Talking Trash:


In today’s post, I will be looking at how trash and waste are handled in Japan, and lessons in lean from this. There are not many public trash cans available in Japan. Yet, the cities in Japan are mostly clean. This is an interesting contrast when compared to America, where public trash cans are readily available in order to keep the streets clean.

The Lack of Trash Cans:

Japan has very limited space or land available for landfills. The main method of dealing with trash is incineration. It is estimated that about 80% of the garbage collected ends up in incinerators. In order to reduce garbage, Japanese officials in various towns and cities started implementing programs to increase recycling. This led to an interesting development. To aid recycling, the officials pushed the sorting to the source – the people. They introduced categories for sorting. Slowly the number of categories increased to double digit numbers. For example, the town of Kakimatsu in Shikoku has 44 different garbage categories. The sorting policies were strictly implemented, and those who did not comply were looked down upon. This led to public trash cans and garbage cans getting filled as part of people not wanting to sort. This may have led to the removal of several trash and garbage cans from the Japanese streets. The following is taken from the 2005 NYTimes article;

In Yokohama, after a few neighborhoods started sorting last year, some residents stopped throwing away their trash at home. Garbage bins at parks and convenience stores began filling up mysteriously with unsorted trash.

“So we stopped putting garbage bins in the parks,” said Masaki Fujihira, who oversees the promotion of trash sorting at Yokohama City’s family garbage division.

The garbage program is dealt with strictly. The peer pressure and the culture to fit in ensure that the program runs effectively. Additionally, there are “volunteers” who act as “leaders” and nudge the offenders to follow the program. It is encouraged that the trash bags are clear so that the trash is made visible. There is a cultural push to clean up after yourself and to be responsible.

Final Words:

Waste is a central theme in Lean. We are advised to eliminate waste in lean. There are many lessons that we can learn from the garbage program in Japan.

  • Everything should be based on a need- The program was put in place due to a lack of landfill space.
  • Tackle the problem at the source- The program put the responsibility at the source (the person throwing away the trash).
  • Auditing is an important aspect of any system (by your next customer or from an outside person)- For a system to sustain the auditing function is an important step.
  • Anticipate how the program can fail- the removal of public trash cans was done in response to people bringing trash from home and putting them in the public bins.
  • Any program requires people to participate in order to succeed.

As a side note, Toyota has been pursuing a zero landfill goal. As part of this, Toyota Engineering and Manufacturing of North America took away trash cans from its 1400 employees. This was described as a learning curve for the employees. The outcome of this move was that it created awareness about waste and a change in attitude.

The purging of the waste cans was a small but significant step toward Toyota’s zero-landfill goal. And Toyota has indeed achieved the goal (zero landfill is defined as diverting at least 95 percent of all waste away from landfills and into recycling or reuse).  It was one thing to reach the goal at the TEMA offices in Erlanger, where most people work at desk jobs.  Quite another to go zero landfill at its 12 manufacturing plants in North America, where they make cars, engines, auto parts and other things traditionally thought of as dirty manufacturing. Toyota has achieved that at all but two of its plants, and those  two are 97 percent of the way there. (From the article)

The other side of this is the point-of-use approach used widely elsewhere in the USA. Philadelphia is introducing a bill to require trash cans within 10 feet from the entrance of any business that sells prepared food for consumption off-premises. This is being done as a means to tackle the waste problem in the city. These seemingly two different approaches to tackle trash are interesting to say the least. The point-of-use is also an important tool used in lean to ensure that the operator has everything he needs in his reach.

I will finish off with an anecdote about Walt Disney. It is said that the average distance between two trash cans in any parks operated by Disney is 30 feet. This is based on the “study” performed by Walt Disney himself. As part of the planning he did for his parks, he ate a hot dog and he found that he took 30 steps before he was all done. He came to the conclusion that to meet the customers’ needs, he needed a trash can every 30 steps. This way the customer did not have to hold onto the trash.

Always keep on learning…

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

In case you missed it, my last post was Take Pride in Your Work – Ji Kotei Kanketsu.

The Idea of Wa in Nemawashi:


In today’s post, I will be looking at Nemawashi and the idea of “Wa”. “Nemawashi” literally means to “dig around the roots” so that you can successfully transplant a plant from one location to the other. Nemawashi is considered to be an important part of Hoshin Kanri (Policy Deployment) as a means to get group consensus. Toyota puts great emphasis on building consensus. In fact, Toyota defines “Genchi Genbutsu” as “go to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions, build consensus and achieve goals at our best speed.”

Why is building consensus such an important thing? One logical answer is that if you do not have consensus then you do not have buy-in from everybody, and your goals will not be achieved. My best understanding is that this is all about “Wa”. “Wa” can be translated from Japanese as “group harmony”. This is a very important cultural concept for the Japanese. The idea of “wa” is so important to them that the term “wa-fu” means “Japanese-Style”.

Dig Around the Roots:

The idea of nemawashi comes from the world of gardening. The gardener transplants a plant with great care. This would mean that the dirt around each root is carefully moved so that the act of transplanting does not shock the plant. This is an act of care and attention.

Nemawashi serves the most important role of not disrupting harmony in the organization. Nemawashi is a process of building consensus. The main idea of nemawashi is to get buy-in from everybody involved and this can be often done “before” the idea is formally introduced in a larger group setting. This can be done as a one-on-one casual chat over lunch or playing golf, or as an informal sub-group meeting with 2 or 3 people. These kinds of conversations are open and allows for the voices of both parties to be heard. The proposal can be polished based on the initial feedback so that when it is officially presented, it does not get rejected. A good nemawashi would have feedback from all of the key influencers before the idea is introduced in a formal group setting. A good nemawashi goes through several iterations so that each feedback, concern or hesitation, is carefully addressed. Sometimes one has to go back to the drawing board based on the strong opposition from a key-player. All of this is done before the idea is formally introduced. The “roots are loosened” through this process so that the idea (plant) can be safely transferred to be deployed. The nemawashi process can be a lengthy process since each person making the decision is given a chance to separately weigh in, and the appropriate modifications are made and consensus is again obtained.

It is interesting to note that in the Japanese culture, there are few surprises allowed in a meeting. This is against the idea of wa. The meeting is conducted to formally agree on things that are already informally agreed upon, and to report/share statuses. The key players in the meeting are already made aware of all the important matters in advance of the meeting. This clearly shows the respect for wa. In contrast, in the western world, the meeting is a means for people to talk about things and sometimes debate. This approach in the Japanese world would make everybody uncomfortable since they are debating in the open and the harmony is disrupted. All the discussion and debate is done offline in a much smaller group setting. This way nobody has to publically concede or compromise.

One of the systems used to document the nemawashi process is the Ringi system that uses an A3 size document. This document clearly states the purpose of the project, the current state, the ideal state, the proposed countermeasures, the cost information etc. All of this is contained in the A3 size paper. This is not the same as the A3 thinking in Lean. The Ringi system is simply a proposal approval system.  This is also referred to as Ringi-sho system.

Final Words:

My purpose for today’s post was to give some background on the concept of nemawashi and to explain the philosophical and cultural importance of nemawashi in Japan. The concept of nemawashi is strongly rooted in the concept of wa – group harmony. I will finish this post with an interesting anecdote (in his words) from Don George at National Geographic that further explains the idea of wa.

In my lecture I’d recounted one experience I had at the very beginning of the trip after checking into our hotel in Kyoto. I was in the lobby elevator, headed for my room on the ninth floor, when two beautiful kimono-clad Japanese women entered and pressed the button for the fifth floor. As the elevator rose, we exchanged pleasantries in Japanese. When it stopped on their floor and the door opened, they both bowed to me and one said, “O saki ni, shitsurei shimasu”—essentially, “Excuse me for leaving the elevator before you.”

My unspoken reaction at the time had been, “Well, since your room is on the fifth floor and mine is on the ninth, you really don’t need to apologize for getting out before me.” But of course, that was beside the point. We were sharing the experience of being in the elevator together, and they were breaking that happy harmony by departing before I did. And so in consideration of that, it was only proper to apologize.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Goal of Lean.