have something in them pleasing and attractive.”

Marcus believed that everything must be aligned with nature. Even the smallest detail has its own charm and beauty in the big picture. Marcus talks about the example of the cracks in the surface of a loaf of bread. In his eyes, they are beautiful even though they were not designed or intentionally added by the baker. They are visually appealing and stimulate the appetite. Observing small details in relation to the bigger picture is a beautiful thought. On the contrary, small characteristics are not pleasing and attractive when they are not according to nature. This is an important lesson for us at the Gemba – Why is the operator reaching out to get his retracted tool every time? Small characteristics not according to nature indicate all of the wasteful motions which can have a negative impact on a rational natural process.

3) Labor Not Unwillingly:

“Labor not unwillingly, nor without regard to the common interest, nor without due consideration, nor with distraction”.

When we do something, do we pay attention to the purpose? How many times do we catch ourselves doing things without thought, just to realize that we have wasted away a whole weekend. Does my action do anything to improve the common betterment of my organization, my family, or my neighborhood?

Marcus continues;

“On every occasion a man should ask himself, ‘Is this one of the unnecessary things?’”

Tim Ferriss talks about a Not-To-Do list [3], which is a list of things not to be done instead of a list of thing that needs to be done. This different approach trains our minds to pay attention to the habits that secretly steal valuable time away from us.

Marcus also advises us to “Do every act with a purpose.”

4) Don’t Jump to Conclusions:

“Honor the faculty which produces opinion. On this faculty it entirely depends whether there exists in your ruling part any opinion inconsistent with nature and the constitution of a rational being. And this faculty urges freedom from hasty judgment.”

Marcus clearly explains why we should not jump to conclusions. We need to recognize the faculty to ensure that the opinion is consistent with nature (virtuous) and rational.

Marcus continues;

“Make for yourself a definition or description of every object presented to you, so as to see distinctly what it is in its own naked substance, complete, and entire.”

Marcus is advising us to use a methodical approach to give us a rational and virtuous opinion when a situation presents itself to us the next time at the Gemba.

5) Be Virtuous:

“Whatever you do, do it as befits that character of goodness in the sense in which a man is rightfully supposed to be good. Hold this rule in every act.”

Virtue is a key theme in Stoicism. Virtue is getting the human mind aligned with nature.

Marcus continues;

“To a rational being the act that is according to nature is according to reason.”

The natural life is one controlled by reason. Stoics believe that happiness is found in virtue. How would you apply this in your organization? Are people happy in your organization? Does your organization provide happiness to your neighborhood? For example, one of Toyota’s Guiding Principles is –  “Dedicate our business to providing clean and safe products and to enhancing the quality of life everywhere through all of our activities.”

6) Pursuit of Rationality:

“Always hasten by the short way: and the short way is the natural one. Say and do everything in conformity with sound reason. For such a rule frees a man from trouble and strife and artifice and ostentatious display.”

Marcus is advising that the easy way is not necessarily the shortest way. The path chosen with sound reason, in alignment with nature is the short one. In the first manual of Toyota Production System, there was a concept that was introduced as the “pursuit of rationality”. Marcus has explained this really well. It is not always about efficiency, but about effectiveness. We should pay more attention to effectiveness than efficiency.

7) Staying Calm:

“You can pass your life in a calm flow of happiness, if you can take the right way, and think and act in the right way. The two things common to the soul of God and to the soul of man, and to the soul of every rational being, are not be hindered in their purpose by another; and to holds good the disposition of justice and the practice of it, and in this to let your desire find its satisfaction.”

Stoics are expected to remain calm in all situations, like an emotionless being. This is not exactly true. Stoics are expected to express emotions like being startled by a loud sound, but they are not to dwell on the emotion. They find calmness and happiness when they do not let the opinions and emotions control them. They do not get distracted by the acts of others or by things that are beyond their control, as long as they stay on their path. This is similar to the Serenity Prayer[4].

Marcus continues;

“I do my duty. Other things do not trouble me, for they are either things without life or things without reason, or things that have wandered and know not the way.”

“No man can hinder you from living according to reason of your own nature; nothing will happen to you contrary to the reason of the universal nature.”

Things can go against your way on a frequent basis at the Gemba. To be a good leader, heed Marcus’ advice.

8) Holistic View:

“Consider frequently the connection of all things in the universe and their relation to one another.”

 “All parts in the universe are interwoven with one another, and the bond is sacred. Nothing is unconnected with some other thing.”

“Observe the continuous spinning of the thread and the single texture of the web.”

Marcus believed in the grand scheme of things and the natural order. He advises us to look at everything from a systems standpoint. Everything is connected to one another. Changing one thing here can cause changes at another end, and sometimes we cannot anticipate the extent of the consequences.

“That which is not good for the swarm, is not good for the single bee.”

He also advises us to look at the optimization from a system standpoint and not from a local optimization standpoint.

9) Respect:

“He who acts unjustly acts irreverently. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another, to help one another according to their worth, but in no way to injure one another.”

“First, do nothing thoughtlessly or without a purpose. Secondly, see that your acts are directed to a social end.”

Being rational in Stoicism means to work towards a  common good in accordance with nature. This also indicates that you should allow everybody to reach their greatest potential, which is the rational thing to do. Harmony is a key theme in Stoicism, and this means being harmonious with nature as well as with other human beings. There is a lot of similarities between the concept of “Wa” in the Japanese culture. I have talked about it here [5].

Marcus also talked about being willing to request help from others.

“Be not ashamed to take help… Stand erect or be helped to stand erect.”

10) Change Must Happen:

“Is anyone afraid of change? Why, what can be done without change?”

Marcus advises us that change is inevitable. Marcus continues;

“Life is more like wrestling than dancing, in that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets, however unexpected.”

We must be ready to wrestle while being rational. We should pursue rationality, engage in contemplation on a regular basis, do things that are only just, and be prepared.

Final Words:

Marcus Aurelius did not write “Meditations” in the hopes that it would be read by generations to come. He wrote these passages as part of his journal. The book does not have any particular organized structure to it. It is also strange that the title that Marcus gave to the book did not mean “Meditations”. In Greek, it meant “To Himself”. The title was given by an anonymous person much later.

My favorite section from the book also captures the essence of the book:

“Where every act must be performed in accord with the reason which is common to gods and men, we have nothing to fear; when we can profit by activity which is successful and in harmony with our nature, need suspect no harm.

Everywhere and at all times it is in your power to accept reverently your present condition, to behave justly to those about you, and to exert your skill to control your thoughts, that nothing shall steal into them without being well examined.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Gemba Playlist:

[1] Ethics: The Study of Moral Values – Mortimer J Adler and Seymour Cain

[2]Marcus Aurelius and His Times by Walter J Black Inc.

[3] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/not-to-do-list-9-habits-stop-now-tim-ferriss

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer

[5] https://harishsnotebook.wordpress.com/2016/05/15/the-idea-of-wa-in-nemawashi/

Gemba Playlist:


I was talking to my manager last week and he mentioned about “walking the line” to do process audits. We both exclaimed, “Johnny Cash”. My manager commented that he can see a post in the works and smiled. So here I am.

In today’s post, I am suggesting 10 songs to keep in mind at the Gemba, and I am calling it the “Gemba Playlist”. You can click on the song titles to open it on YouTube.

The “Man in Black” [1] said it right. As a Lean Leader, you have to walk the line every day. Go to the Gemba and observe, and learn. This is a great opportunity to learn, and to develop oneself and others. Walking the line allows you to develop your observation muscles to see waste. The more you walk the line, the more you can see waste. And the more you see waste, the better you can improve the process and develop oneself and others. Go and walk the line!

One of the basic tenets of Toyota Production System is one-piece flow. The song from Johnny Cash (again) reminds us of following this. The production should follow one-piece flow – make it one piece at a time. This improves the flow, eliminates excess inventory, and improves quality. It is easier to correct the process since you get fast feedback from the next process if there is a problem. Great advice!

It appears that Johnny Cash is a Lean guy after all. His advice to Get Rhythm is an important one. You have to produce product based on takt time – a beat or cadence for the production based on customer demand. This ensures that we stay on top of producing exactly what is needed and nothing more. This brings me to the next song.

Henry Ford is attributed to have said that “you can have any color car you want…. as long as it is black”. A Lean Leader would say, “you can have it any way you want it.” This is because of “heijunka” or production leveling. It might be more efficient to make the same color or style car again and again. However, the customer may not want a black car. Utilizing the Toyota Production System principles allows you to say – you can have the product any way you want it. Heijunka ensures that you are flexible in meeting the variety of demands imposed by the customers by making product in the right mix daily.

Sammy Davis Jr. might be on to something here. A Lean Leader knows to resist placing the blame on the operator when there is a problem. You have to look at the process and see what might have happened. It is too easy to blame the operator. However, replacing the operator can still result in the same problem happening. The operator is doing what he or she thinks is rational at that time, based on all the information available. Start with the process when you are addressing a problem at the Gemba.

This needs to be mantra of every Lean Leader – I (We) can make it better. This is the idea of kaizen. You are responsible to make things better than yesterday, no matter how small or insignificant the improvement is. The small improvements add up, and they also change the mindset. There is always a better way of doing things. The title of the song captures the essence of continuous improvement.

Just-In-Time (JIT) is one of the two pillars of the Toyota house. I have written about this many times before. JIT is the brainchild of Kiichiro Toyoda, who founded the Toyota Motor Corporation. He came up with the idea of making the right parts at the right time, and in the right amount. The essence of JIT is to make product almost on time. Kiichiro called this the first principle of improving efficiency. He believed that JIT would eliminate all the excess inventory and also avoid a shortage of parts since only the right part in the right amount will be made with proper resource utilization.

No list is complete without a song from The Beatles. TPS is not about Superman or any other Super Action Hero. TPS is about teamwork and working together. One of the two pillars of Toyota Way – Respect for People, is based on Teamwork. TPS is everybody working together everyday for the common betterment. Yoshio Ishizaka, a Toyota veteran stated in his wonderful book, “The Toyota Way in Sales & Marketing”, Toyota realized that the starting point and the building block for its production system was the employees.

At the Gemba, there are always Things That Make You Go Hmmmm.Why is that operator reaching out for a tool every time? Why does this part always have a flash at this corner? Why is there a pool of oil here? Why do we have to record this information twice in different formats? Why am I entering this information when it can be accessed anytime? These things are good because they set you on the right journey – the journey to eliminate waste and improve your process.

Taiichi Ohno, the father of TPS, is said to have drawn chalk circles on the floor and have the supervisor or engineer stand inside it to observe a process. The idea was to make them see the waste that he saw. This Christmas song has three questions that are very applicable at the Gemba.

  • Do you see what I see?
  • Do you hear what I hear?
  • Do you know what I know?

These questions are great starting points to train and develop a leader. Some sample questions might be  – Do you see the wastes that I see? Or Do you hear the abnormal sound coming from the machine? Following or shadowing a person and observing them at work is a great way to absorb his or her knowledge.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Rules of 3 and 5:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Cash

Kenjutsu, Ohno and Polanyi:


Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, has a way with his words. I was rereading his great book, “Toyota Production System – Beyond Large-Scale Production”, and I came across the section where he talked about “In an art form, action is requried.” [1]

In the section Ohno talked about the progression of swordsmanship from “gekken”, to “kenjutsu” to “kendo”. Ohno wrote that during the era of brute force fighting, “gekken” was about having the strongest swordsman winning over the weaker opponent. As time progressed, it was recognized that there is a structure to the swordsmanship, and “kenjustu” was developed. Kenjutsu is translated as “art of sword”. With this, a weaker opponent could strike down the physically stronger opponent. As time went on, there was no longer a need to carry sword around, and “kendo” was developed in its place. Kendo means “the way of the sword”. The etymology is similar to “judo” which means “the gentle way”. The “-do” stands for “the way of”. “Ken” stands for “sword”. Thus, kendo stands for “the way of the sword”. Kendo utilizes a bamboo sword called a “shinai”. Kendo is a martial art and has become very well known in Japan and outside Japan.

Ohno went on to state that he believed that swordsmanship advanced the most during the era of kenjustsu. The “jutsu” part stands for “the art of”. Ohno points out that “jutsu” is created by inserting the character “require” into the character “action”. Thus, kenjutsu advanced swordsmanship the most because it required action. Ohno continues to state that “real action is what counts”. Talking about technology and actually practicing it are two different things.

This is a great lesson from Ohno and I was reminded of tacit knowledge when he talked about “requiring action”. Tacit knowledge is the brain child of Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian-British polymath [2]. Tacit knowledge may be loosely described as the knowledge that is hard to codify and part of which cannot be codified. Polanyi stated that “we know more than we can tell”. “Tacit knowledge” is generally contrasted against “Explicit knowledge”. Explicit knowledge is the knowledge that is present in the codified form like written procedures, manuals etc. However, it is wrong to state that Tacit and Explicit knowledge are mutually exclusive and that all Tacit knowledge can be transformed to Explicit knowledge.

Polanyi believed that all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge, including explicit knowledge. In Polanyi’s words;

                “While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied. Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable.”

While it might be possible to codify some parts of tacit knowledge, not all tacit knowledge can be codified. Some of the examples that Polanyi gave were riding a bicycle and facial recognition. It is not easy to explain in written form how to ride a bicycle or how to recognize a person through facial recognition. With the advancement in Machine Learning, both these activities can now be performed by AI (Artificial Intelligence). However, even the AI has to perform the action and learn from errors to be somewhat successful in it. The tacit portion of the knowledge still requires action. One of the ways to teach facial recognition to AI is to give a large amount of pictures with proper identification to allow the AI to learn from the correct data first. Based on this, the AI will start performing facial recognition tasks, and every wrong answer gets corrected which adds to the learning. Once the supervised learning is complete, a new dataset with unidentified pictures are given, and the accuracy rate determined. Every attempt at recognizing a picture is a lesson that reinforces the facial recognition knowledge.

Polanyi’s theory of knowledge was based on his objections against the prevalent “objectivism” in the scientific method. Objectivism is the belief that all knowledge is posteriori (after the fact) and is derived only based on the perception of the results with senses. Thus, the knowledge is based on quantitative measures using only perception. Polanyi’s objection to this was objectivism ignored the role of the observer or the experimenter. Polanyi thought that discovery must be arrived at by the tacit powers of the mind and its content. The role of the knower is very important in the formation of knowledge. Polanyi’s ideas of tacit knowing were derived from Gestalt psychology and the part-whole perception model which requires coherence between focal and subsidiary awareness. A face is able to be recognized because of all the particularities of the face (relative position of nose, lips, eyes etc, size of the eyes, color of the eyes etc.) combined into a coherent image through subsidiary and focal awareness. There is lot more to tacit knowledge that cannot be contained in this post. I encourage the readers to read upon Michael Polanyi for more. There is a lot more to tacit knowledge than what can be written down here (no pun intended).

The tacit knowledge can only be acquired by carefully observing the expert, and performing the functions under his or her watchful eyes. In other words, tacit knowledge requires action. Even the expert may not be aware of all parts of the tacit knowledge. The tacit knowledge can be acquired only through “close interaction and buildup of shared understanding and trust”. Polanyi has said that “all knowing is personal knowing”. Explicit knowledge can be stored in hardware (computer, books discs etc.) Explicit knowledge can be thus “transferred”. This is not possible for tacit knowledge. Some Knowledge Management practitioners have argued that all tacit knowledge can be transformed to explicit knowledge. An example is the SECI model by Nonaka and Takeuchi [3]. I do not believe this is possible since I believe that tacit knowledge can be acquired only through action and personal interaction with the experts.

I will finish off with a story I read from Harry Collins’ book, Tacit and Explicit Knowledge [4].

A guy walked into a pub that he has never been to before and sat down for a few drinks. He was puzzled by the action of the locals at the bar. Every now and then one of them would shout out a number and everybody would break out into laughter. This continued for a while, and the guy was very curious about it. He went to the pub owner and quizzed him about the strange actions. The pub owner explained to him that the locals have been coming here for so long and that they have been telling the same jokes over and over that they started assigning them numbers. So now, all they have to do is just call out the number and everybody would know the joke. Armed with this information, the new guy started calling out numbers and each time he was met with silence. The pub owner felt sorry for him, and explained to him “It’s not the joke my friend, it’s how you tell it.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Shisa Kanko, a Different Kind of Checklist:

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Toyota-Production-System-Beyond-Large-Scale/dp/0915299143

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Polanyi

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SECI_model_of_knowledge_dimensions

[4] https://www.amazon.com/Tacit-Explicit-Knowledge-Harry-Collins/dp/022600421X/ref=mt_paperback?_encoding=UTF8&me=

Concept of Constraints in Facing Problems:


In today’s post, I will be looking at the concept of constraints in facing problems. Please note that I did not state “solving problems”. This is because not all problems are solvable. There are certain problems, referred to as “wicked problems” or complex problems that are not solvable. These problems have different approaches and none of the approaches can solve the problems completely. Some of the alternatives are better than the others, but at the same time they may have their own unintended consequences. Some examples of this are global warming and poverty.

My post is related to the Manufacturing world. Generally in the manufacturing world, most of the problems are solvable. These problems have a clear cause and effect relationships. They can be solved by using the best practice or a good practice. The best practice is used for obvious problems, when the cause and effect relationship is very clear, and there is truly one real solution. A good practice is employed where the cause and effect relationship is evident only with the help of subject-matter-experts. These are called “complicated problems”. There are also complex problems where the cause and effect relationships are not evident. These may be understood only after-the-fact. An example for this is launching a new product and ensuring a successful launch. Most of the time, the failures are studied and the reasons for the failure are “determined” after the fact.

The first step in tackling these problems is to understand what type of problem it is. Sometimes, the method to solve a problem is prescribed before the problem is understood. Some of the methods assume that the problem has a linear cause and effect relationship. An example is 5 why. 5 why assumes that there is a linear relationship between cause and effect. This is evident in the question – “why did x happen?”  This works fine for the obvious problems. This may not work that well for complicated problems and never for a complex problem. One key thing to understand is that the problems can be composite problems, some aspects may be obvious while some aspects may be complicated. Using a prescribed method can be ineffective in these cases.

The concept of constraints is tightly related to the concept of variety. The best resource for this is Ross Ashby’s “An Introduction to Cybernetics” [1]. Ashby defined variety as the number of distinct elements in a set of distinguishable elements or as the logarithm to base 2 of the number of distinct elements. Thus, we can say that the variety of genders is 2 (male or female) or as 1 bit (based on the logarithm calculation). Ashby defined constraint as a relation between two sets. Constraint only exists when one set’s variety is lower than the other set’s variety. Ashby gives the axample of a school that only admits boys. Compared to the set of gender (boys and girls), the school’s variety is less (only boys). Thus the school has a constraint imposed on itself.

A great resource for this is Dave Snowden and his excellent Cynefin framework [2]. Snowden says that ontology precedes epistemology or in other words data precedes framework. The fundamental properties of the problem must be understood before choosing a “tool” to address the problem. Prescribing a standard tool to use in all situations is constraining oneself and this will lead to ineffective attempts at finding a solution. When the leader says we need to use lean or six sigma, this is an attempt to add constraints by removing variety. Toyota’s methodologies referred to as Toyota Production System, was developed for their problems. They identified the problems and then proceeded to find ways to address them. They did not have a framework to go by. They created the framework based on decades of experience and tweaking. Thus blindly copying their methodologies are applying constraints on yourself that may be unnecessary. As the size or scope of a project increases, it tends to increase the complexity of the project. Thus enterprise wide applications of “prescribed solutions” are not generally effective since the cause-effect relationships cannot be completely predicted leading to unintended consequences, inefficiency and ineffectiveness. On the other hand, Ashby advises to take note of any existing constraints in a system, and to take advantage of the constraints to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

A leader should thus first understand the problem to determine the approach to proceed. Sometimes, one may have to use a composite of tools. One needs to be open for modifications by having a closed loop(s) with a feedback mechanism so that the approach can be modified as needed. It is also advisable to use heuristics like genchi genbutsu since they are general guidelines or rules of thumb. This does not pose a constraint. Once a methodology is chosen, then a constraint is being applied since the available number of tools to use (variety) has now diminished.  This thinking in terms of constraints prevents the urge to treat everything as a nail when your preferred tool is a hammer.

I will finish with a great story from the great Zen master Huangbo Xiyun;

Huangbo once addressed the assembly of gathered Zen students and said; “You are all partakers of brewer’s grain. If you go on studying Zen like that, you will never finish it. Do you know that in all the land of T’ang there is no Zen teacher?”
Then a monk came forward and said, “But surely there are those who teach disciples and preside over the assemblies. What about that?”
Huangbo said, “I do not say that there is no Zen, but that there is no Zen teacher…”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Jidoka, the Governing Principle for Built-in-Quality:

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Cybernetics-W-Ross-Ashby/dp/1614277656

[2] http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/part-two-origins-of-cynefin/

Jidoka, the Governing Principle for Built-in-Quality:


Harold Dodge said – “You cannot inspect quality into a product; it must be built into it.[1] This is something that has stuck with me ever since I entered the work force. This means that quality must be viewed as an intrinsic attribute of a manufacturing process. The idea of quality being part of the process cannot be brought out by talking to the employees or with slogans or short lived programs. In order to have quality be a part of the process, it has to be a part of the process intrinsically!

I came across the concept of James Watts’ centrifugal governor. This is essentially a feedback system that controls the speed of an engine at a desired state. This is shown in the picture above. As the speed increases, it causes the “flyballs” to move away from each other due to the centrifugal force and this cause the arms to go up, which controls the valve to reduce the fuel intake. This is beautifully explained by Stafford Beer in his 1966 book, “Decision and Control” [2]. He states that with the centrifugal governor, the system is brought under control in the very act of going out of control. The regulation is intrinsic (it is part of the system).

When you think about it, Jidoka in TPS is doing exactly that. Jidoka is the governing principle in TPS to ensure built-in-quality. Jidoka was introduced as a concept by Sakichi Toyoda with his automatic loom that stopped when a thread was broken. Jidoka was explained by Toyota as autonomation or automation with human touch. In Toyota’s little green book, The Toyota Production System – Leaner Manufacturing for a Greener Planet, Jidoka is explained as;

Jidoka is a humanistic approach to configuring the human-machine interface. It liberates operators from the tyranny of the machine and leaves them free to concentrate on tasks that enable them to exercise skill and judgment.

Jidoka ensures that the machines are able to detect any abnormality and automatically stop whenever they occur. This concept of stopping production when there is an abnormality was implemented on the production lines with the use of andon cords. When an operator identifies a problem that cannot be solved within the allotted time, the operator can pull on the andon cord to stop the production line, thus making the problem immediately visible. This is a “human jidoka”. This prevents defective items from progressing down the assembly line causing larger issues and wasting time. It also leads to identifying opportunities for improvement with the product and/or the process as well as a valuable time to provide coaching for the employee.

The concept of Jidoka is an effort to make built-in-quality intrinsic to the manufacturing process. Allowing the operator to stop the entire production line is an act of giving autonomy to the operator. The quality is not being pushed top-down, but allowed to emerge bottom-up. This is an example of what Toyota calls as “Good Thinking leading to Good Products”.

In a similar vein, I wanted to draw comparisons to Zen. In Zen, there is a concept of “monkey mind”. This is the racing mind that does not allow one to sit down and meditate. Many different thoughts and emotions go through the mind when one is trying to have a quiet mind. Buddha taught disciples to focus on the breath as way to calm down the monkey mind. This is a really hard thing to do and requires a lot of practice. When the mind drifts off, it needs to be brought back. The Zen teachers teach us that the source of control is also the mind, the very same thing that causes the focus to be lost. Meditation is the art of coming back to the focus again and again. My favorite story on this is from the great teacher Yunmen Wenyan.

 Yunmen was asked by his student, “How can I control my mind to not lose focus when I am trying to meditate?”

Yunmen replied, “The coin that is lost in the river can only be found in the same river.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Learning to See:

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Out-Crisis-Press-Edwards-Deming-ebook/dp/B00653KTES/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1497211354&sr=1-1&keywords=9780262297189

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Decision-Control-Operational-Management-Cybernetics/dp/0471948381

Learning to See:

Rembrant van Rijn - The Mill (Detailed) - 1648

Today’s post is not based on LEI’s book “Learning to See” [1] but on the delightful book “Art in Focus” by Gene. A. Mittler (1986 edition) [2]. In Mittler’s words, the purpose of the book is to help you acquire knowledge and understanding you will need to make and support your own personal decisions about works of art. The name of the first chapter is “Learning to See”.  The book begins with the Taoist quote;

To look is one thing.

To see what you look at is another.

To understand what you see is a third.

To learn from what you understand is still something else:

To act on what you learn is all that matters.

I started reading this book by happenstance. I flipped through the book and found many interesting sections that were quite descriptive of what I had learned in Toyota Production System(TPS). In TPS, we are asked to go to the gemba and observe the production floor so that we can “learn to see” waste and take action. To my delight, Mittler talks about a “search strategy” that he uses for gaining observation from works of art, that is very well applicable for us. His strategy includes (paraphrased);

  1. Description: Through which you try to find out what is going on,
  2. Analysis: Through which you discover how the work is organized or put together
  3. Interpretation: Through which you try to determine the information communicated
  4. Judgment: Through which you make your own decision based on your interpretation

In chapter 2, Mittler continues;

Art objects are unique arrangements of the obvious and the not so obvious. In order to understand any art object, you must be willing to go beyond the obvious and examine the not so obvious as well.

In order to accomplish understanding the obvious and not so obvious, Mittler talks about the elements and principles of art. The elements are what make up the art. The six elements of art, as noted by Mittler are;

  1. Color
  2. Value (Non-color)
  3. Line
  4. Texture
  5. Shape/Form
  6. Space

The principles are on the other hand used to organize the elements together so that “the organized whole” is brought out. The seven principles of art, as noted by Mittler are;

  1. Balance
  2. Emphasis
  3. Harmony
  4. Variety
  5. Gradation
  6. Movement/Rhythm
  7. Proportion

Both the elements and the principles utilized in the art brings out “the Unity of the Work”. The Unity refers to the total effect of a work of art.

In a similar fashion, we could state that the elements at the gemba are the 6Ms (Man, Method, Machine, Measurement, Material and Mother Nature/Environment). The principles might be Just-in-Time, Jidoka, Heijunka, Standardized Work, Respect for People and Kaizen. Mittler notes that a skillful blend of elements and principles results in a unified design, a design in which all the parts hold together to produce the best possible effect. In a similar fashion, paraphrasing Taiichi Ohno [3], one can state that a skillful blend of elements and principles results in a total manufacturing technology that reaches the whole business organization and results in cost reductions and profit increases.

It is interesting to think that observing the activities in gemba to understand what gemba is saying, can be like observing a painting to understand the ideas communicated by the artist. It paints a pretty picture! I will finish with a Zen story related by William Scott Wilson, The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea, 2012 [4];

When the old warrior Hosokawa Shigeyuki (1434–1511) retired as daimyo or territorial lord of Sanuki Province, he became a Zen priest. One day he invited a visiting scholar-monk, Osen Kaisan (1429–93), to see a landscape-painting he himself had brushed in ink on a recent trip to Kumano and other scenic spots on the Kii Peninsula. When the scroll was opened, there was nothing but a long, blank sheet of paper. The monk Osen, struck by the emptiness of the “painting,” exclaimed:

Your brush is as tall as Mount Sumeru,
Black ink large enough to exhaust the great earth;
The white paper as vast as the Void that swallows up all illusions.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Respect and Yokai:

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Learning-See-Stream-Mapping-Eliminate/dp/0966784308/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1496073986&sr=8-1&keywords=learning+to+see

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Art-Focus-Gene-Mittler/dp/002662270X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1496074133&sr=8-1&keywords=art+in+focus+1986

[3] Toyota Production System – Beyond Large-Scale Production Page 71.

[4] https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AWTM1K6/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

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:

[1] https://harishsnotebook.wordpress.com/?s=respect+for+people

Kant and Respect for Humanity:


In today’s post, I will be looking at the concept of Respect of Humanity from a “Kantian philosophy standpoint”. “Respect for Humanity” is one of the two pillars of the “Toyota Way”. Yoshio Ishizaka defined Toyota Way as – Toyota’s implicit knowledge put in statutory form in 2001 [1]. I have written about Respect for People many times in this blog before [2].

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) is a giant in modern philosophy. Kant wrote about the Categorical Imperative in his 1785 book, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals [3]. Kant defined the Categorical Imperative as a universal moral law or principle that must be followed at all times, no matter what the circumstance or what our natural inclinations or desires are. Our focus is on Kant’s second formulation of the Categorical Imperative;

Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means.’’

Kant viewed humans as rational beings and accordingly rational beings cannot be treated merely (solely) as a means to ends, but as ends themselves.  A rational person will not subject himself to be treated as a mere means to an end, thus it is only rational to treat others the same way, in a universal manner. This thinking is applicable to oneself as well. One of the examples that Kant gave to explain this concept, is of a man who does not try to develop his natural talent. The man in the example is content with where he is, and in Kant’s eyes this means that the man is not respecting himself. Kant said, it is not enough that the action does not conflict with humanity in our person as end in itself; it must also harmonize with it (humanity).

Kant used the term “menschlichkeit”, a German word to explain his ideas regarding humanity. He viewed humanity as possessing a “rational nature” [3]. Humanity, through which we have the rational capacities to set ends, use means to them, and organize them into a whole. And as a rational being, at the heart of this is the capacity for autonomy or the ability to self-govern. The word “autonomy” from Greek means autos = self, nomos = law. This ability for self-governing, morally forces us to view each other with respect.

The concept of Respect for People does not begin or end with “being nice” to others. From a Kantian standpoint, respect is about morality. Morality is not about consequences – what others would think about me, but about intentions – it is rational to be respectful to others. Kant does not have a problem with using a person as a means to an end. For example, when an operator comes to work, he is being used to produce a product (means to an end). Kant’s problem is when a person is used as a “mere means” to an end. If the operator is seen only as a pair of hands, and if his or her input is not valued, then he or she is being used as a “mere means”. This adds a dimensionality to the relationship with the operator. It goes both ways, from the manager to the operator and the operator to the manager. The operator in turn should not view the job as a mere paycheck.

From a Kantian perspective, Respect for People means to ensure that everybody is capable of being valuable. There are opportunities for development of talent, and in Kant’s words, a chance to harmonize with humanity. How does one increase the worth of an employee? You can increase their worth by developing the employee to understand the value in his work. You can increase their worth by training him to look for gaps between the ideal state and the current state. By understanding this gap, you can further develop him to take countermeasures and corrective actions to move closer to the ideal state. Ideally, the employee would now be able to train the employees underneath him. The employee is now at a stage to be making decisions and implementing improvements on his own. In other words, he is empowered.

Final Words:

Kant was ahead of his time with his thinking. Kant spent his entire life in his hometown (Königsberg, the then capital of Prussia), and is said to have never set his foot outside a 100 mile radius from his house. Most of his famous works came later in his life. He famously said that David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, woke him up from his dogmatic slumber.  As I was reading upon Kant as part of my personal journey through philosophy, I came upon his Categorical Imperative and it struck me how much the second formulation aligned itself well with the Respect of Humanity theme of the Toyota Way.

There are many play-on-words with Kant’s name. One of my favorite memes is below:


I will finish with an anecdote about Kant.

Kant was a firm believer in rules. He had set a rule for himself to not smoke more than one pipe a day. Smoking was Kant’s time to think and reflect. As time went on, Kant wanted to spend more time smoking. However, he did not want to break his own rule. His way out was to get a larger pipe. It is said that as time went on, the size of the bowls of his pipes grew in size considerably.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Process Validation and the Problem of Induction:

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Toyota-Way-Sales-Marketing/dp/1926537084/ref=sr_1_1_twi_pap_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1494183905&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Toyota+Way+in+Sales+and+Marketing

[2] https://harishsnotebook.wordpress.com/?s=respect+for+people

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Groundwork-Metaphysics-Morals-Immanuel-Kant/dp/0300094868

If a Lion Could Talk:


In today’s post, I am continuing with the theme of being inspired by philosophy. This post is inspired by the famous Austrian/British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [1]. In his posthumously published book “Philosophical Investigations” [2], Wittgenstein wrote;

If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.

One of the interpretations of this statement is that a lion has a totally different worldview than us, thus his values would be entirely different. Even though, we may have a common language, the intentions and interpretations would be completely different. A lion does not share a common frame of reference with us. The mutual understanding also depends upon whether we are interested in actively listening. Another aspect to think about is the non-verbal communication. The majority of human communication is non-verbal so simply talking does not convey the entire meaning. The meaning of a word depends upon the use of it within the context of a shared understanding.

When I was pondering about this, I started wondering whether we would understand if our process or gemba is “talking” to us. In some regards, they do talk to us through the visual controls we have in place. The visual controls lets us know how the process is going – but do we understand it?

The purpose of a visual control is to immediately make any abnormality, waste, or deviation visible so that we can immediately take action. Notice that I used “immediately” twice. This is how we should understand it. This sets the tone for how gemba talks to us. There are several ways that we fail to understand what the gemba is saying to us. A great resource for Visual controls is a collection of articles compiled from NKS Factory Management Journal, available in the form of the book “Visual Control Systems.” [3] Some of the ways Visual Controls can fail are;

1) A failure to understand what the visual controls are for:

One of the examples given of inadequate implementation of visual controls is to treat visual controls as a mere extension of 5S. The purpose of visual controls is, as noted above, to make abnormalities immediately visible. Additionally, action must be taken to address the problem.

2) Low problem consciousness among the employees:

If the employee is failing to make the abnormality visible, or if the supervisor / group leader or management is failing to take action immediately, the purpose of visual controls is being defeated. This leads to “business-as-usual” thinking.

3) Inadequate Visual Control Tools:

If there is no daily production board used, then any metric tracked is going to lead only to a delayed response. No timely action that can be taken. In a similar note, if the daily production board is located in a place that is not easy to see, the operators will not use it because of the inconvenience.

4) Lack of established standards for the visual controls:

In order to have the visual controls operate successfully, the establishment and dissemination of the rules of the visual controls must be performed. Everybody should know how to understand the visual control – what is the norm, what is good versus bad, signs something is abnormal etc.

I will finish off with a great Zen story that relates to the lack of understanding.

Provided he makes and wins an argument about Buddhism with those who live there, any wandering monk can remain in a Zen temple. If he is defeated, he has to move on. In a temple in the northern part of Japan two brother monks were dwelling together. The elder one was learned, but the younger one was stupid and had but one eye. A wandering monk came and asked for lodging, properly challenging them to a debate about the sublime teaching. The elder brother, tired that day from much studying, told the younger one to take his place. “Go and request the dialogue in silence,” he cautioned.

So the young monk and the stranger went to the shrine and sat down. Shortly afterwards the traveler rose and went in to the elder brother and said: “Your young brother is a wonderful fellow. He defeated me.”
“Relate the dialogue to me,” said the elder one.
“Well,” explained the traveler, “first I held up one finger, representing Buddha, the enlightened one. So he held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teaching. I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teaching, and his followers, living the harmonious life. Then he shook his clenched fist in my face, indicating that all three come from one realization. Thus he won and so I have no right to remain here.” With this, the traveler left.

“Where is that fellow?” asked the younger one, running in to his elder brother.
“I understand you won the debate.”
“Won nothing. I’m going to beat him up.”
“Tell me the subject of the debate,” asked the elder one.
“Why, the minute he saw me he held up one finger, insulting me by insinuating that I have only one eye. Since he was a stranger I thought I would be polite to him, so I held up two fingers, congratulating him that he has two eyes. Then the impolite wretch held up three fingers, suggesting that between us we only have three eyes. So I got mad and got ready to punch him, but he ran out and that ended it!”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Ehipassiko – Come and See:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Wittgenstein

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Philosophical-Investigations-Ludwig-Wittgenstein/dp/1405159286

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Control-Systems-Innovations-Advanced-Companie/dp/1563271435

[4] Lion drawing by Audrey Jose