The Colors of Waste:

dr who

Doctor Who, a British TV show started in 1963, is the longest running Science Fiction show today and I am a big fan. There is a cool gadget in the Whovian Universe called the “Perception Filter”. This is a gadget that renders something unnoticeable. It does not make it invisible like the “Invisible Cloak” in Harry Potter’s world. It just alters your perception so that you do not pay attention to it. As one of the characters said in the show;

“I know it is there but I do not want to know it is there.”

This is a brilliant concept and I love how it applies to Lean as well. You can eliminate waste only when you start to see waste. Ohno categorized waste in to seven buckets and this makes it easier for us to “see” waste. When mass production was the norm and inventory was considered to be an ideal thing to have, Ohno was able to “see” it for what it truly was – a waste. It was almost as if there was a perception filter around the waste that nobody wanted to truly see it for what it really was.

The first step of people development in TPS is to train them to see waste. Ohno famously did this through his “Ohno Circle” – a hand drawn chalk circle on the factory floor in which the supervisor or manager was made to stay in until he started to see the waste that Ohno was seeing. This act of observation was breaking down the “perception filters” so that the waste was made visible. Once the waste is seen, the second step of people development is to put countermeasures in place while completely eliminating the waste by fixing the root cause.

Homer’s Wine Dark Sea:

There is a great Radiolab podcast called “Colors”. This podcast asked the question – To what extent is color a physical thing in the physical world, and to what extent is it created in our minds? The podcast talked about William Gladstone, a famous British politician (1809-1898) who later became Prime Minister. Gladstone was the first to notice that in the famous Greek author Homer’s works, there were many discrepancies regarding colors. Homer described the color of sea as “wine-dark”, honey as “green”, and sheep as “violet”. Gladstone came to the conclusion that the Greeks were color blind! Perhaps a better explanation would be that there was only a limited vocabulary when it came to colors in the ancient world. They had to explain multiple colors using the same words. The interesting question is whether or not having a specific word for a color acts as a “perception filter” – you know it is there but you do not want to see it.

Jules Davidoff, a researcher, went to Namibia to study the Himba tribe on their abilities to perceive different colors. A similar study was part of the 2011 BBC documentary called “Do you see what I see?” Himba tribe does not have a separate word for “blue”. Their “blue” is part of the word for the color “green”. The Himba tribe took a long time to distinguish between a quite striking blue square from other green squares. This is because they did not have a word for that specific color of blue. They could not perceive it immediately as being different from the other green squares.


In another experiment, the Himba people were asked to distinguish between very similar shades of green, and they were able to quickly point out the odd color square because they had a separate word to distinguish that characteristic of shade. This task would be very difficult for others because all of the squares were “light green”. Thus our brains would not be able to immediately perceive the different square. Try this test for yourself. Can you pick the odd color out?


The right answer is below.


Final Words:

It may not be necessary that we have a word for each waste. We should also make effort to understand it. This can only be done by going to the Gemba, and observing. We become more perceptive to the different wastes only through the regular practice of observation at the Gemba.

I will finish off with a Zen story attributed to David Foster Wallace.

“..There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What in the world is water?”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Naikan and Respect for People.

Information at the Gemba:


Uncertainty is all around us. A lean leader’s main purpose is to develop people to tackle uncertainty. There are two ways to tackle uncertainty; one is Genchi Genbutsu (go and see) and the other is the scientific method of PDCA. Claude Shannon, the father of Information Theory, viewed information as the possible reduction in uncertainty in a system. In other words, larger uncertainty presents a larger potential for new information. This can be easily shown as the following equation;

New Information gain = Reduction in Uncertainty

Shannon called the uncertainty as entropy based on the advice from his friend John Von Neumann, a mathematical genius and polymath. The entropy in information theory is not exactly the same as the entropy in Thermodynamics. They are similar in that entropy is a measure of a system’s degree of disorganization. In this regard, information can be viewed as a measure of a system’s degree of organization. Shannon recalled his conversation with Von Neumann as below;

“My greatest concern was what to call it. I thought of calling it ‘information’, but the word was overly used, so I decided to call it ‘uncertainty’. When I discussed it with John von Neumann, he had a better idea. Von Neumann told me, ‘You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, nobody knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.”

I loved the encouragement from Von Neumann that Shannon would have an advantage in a debate since “nobody knows what entropy really is”.

In this post, I am not going into the mathematics of Information Theory. In fact I am not even going to discuss Information Theory but the philosophical lessons from it. From a philosophical standpoint, Information Theory presents a different perspective on problems and failures at the gemba. When you are planning an experiment, and things go well and the results confirm your hypothesis, you do not learn any new information. However, when the results do not match your hypothesis, there is new information available for you. Thus, failures or similar challenges are opportunities to have new information about your process.

There are seven lessons that I have and they are as follows;

  • Information Gain ≠ Knowledge Gain:

One of the important aspects from the view of the information available at the Gemba is that information does not translate to knowledge. Information is objective in nature and consists of facts. This information gets translated to knowledge when we apply our available mental models to it. This means that there is potentially a severe loss based on the receiver. A good analogy is Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson at the crime scene – they are both looking at the same information available, but Holmes is able to deduce more.

  • Be Open:

When you assume full knowledge about a process, you are unwilling to gain knowledge from any new information available. You should be open to possibilities in order to welcome new information and thus a chance to learn something new. Sometimes by being open to others viewpoints, you can learn new things. They may have a lot more experience and more opportunities for information than you may have.

  • Go to the Gemba:

The majority of times, the source of information is the gemba. When you do not go to the source, the information you get will not be as pure as it was. The information you get has been contaminated with the subjective perspectives of the informer. You should go to the gemba as often as you can. The process is giving out information at all times.

  • Exercise Your Observation Skills:

As I mentioned above in the Holmes and Watson analogy, what you can gain from the information presented depends on your ability to identify information. There is a lot of noise in the information you might get and you have to weed out the noise and look at the core information available. One of my favorite definitions of information is by the famous Cerbernetician Gregory Bateson. He defined information as “the difference that makes the difference.” The ability to make the difference from the information given depends mostly on your skill set. Go to the Gemba more often and sharpen your observation skills. Ask “For what Purpose” and “what is the cause” more often.

  • Go Outside Your Comfort Zone:

One of the lessons in lean that does not get a lot of attention is – “go outside your comfort zone”. This is the essence of Challenge in the Continuous Improvement Pillar of the Toyota Way. When you stay inside your comfort zone, you are not willing to gather new information. You get stuck in your ways and trust your degrading mental model rather than challenging and nourishing your mental model so that you are able to develop yourself. Failure is a good thing when you understand that it represents new information that can help you with understanding uncertainties in your process. You will not want to try new things unless you go outside your comfort zone.

  • Experiment Frequently:

You learn more by exposing yourself to more chances of gaining new information. And you do this by experimenting more often. The scientific process is not a single loop of PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act). It is an iterative process, and you need to experiment frequently and learn from the feedback.

  • Challenge Your Own Perspective:

The Achilles’ heel for a lean leader is his confirmation bias. He may go to the gemba more often, and he may experiment frequently. Unless he challenges his own perspective, his actions may not be fruitful. My favorite question to challenge my perspective is “What is the evidence I need to invalidate my viewpoint right now, and does the information I have hint at it?” Similar questions ensure that the interpretation of the information you are getting is less tainted.

I will finish off with a funny story I heard about Sherlock Holmes and Watson;

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson decide to go on a camping trip. All the way to the campsite, Holmes was giving observation lessons to Dr. Watson and challenging him. After dinner and a bottle of wine, they lay down for the night, and go to sleep.

Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend.

“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

Watson replied, “I see millions of stars.”

“What does that tell you?” Holmes asked.

Watson pondered for a minute.

“Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets.”
“Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo.”
“Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three.”
“Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant.”
“Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow.”
“What does it tell you, Holmes?” Watson asked.

Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke: “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Pursuit of Quality – A Lesser Known Lesson from Ohno.

Eight Lessons from Programming – At the Gemba:

At the gemba - coding

In today’s post, I will be writing about the eight lessons I learned from Programming. I enjoy programming, and developing customer centric programs. I have not pursued a formal education in programming, although I did learn FORTRAN and BASIC as part of my Engineering curriculum. Whatever I have learned, I learned with an attitude of “let’s wing it and see”.

  • Be Very Dissatisfied with Repetitive Activities:

Our everyday life is riddled with repetition. This is the operative model of a business. Design a product, and then make them again and again. This repetitive way of doing things can be sometimes very inefficient. The programmer should have a keen eye to recognize the repetitive non-value adding activities that can be easily automated. If you have to generate a report every week, let’s automate it so that it is generated every week with minimal effort from you.

  • There is Always a Better Way of Doing Things:

Along the same lines as the first lesson, you must realize that there is always a better way of doing things. The best is not here yet, nor will it ever be. This is the spirit of kaizen. Even when a process has been automated, there is still big room left for improvement. The biggest room certainly is the room for improvement.

  • Never Forget Making Models:

When a Lean Practitioner is looking at a system, creating a model is the first step. This model could be a mental model, a mathematical model or even a small scale physical model. This model can even be a basic flowchart. This is part of the Plan phase of PDCA. How do the components work with each other? How does the system interact with the environment? What happens when step A is followed by Step B? A good programmer should understand the system first before proceeding with creating programs. A good programmer is also a good Systems Thinker.

  • Keep Memory in Mind:

A good programmer knows that using up a lot of memory and not freeing up memory can cause the program to hang and sometimes crash. Memory Management is an important lesson. This is very much akin to the concept of Muri in Lean. Overburdening the resources has an adverse impact on productivity and quality, and it is not a sustainable model in the long run.

  • Walk in Their Shoes:

A good programmer should look at the program from the end user’s viewpoint. Put yourself in their shoes, and see if your program is easy to use or not. Programmers are sometimes very focused on adding as many features as possible, when the end user is requiring only a few features. There is some similarity with the use of lean or six sigma tools at the Gemba. If it is not easy to use, the end users will try to find a way around it. This brings us to the next lesson.

  • Listen to the Gemba:

One of the lessons I learned early in my career is that I am not the owner of the program I write. The person using the program is the owner. If I do not listen to the end user then my program is not going to be used. I do not make the program for me; I make it for the end user. Less can be more and more can be less. The probability of a program being successful is inversely proportional to the distance of gemba from the source of program creation.

  • Documentation:

I wrote at the beginning that I learned programming from a “winging it” attitude. However, I soon learned the importance of documentation. A good programmer relies on good documentation. The documentation should explain the logic of the program, the flow of the program, how it will be tested and qualified, how the program changes will be documented and how the bugs will be tracked. The simplest tool for documentation can be a checklist. My favorite view on using checklists is – not using a checklist for a project is like shopping without a shopping list. You buy several things that are not needed, and do not buy the things that you actually need.

  • Keep a Bugs List – Learn from Mistakes:

Bugs to a programmer are like problems on a factory floor to a lean practitioner- it depends on how you view them. For a lean practitioner, problems are like gold mine. They are all opportunities to improve. In this same line of thinking, bugs are also a programmer’s friends. You learn the most from making mistakes. No program is 100% bug free. Each bug is unique and provides a great lesson. The goal is to learn from them so that you do not repeat them.

Another important lesson is – ensure that fixing a problem does not cause new problems. A programmer is prone to the law of unintended consequences. Any change to a program should be tested from a system standpoint.

Final Words:

I will finish off with my favorite anecdote about programming:

When Apple introduced the IPod, they were very proud of its “shuffle” feature. There is no accurate way of truly randomizing songs. However, there are several algorithms that can generate a pretty good random order. Apple utilized such an algorithm. It was so good that the users started complaining because sometimes the same song was repeated, or the same artist was played repeatedly. That is not how random should be – the end users argued. Steve Jobs then asked his programmers to change the algorithm so that it is less random.

The Digital Music Service company, Spotify faced the same problem. As they explained on their blog;

“If you just heard a song from a particular artist, that doesn’t mean that the next song will be more likely from a different artist in a perfectly random order. However, the old saying says that the user is always right, so we decided to look into ways of changing our shuffling algorithm so that the users are happier. We learned that they don’t like perfect randomness.”

The perception of random for the end user meant that the songs are equally spaced from one another based on how similar they are. The end user did not want randomness in a theoretical sense. They wanted random from a human practical sense.

Spotify changed their algorithm in 2014. “Last year, we updated it with a new algorithm that is intended to feel more random to a human.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Be Like Coal At the Gemba.

Be Like Coal at the Gemba:

Piece of coal isolated on white

One of the lessons I learned as a child from my mother was about being like coal and not like paper. Her point was that coal may not be fast to catch fire, but once lit the coal will retain heat for a long time. Paper on the other hand, catches fire quickly and burns out. The lesson was about persistence and not jumping on the band wagon only to lose interest quickly – about making decisions with level headed thinking for the long term.

Coal is also good at filtering water (information). When you are asking or looking for information, you get information along with opinions. You should be able to filter out the opinions and be able to find the information to make good decisions.

Observe, Gather Data, Gain Consensus and Then Act for the Long Term:

Toyota is famous for observing, gathering data from the gemba, and getting consensus before acting. This is the type of thinking that Toyota enriches in its culture. All decisions are based on long term thinking, and this goal does not lend itself to quick decisions or acting on fads. This is the essence of being like coal – slow to get hot but stays hot for a long time.

Filter Information – Don’t Jump to Conclusions:

Any information that is out there is information coated with opinions. Coal (activated charcoal) is used for purifying water. Using this analogy, you should train yourself to discern fact from opinions. Lean Thinking encourages coming up with hypotheses and running experiments to validate your thinking. The act of filtering data to “purify” or distill information is akin to the ability of coal to purify data. This requires constant reminding and practice from your part.

Final Words:

I will finish this post with the three filter story about Socrates. Source – Unknown

In ancient Greece, Socrates was reputed to hold knowledge in high esteem. One day an acquaintance met the great philosopher and said, “Do you know what I just heard about your friend?”

“Hold on a minute,” Socrates replied. “Before you talk to me about my friend, it might be a good idea to take a moment and filter what you’re going to say. That’s why I call it the triple filter test. The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”

“Well, no,” the man said, “actually I just heard about it and…”

“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now, let’s try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my friend something good?”

“Umm, no, on the contrary…”

“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about my friend, but you’re not certain it’s true. You may still pass the test though, because there’s one filter left—the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my friend going to be useful to me?”

“No, not really.”

“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither true, nor good, nor even useful, why tell it to me at all?”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Dharma, Karma and Quality.

Ohno and the Gemba Walk:


Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, was a firm believer in “Gemba Kanri” which translates from Japanese as “workplace management”. Taiichi Ohno and Setsuo Mito wrote a conversation-style book called “Why Not Do It Just-In-Time”. This was translated and released in English as “Just-In-Time For Today and Tomorrow”. Taiichi Ohno talked about the essence of gemba walks in the book. He did not call them gemba walks but he used what was well known at that time; Managing by Walking Around (MBWA) to explain his thoughts on gemba walks.

Gemba Walk:

Gemba is the actual place of action. Gemba Walk is thus a walk to and in the gemba. Ohno clearly explained the purpose of going to the gemba: You go to the gemba to understand and grasp the facts. Ohno said the following;

For the manager wandering around the work place, signs, charts, data and standards that accurately measure current work place conditions are indispensible.

Ohno emphasized that doing gemba walks without established standards is not worthwhile. Ohno viewed problems as deviations from the standards, and if the standards are not established, you will not know what to look for. The standards (also called as Standard Work) represent the most effective combination of human activity, equipment activity and the product being produced. The standards are visual and convey three vital pieces of information;

  • Takt time – the rhythm of production. This explains how often a part should come out.
  • Work Sequence – this shows the sequence of how operations are to be performed. The sequence is created with input from the operators, and this is the easiest and the current best sequence of steps to perform the operation.
  • Standard WIP (Work in Process) – this is the quantity of product allowed in the work station, and this also includes the part the operator is working on. Any extra parts are an indication of disruptions.

The idea of Managing by Walking Around was put forth by Tom Peters and Nancy Austin. The intent of MBWA was proposed as a “technology for implementing the obvious.” Mr. Peters and Ms. Austin proposed that MBWA would enable figuring out exactly what needs to be done. MBWA would help finding out the information that is not readily available otherwise. From this aspect, gemba walks also have the same goal – to implement the obvious. MBWA did not explain what to look for or how to find out the information where as Ohno clearly laid out the “what” and the “where”.

Ohno advises to post the standards in each production areas that everyone can see at a glance;

  • What type of work place it is,
  • What the production amount is,
  • What the sequence of operations should be.

This (posting standards) is fundamental and the model for visual control.

Ohno brilliantly described that the production plant is simultaneously a free and generous creature, and an insidious and mischievous nuisance. We should be fascinated by the challenges of discovering ways to deal with this entity. Ohno goes on to explain that for a production plant to properly operate, people should assume leadership and bring out the best in the machines and the system. To do so, people must utilize their intelligence and imagination to improve their work environment as well as investigate problems in the production plant. This is the main idea behind Ohno’s teaching for continuously improving the standards. He would scold the supervisors if the standards are not changed frequently.

The gemba walks often open doors to develop the operators. The first step of kaizen is to teach people how to identify and see waste. This is akin to teaching a person to fish rather than giving him fish every day.

Another aspect that Ohno described was something new to me- he explained that everybody has a principal work place (gemba). However, several of us also have multiple sub-workplaces (sub-gembas). He then stated another reason for doing the gemba walks;

To generate new information and trigger the imagination, a critical mind needs different environments.

My thoughts:

The Gemba Walks provides the meeting ground for top-down and bottom-up management systems. The standards make it easier for management from top-down. The employees are also enabled to make bottom-up proposals since they understand the common goal.

The main purposes of the gemba walks are to identify deviations from the standard, and to look for opportunities to change (improve) the standard.

The following are the desirable outcomes of gemba walks.

  • Self development by observing and learning
  • Developing others to observe and learn
  • Process improvement to establish the next standard
  • Harmony (bringing out the best)

The following are things to keep in mind doing gemba walks;

  • Do not immediately show them how to fix a problem
  • Do not have preconceived notions
  • Show respect, do not be an expert
  • Challenge the status quo
  • Always ask questions as “what should be the ideal state (standards) and what is the current state?” Explain problems always as deviations from the standard.

I will finish this off with a neat Ohno story from the book, “Just-In-Time For Today and Tomorrow”;

Setsuo Mito approached Ohno and asked about the origin of his name – Taiichi.

“Your father probably named you hoping that you would become a ‘patient’ child (nin T AIno)”, Mito said.

Ohno simply replied, “My father named me after his job in Dairen, where he worked with ‘firebricks’ (TAIkarenga)”.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Does Lean = the Elimination of Waste?

Don’t Be an Expert at the Gemba:


In today’s post I will be talking about being open-minded at the gemba. I heard a wise saying;

“Minds, like parachutes, only work when open.”


I am sometimes guilty assuming that I know completely about the matter at hand – that I am an expert. I would be at the gemba and instead of listening to the operator talk, I would be talking to the operator, and trying to find solutions on my own. This type of thinking results in three things;

  • I am not respecting the operator or his expertise by not being open to his suggestions. The operator is truly the expert since he has been doing this, day in and day out.
  • By rushing to solutions, I am wasting the opportunity to develop the operator. By providing the solutions, I am taking away the privilege for the operator to think and come up with solutions.
  • I may not get his buy-in for what I am planning on implementing. Things will go back to the way they were once I leave that area.

Being an “expert” makes one close minded. It puts the blinders on for the person, and prevents them from seeing the whole. There is another side effect to being an “expert”. You become very comfortable at something and will not want to steer away from your comfort zone.

I have been reading books by Bruce Lee, the famed martial artist. Apart from being a great martial artist, Bruce was also a deep thinker. He talked about the great analogy of a cup that is applicable to this post:

“The usefulness of a cup is that it is empty.”

If a cup is not empty, it is not useful. The emptier the cup, the more useful it is!

Ohno and Experts:

Taiichi Ohno used to say that experts are not good for kaizen. “They would just get in the way”, he said. Ohno’s point about this statement is that experts would not be open to going outside their comfort zones, and they would not allow others to speak or be open to their ideas. Kaizen needs for you to be outside of your comfort zones. Comfort zones are the playgrounds for status-quos. This is against the spirit of kaizen.

In Toyota, there is a great concept called “chie”. Chie stands for “wisdom of experience”. If experience equates to expertise, then chie equates to wisdom that comes from experience. Toyota views their production system as a “Thinking Production System”. Toyota’s goal is to increase chie of all their workers so that their thinking leads to improved processes and this ultimately improves Toyota altogether. This type of thinking is against “experts” on the floor. Experience may result in improved efficiency, however this does not equate to improved effectiveness.

Final Words:

This post is more a reminder for me to be open minded at the gemba, and to listen to the operator, and to encourage them to ask questions and come up with solutions. This allows for developing the operator. This also allows you to learn from the operator as well. I will finish off with a short story from Leo Tolstoy about someone who thought he was an expert:

There once were three hermits on a remote island. They were known in the region for performing miracles. They were very simple, and did not know complicated prayers. The only prayer they knew was “We are three, Thou art Thee, have mercy on us.” 

One day the local bishop came to hear about the three hermits and their prayer. He thought to himself that he should pay them a visit so that he can teach them prayers that were “more correct”.

He arrived at the island and taught them the “state of the art” prayers. The three hermits recited the prayers after the bishop. The bishop was quite pleased with himself. He bid them good bye and left. His boat was sailing away from the island. It was getting dark. The bishop looked back at the island, and saw a radiant light slowly approaching the boat from the direction of the island. To his surprise, he saw that the three hermits were holding hands and running towards the boat, over the water.

“Bishop, we have forgotten the prayers you taught us”, they said, and asked him if he would please repeat them.

The bishop shook his head in awe at the miracle he was witnessing. “Dear ones”, he replied humbly, “Please forgive me, and continue to live with your old prayer!”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Opposite of Kaizen.