In today’s post, I am looking at the Ohno Circle in light of Heidegger’s ideas. I will try to stay away from the neologisms used by Heidegger and will only scratch the surface of his deep insights. One of the best explanations of Ohno Circle comes from one of Ohno’s students, Teruyuki Minoura, the past President and CEO of Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America, Inc. He had a first-hand experience of it. Minoura noted:
Mr. Ohno often would draw a circle on the floor in the middle of a bottleneck area, and he would make us stand in that circle all day long and watch the process. He wanted us to watch and ask “why?” over and over.
You may have heard about the five “why’s” in TPS. Mr. Ohno felt that if we stood in that circle, watching and asking “why?”, better ideas would come to us. He realized that new thoughts and new technologies do not come out of the blue, they come from a true understanding of the process.
In my case, I thought it was strange when he asked me to go into the circle. But what could I say? I was a freshman and he was the big boss and a member of the board of directors! So, I went into the circle and began to watch the process. During the first hour, I began to understand the process. After two hours, I began to see the problems. After the third and fourth hours, I was starting to ask “why?” Finally, I found the root cause and started to think about countermeasures.
With the countermeasures in place, I reported back to Mr. Ohno what I had observed and the problems I saw and the countermeasures I put in place as well as the reasons for the countermeasures. Mr. Ohno would just say, “Is that so?” and nothing more. He never gave us answers. Most of the time he wouldn’t even tell us if what we did was good or bad. Now I realize what Mr. Ohno was trying to do. He was trying to make us think deeply — and think for ourselves.
I truly appreciate Minoura’s explanation. There are certain aspects of this that resonated with me. First, standing in the circle is not a quick activity. Minoura noted it as an “all day long” activity. The intent is not to simply identify wastes but to gain a maximally possible understanding of the process. Minoura described it almost in phases:
- During the first hour, I began to understand the process.
- After two hours, I began to see the problems.
- After the third and fourth hours, I was starting to ask “why?”
From Heideggerian viewpoint, every “thing” is in relation to another “thing”. There is a realm of totality, and the meaning of an object comes from this interrelationship. We use a hammer in order to nail a wood which is used in order to build a cabinet, which is used in order to… so and so on. Heidegger pushed back on the subject-object distinction that was put forth by Rene Descartes. Much of science is based on this distinction of pretending to be able to separate the subject, the scientist, from an object, the “thing” at hand. In all actuality, we engage with things without the realization that we are engaging with them. When we drive a car, we cannot possibly pay attention to every little action we take. We go with the flow. There is a Zen like aspect to this in that we do not say that we are pushing the pedal down on the gas or that we are rotating the steering wheel to go left. We simply do the needed action by being part of the flow that has emerged around us. We do this by being a part of the environment around us. This includes other drivers in their cars, the objects lying on the road, the animals that may try to cross the road etc. This activity is not about being careless when we are driving. Instead, we are engaging in an embodied activity where the car is part of our extended body, and we are immersed in our environment.
From this standpoint, when we are on the floor, we should not try to “look” for waste without understanding how we are immersed in the gemba. We are not going there to fix issues. Our role is to understand how things are in relation to each other on the floor. We are not rushing in to find problems. We are standing there to understand how the operator is interacting with the artifacts available to them. How are the materials coming in and out of the assembly station? How is the operator engaging with the artifacts and the materials? Are they stopping and looking at their equipment every step of the way? Is the equipment flowing with the operator as an extension? Coming back to the driving example, if we have to search for the gas or brake pedal every time, we will not be driving in a safe manner. Just like knowing where the appropriate pedal is without looking and knowing how much to press on it, the operator should be able to engage with the equipment or the artifact. The equipment or the artifact should not just be present there, but they should be available for them ready to use.
One of the deep insights that Heidegger had was that we do not really understand something until that “something” breaks down and the need of the relationship is exposed. When we are engaging with it fully, we do not always know where the breaking points are. We understand the limitations only when that “something” starts to behave in a fashion that makes its presence conspicuous to us. If the equipment is working well, we do not really notice it. We start to notice things when things are not working the way they should be. To take this thought further with the Ohno circle, if we do not understand how the process should be working, we cannot even get to the numerous possibilities that are present to make the process work even better. When we care about the operator, the process, the product etc., we start to realize the many possibilities of running the operation. In some of these possibilities, the operations may be more ergonomic to the operator, or the product quality may be improved further. We cannot even begin to get to these possibilities unless we are able to understand how things work together. These possibilities will then make us realize where they are not working together. In other words, unless we deeply understand the current state, we should not even fathom to think of an ideal state. This requires us to go back to the gemba as often as possible and as many times as possible, to understand the variations of material, operators etc. Perhaps we can interview the operator, or try and build the part ourselves on the floor. The more we are engaged in, the better we get at improving our understanding.
I will finish with a great Ohno story from Minoura that explains this further:
I want to relay one of Mr. Ohno’s stories here. This is a lesson from a Kaizen attempt on kanban collection. Let me explain the background of this story. Many of you know that Toyota uses what we call Kanban cards to keep track of parts and components. Most of them are small pieces of paper which contain all the information related to a particular part. When a worker begins to use a part from a box, he or she takes the kanban out and puts it in a kanban collection post. The conveyance group comes around to pick them up and take it to the kanban room for processing. They normally drive a tow motor. In order to pick up kanbans they have to stop the tow motor, get off, pick up the kanbans, then get back on the tow motor and head for the next collection area.
Now, as you know, TPS (Toyota Production System) despises waste. Stopping the tow motor, getting off and getting back on the vehicle is a waste of the team member’s time and motion. So, one group went ahead and figured out a Kaizen for kanban collection. The Kaizen was to eliminate the wasted motion and time by making it possible for the kanban collector to gather kanban cards without getting down from the vehicle. They proudly presented this Kaizen to Mr. Ohno.
To their surprise, Mr. Ohno got real angry when he heard the presentation. The group couldn’t understand why he was not pleased, because their Kaizen had eliminated the number one sin in the Toyota Production System: waste. So Mr. Ohno explained: He told them that if they were to implement this Kaizen, the tow motor drivers would be on the vehicle all the time. They would be twisting the accelerator grip for a couple of hours straight. That is not good for the driver’s wrist. Also, Mr. Ohno pointed out that getting off the vehicle and walking a few steps and getting back on provided exercise of different muscles that were not used by driving the tow motor. That would be beneficial for the kanban collector’s well-being.
Mr. Ohno was looking at a bigger picture. He placed the ergonomic well-being of the worker before the short-term goal of efficiency. This happened almost 30 years ago. It was many years before the concept of ergonomics became a household word.
Stay safe and always keep on learning… In case you missed it, my last post was Representations of Reality in Constructivism: