The Best Attribute to Have at the Gemba:

blindmen and elephant

Recently, I was playing around with the question – what is the best attribute to have at the gemba? At first, I thought that perhaps it could be creativity. I soon realized that this is like Superman, a superhero with all of the answers. This does not align with the idea of the people system or the thinking production system – generating ideas bottom-up. Then I thought, perhaps the best attribute to have at the gemba is the ability to listen. I felt that I was on the right track with this thought. I soon came to the realization that the best attribute to have at the gemba is “Anekantvada”.  Anekantvada is a Sanskrit word that translates as “many + ends + -ness” or “many sidedness”. This idea comes from one of the ancient religions from India called Jainism. Jainism is also famous for its other contribution – Ahimsa or non-violence. We can view anekantvada as cognitive ahimsa – in other words, not being violent or hostile to others’ ideas. The main idea of anekantvada is that Reality lies outside of your mind. What you have inside your mind is your perspective or your own version of a narrative regarding the reality outside. Thus, your perspective is a poorly translated and limited copy of the reality outside and your understanding of the reality is incomplete. Anekantvada requires you to look at multiple perspectives from other people to truly understand reality, as one perspective alone is incomplete. All knowledge is contextual. We cannot separate the object and the viewer, when we are creating knowledge about something. This means that if there is more than one viewer, the knowledge created will be different.

The story of the blind men and the elephant is a very common story that explains the different perspectives of reality. The story originated with Jainism to explain anekantvada. In the Jain version of the story, there were six blind men who came to “see” the elephant, and each person felt one part of the elephant and described the elephant from his perspective. Each perspective was different because each person felt a different part of the elephant. One person felt the ear and said that the elephant was like a fan, while another felt the tail and said that the elephant was like a rope. The king happened to be there at that time, and listened to the blind men fighting on who was correct. The king told them that while each of them was partially correct, when taken one perspective at a time the truth was incomplete.

From the Jain philosophy, reality and thus the truth itself is complex and always has multiple aspects. Even if you can experience reality, you cannot express the reality completely. The best we can do is like one of the blind men – give our version, a partial expression of truth. In Jain philosophy, this idea can be explained by “Syadvada”. The root word “Syad” can be translated as “perhaps”. Using this approach, we can express anekantavada by adding “perhaps” in front of our expression of reality. An example would be to say – “perhaps the dress is blue and black”.


The two quotations below add more depth to what we have discussed so far:

“To deny the coexistence of the mutually conflicting viewpoints about a thing would mean to deny the true nature of reality.” – Acharang Sutra

“The water from Ocean contained in a pot can neither be called an ocean or a non-ocean, but simply a part of the ocean. Similarly, a doctrine, though arising from absolute truth can neither be called a whole truth or a non-truth.” – Tattvarthaslokavartikka.

The idea of anekantvada requires you to respect others’ ideas. It also makes you realize that your version of reality is incomplete. Thus, when you are at the gemba telling others what to do, you are not open to others’ viewpoints. You are going with your version of the story –  it should be easy to do this, the way I tell you. Anekantvada brings a new layer of meaning to Respect for People, one of the two pillars of the Toyota Way. Take the example of Standard Work – Do you create it in vacuum and ask the operators to follow it? When there is a problem on the floor, do you figure out what happened and then require the operators to follow your one “true” way?

All knowledge, judgment and decisions we make depends upon the context of the reality, and it may make sense only when viewed in that context. Why did the operator omit step 2 of the work instructions that led to all of these rejects? This reminds me of the principle of Local Rationality, an idea that I got from Sidney Dekker [1]. Local Rationality refers to the idea that people do what make the most sense to them, at any given time. This decision may have led to some disaster, but the operator(s) did what made sense to them at that time. When you look at things this way, you start to view it from the operator’s standpoint, and finally may be able to understand what happened from a different perspective.

I will finish with a story about context:

Two students came to study under the master. They were both fond of smoking. The first day itself, the first student went to the teacher and asked whether he could smoke when he was meditating. The teacher told him that he could not do that.

Feeling sad, the first student went outside to meditate under the tree. There he saw the second student under a tree smoking. The first student asked him, “Why are you smoking? Don’t you know that our teacher does not like it when you smoke and meditate?”

The second student responded that he had asked the teacher and the teacher said that he could smoke.

The first student was confused and asked the second student, what exactly did he ask the teacher.

The second student said, “I asked him if I can meditate when I smoke.”

The first student replied, “That makes sense. I asked him if I can smoke when I meditated.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Socratic Method:



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.




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:


Practicing Lean, a review:


Today I am writing a review on the book “Practicing Lean”, edited by Mark Graban( Mark kindly gave me an early preview of this book. This book is a collection of personal experiences of sixteen authors on practicing lean. The first two chapters by Mark detail what it means to practice lean. This was quite enlightening. As Mark points out, people talk about lean thinking, doing lean, implementing lean etc., but all of these phrases miss the point. Lean thinking does not contain any action; doing lean does not contain any thinking, implementing lean could mean that there is end in sight. Practicing lean means that it is something that is done to improve oneself. There is no end and there is both action and thinking.

The personal experiences in the book make it an easy read. They are all something you can easily relate to. It is also humbling to learn from the “failures” and “successes”. From a philosophical standpoint, this is about epistemology – how each of the authors came to attain their knowledge about lean. Their personal journeys make the book quite enjoyable to read. Some of these authors were familiar to me from LinkedIn and from the Gemba Academy podcasts. This is quite a diverse group of authors.

The sixteen authors are;

Mark Graban, Author of the books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, blogger at
Nick Ruhmann, Director of Operational Excellence for Aon National Flood Services, Inc.
Michael Lombard, Chief Executive Officer of Cornerstone Critical Care Specialty Hospital of Southwest Louisiana
Paul Akers, President of FastCap, author of 2-Second Lean and Lean Health
Jamie Parker, 15 years’ experience in operations management / leadership in retail, service, and manufacturing
Harry Kenworthy, Expert in Lean government after a long career in manufacturing
Bob Rush, Lean Manufacturing Group Leader for Tesla Motors
Samuel Selay, Continuous Improvement Manager for the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton
David Haigh, David works at Johnson & Johnson Canada, the largest consumer healthcare company in Canada
Joe Swartz, Administrative Director, Business Transformation, Franciscan Alliance, co-author of Healthcare Kaizen
Cameron Stark, Physician and Lean improvement leader in Scotland
Harvey Leach, Principal Consultant with The Consultancy Company based near Oxford, England
Andy Sheppard, Author, The Incredible Transformation of Gregory Todd: a Novel about Leadership and Managing Change
Mike Leigh, President and Founder of OpX Solutions, LLC and former Lean leader at General Electric
Jamie Flinchbaugh, Lean advisor, speaker, and author, who has advised over 300 companies on their Lean journey
Lesa Nichols, Founder, Lesa Nichols Consulting and former Toyota leader

One of quotes attributed to Napoleon Hill is;

“One of the most valuable things any person can learn is the art of using the knowledge and experience of others.”

This quote captures the essence of the book.

Practicing Lean is available here. All the proceeds from this book go to the non-profit Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation.

This book has made such an impression on me that I have bought my own copy. Thank you Mark for being the force behind this book!


Three Reminders for 2017:


As 2017 is unfolding, I wanted to write a post to remind myself of three pieces of advices for this year. They are from Epictetus (55-135 AD), Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD) and George Pólya (1887-1985). Epictetus and Aurelius are two famous Stoic philosophers of the past, and Pólya is a famous Hungarian mathematician.

1) Epictetus:

Epictetus spent his youth as a slave which laid the backdrop for his stoicism. His original name is unknown. The name “Epictetus” in Greek means “acquired”. Epictetus himself has not written any books, however his follower, Arrian, wrote down his teachings. One of the most famous quotes attributed to him is;

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

Epictetus’ famous work, The Enchiridion (Translated by Elizabeth Carter), starts off as;

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

In the same book, Epictetus continues;

“With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it.”

My thoughts:

The above quotes gel together to form an important lesson. Not all of my ventures are going to be successful this year. There may be several setbacks. However, all setbacks are experiences to learn from. They provide lessons that I can only learn from the school of life. They increase my knowledge and prepare me for the next harder setback. My triumphs are built on the setbacks I faced before. The setbacks provide an opportunity for reflection. To loosely paraphrase a lesson from Information Theory, failures have more information content. They provide a reason to challenge our hypothesis. Successes do not necessarily challenge us to take a second look at our hypothesis. We thus learn more from failures. The point is to not look for failures, but to keep an open mind. This is a great lesson to remember as a new year starts.

2) Marcus Aurelius:

Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, was a Roman Emperor. His famous work is “Meditations”.  My lesson from this book, translated by Maxwell Staniforth, is as follows;

“Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours.”

My Thoughts:

Far too often, we let the past dictate our present actions. Either we stay complacent and stay in our comfort zones by relying on our past victories; or we let our past failures control our actions and we remain in the comfort zone. Both these thought processes keep ourselves from taking risks or venturing outside our comfort zone. The past is past and the future is not yet here; what we truly have is the present moment. This Zen-like teaching is an important lesson for this year. We can only change the present moment by taking the right action. Of course, not all of our actions will lead to tremendous successes. This is covered under the first lesson above.

3) George Pólya:

George Pólya was born in Hungary and later came to America and taught at Stanford University.  One of the famous quotes attributed to him is;

“If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it.”

This quote was written by the famous Mathematician John H Conway in the Foreword to a 2004 printing of Polya’s book “How to Solve It”.

My Thoughts:

“How to Solve It” is a gem of a book written in 1945 by Pólya. The above quote attributed to Pólya is a great lesson when we are trying to solve a problem and we get stuck. Pólya offers two different plans of action. One is to find a similar but easier problem to solve. He says;

If you cannot solve the proposed problem do not let this failure afflict you too much but try to find consolation with some easier success, try to solve first some related problem; then you may find courage to attack your original problem again. Do not forget that human superiority consists in going around an obstacle that cannot be overcome directly, in devising some suitable auxiliary problem when the original one appears insoluble.

The second plan of action he offers is called as the Inventor’s Paradox. Loosely put; to prove what you want, try proving more than what you want so that you get the flow of information to work properly. George says that “the more ambitious plan may have more chances of success”. This idea is quite paradoxical. He advises that going to a more general problem is going to create more questions that may be easier to answer than just one question. This approach may lend us a new view at the problem that will help us solve the more general problem along with the original problem.

The two plans lead us to step back from the current problem and look at the problem from a different light. Pólya points to us the importance of “some vision of things beyond those immediately present”.

Final words:

The three lessons above have a common theme – obstacles. We can be certain that this year will come with obstacles; it is up to us to decide how to treat them. I wish all of you a great year, one that will make you a better person.

I will finish off with a great lesson in Zen from the great Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In his book, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, Suzuki Roshi talks about the story of four horses. He recalls the story from Samyuktagama Sutra. It is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent horses, good horses, poor horses and bad horses. The best horse will run as his master wishes before it sees the shadow of the whip. It can run fast and slow, right and left and always at the master’s will. The second best horse runs as well as the best horse and he does that just before the whip reaches its skin. The third best will run when it feels the pain on its body. Finally the fourth one will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!

Almost all of us want to be the best horse. If that is not possible we want to be the second best horse, and so on. However, in Zen this is the wrong approach. When you are determined to practice zazen (a form of sitting meditation), it is valuable to be the worst one. In your imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Suzuki Roshi continues that those who can sit perfectly physically usually takes the most amount of time to obtain the true way of Zen. But those who find great difficulties will find more meaning in it and thus obtain the actual feeling of Zen – the marrow of Zen. Thus the “worst one” may be the best student.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Clause for Santa – A Look at Bounded Rationality.

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.

Qualities of a Lean Leader:


In today’s post I will look at the qualities of a lean leader. I have been using the term “lean leader” in my posts. This is not an official title, and this does not mean “supervisor” or “manager”. A lean leader is someone who takes initiative in improving one’s process and in developing those around them.

I have wondered which qualities a lean leader needs. I believe that the best source for this is Michael J Gelb’s 1998 book, “How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci.”Michael researched Leonardo’s life and identified seven attributes to help one think like Leonardo Da Vinci. Michael listed them as Italian words to pay homage to the master. These are as follows;

  • Curiosità – An insatiable quest for knowledge and continuous improvement
  • Dimostrazione – Learning from experience
  • Sensazione – Sharpening the senses
  • Sfumato – Managing ambiguity and change
  • Arte/Scienza – Whole-brain thinking
  • Corporalità – Body-mind fitness
  • Connessione – Systems thinking

1) Curiosita:


Being curious is an essential attribute a lean leader should have. Being curious forces you to ask questions. Asking questions allows the other party to be involved. This leads to continuous improvement and discoveries. Michael defined this as “an insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.”

2) Dimostrazione:

Soichiro Honda

This can be described as a willingness to fail in  order to learn from mistakes. Michael described this as “a commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.”The example I have here is of Soichiro Honda. Soichiro did not have any formal education, and he went on to build Honda Motor Co.

3) Sensazione:


Taiichi Ohno would be proud of this attribute. Michael described this as “the continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.” As the lean learners know, Ohno was famous for his “Ohno circle”. Ohno used to teach supervisors, managers and engineers alike to learn to observe the wastes by making them stand inside a hand drawn chalk circle. They had to stay inside there until they start seeing the wastes like Ohno did.

4) Sfumato:

less is more
Sfumato refers to the style of painting Leonardo used. Sfumato is the technique of allowing tones and colors to shade gradually into one another, producing softened outlines or hazy forms. Michael described this as “a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.” Toyota Production System has many paradoxes and counter-intuitive principles. Most of this is because of the trial and error methods that Ohno utilized. All of the manufacturing norms were challenged and broken.

5) Arte/Scienza:


This attribute represents the synergy between art and science; logic and intuition. The classic TV show Star Trek played around this theme since the two main characters Spock and Kirk represented logic and intuition respectively. A lean leader needs both logic and intuition in order to develop oneself. Michael described this as “the development of balance between science and art, logic and imagination”.

6) Corporalità:


In the Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi talked about fluidity. “Really skilful people never get out of time, and are always deliberate, and never appear busy.”To me, this is the essence of Corporalita. Michael described this as “the cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise.” The quality of Corporalita is achieved only through constant practice as one strives towards their ideal state.

7) Connessione:


Dr. Deming and Eliyahu Glodratt would be proud to see this attribute on the list. This attribute is about “systems thinking”. Michael described this as “a recognition and appreciation for the interconnections of all things and phenomena.” A lean leader should be able to see everything from a big picture as well as a small picture view points. My favorite meme about Systems Thinking is the Never Miss A Leg Day meme. Local optimization of the just exercising the upper body leads to poor system optimization (muscular upper body and disproportionate skinny legs).

Leonardo, the Writer:

Leonardo da Vinci was also a writer. In his notebooks, he wrote numerous “jests” and fables. I will finish this post with a jest and a fable from the great mind of Leonardo Da Vinci:

A Jest:

It was asked of a painter why, since he made such beautiful figures, his children were so ugly; to which the painter replied that he made his pictures by day, and his children by night.

 The Tree & the Pole, A Fable:

 A tree which grew luxuriantly, lifting to heaven its plume of green leaves, objected to the presence of a straight, dry old pole beside it.

“Pole, you are too close to me. Can you not move further away?”

The pole pretended not to hear and made no reply.

Then the tree turned to the thorn hedge surrounding it.

“Hedge, can you not go somewhere else? You irritate me.”

The hedge pretended not to hear, and made no reply.

“Beautiful tree,” said a lizard, raising his wise little head to look up at the tree, “do you not see that the pole is holding you up straight? Do you not realize that the hedge is protecting you from bad company?

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Dorothy’s Red Shoes and Toyota.

What is my purpose?


Peter Drucker declared in his 1954 book “The Practice of Management” that the purpose of a business is to create a customer. In today’s post I will talk about purpose, specifically what do I think my purpose is at work? There is of course the utilitarian answer about my purpose at work – to fulfill my job duties/responsibilities. However, fulfilling the job duties/responsibilities does not always complete my purpose.

The purpose is to create/increase value in anything I do:

Peter Drucker in the book “The Practice of Management” talks about understanding customers. He notes that the manufacturer of gas kitchen stoves should not consider himself to be in competition with only other gas kitchen stove manufacturers. The customer is not just buying a stove. The customer is looking for the easiest way to cook food. There are many forms of stoves/utensils available to the customer that are in direct competition. There are several different ways to cook food including microwave ovens, cooking ranges, grills, etc. Ignoring them will result in loss of business. This example may be outdated. However, the core idea is applicable here. If you are simply fulfilling just your basic job duties/responsibilities, you are like the gas stove manufacturer. You will not grow and develop yourself if you just stick to your defined duties/responsibilities and you will eventually get passed by.

Your purpose is to create/increase value in anything you do. From a Toyotayesque philosophy, this is similar to the Continuous Improvement attitude. You are always trying to improve what you are doing. You are expanding your boundaries and you have a responsibility to develop yourself. One of the two pillars for the Toyota Philosophy identified in the Toyota Way 2001 is “Continuous Improvement”. The first key concept for “Continuous Improvement” is the “Spirit of Challenge”. In Jeffrey Liker’s “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership”, Liker talks about the Spirit of Challenge as follows;

“Like the two founding Toyoda family members, every Toyota leader is expected not just to excel in his current role but to take on the challenges to achieve a bold vision with energy and enthusiasm.”


The two Toyoda family members are Sakichi Toyoda and Kiichiro Toyoda. I have referenced them in my last two posts. It is likely that Liker meant every Toyota employee when he said Toyota leader. This type of thinking is instilled from an organization standpoint. To quote Peter Drucker again;

“Most people need to feel that they are here for a purpose, and unless an organization can connect to this need to leave something behind that makes this a better world, or at least a different one, it won’t be successful over time.”

Toyota has a core concept of True North. True North is your ideal state. You can never truly achieve this. However, it is your responsibility to strive moving towards your True North.

Final Words and a story on purpose:

I am a firm believer of taking responsibility and authority to do the right thing, and to develop yourself. One must always try to increase/add value in what they do. Increasing value in what you do ultimately increases your value. This is the Spirit of Challenge. This is your inner purpose.

I will finish off with an anecdote, I heard from the Indian author Shiv Khera (in his words).

16 years ago in Singapore I gave a taxi driver a business card to take me to a particular address. At the last point he circled round the building. His meter read 11$ but he took only 10.

I said Henry, your meter reads 11$ how come you are taking only 10.

He said Sir, I am a taxi driver, I am supposed to be bringing you straight to the destination. Since I did not know the last spot, I had to circle around the building. Had I brought you straight here, the meter would have read 10$. Why should you be paying for my ignorance?

He said Sir, legally, I can claim 11$ but ethically I am entitled to only 10. He further added that Singapore is a tourist destination and many people come here for three or four days. After clearing the immigrations and customs, the first experience is always with the taxi driver and if that is not good, the balance three to four days are not pleasant either. He said Sir I am not a taxi driver, I am the Ambassador of Singapore without a diplomatic passport.

In my opinion he probably did not go to school beyond the 8th grade, but to me he was a professional. To me his behavior reflected pride in performance and character. That day I learnt that one needs more than professional qualification to be a professional.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Toyota Production System House – Just-in-Time (JIT) and Jidoka (Part 2).

Wizard of Oz, Camel’s Nose and Being a Change Agent:


In my last post, I talked about learning from Dr. Seuss’ quotes. In his “Greens Eggs and Ham” book, one of the characters(Sam) tries to persuade the other character to eat green eggs and ham. “Try it, try it, you may like it”, Sam says.

Aldean Jakeman commented on this post and stated that the “Green Eggs and Ham” book was her first change management book. This got me thinking about the “Wizard of Oz” story, and the story of the camel’s nose.

Learning from the Wizard of Oz:

There are four main characters in “Wizard of Oz”, written by Frank Baum. These four characters represent a quality characteristic that every change agent needs:

  • Dorothy – the main protagonist of the story. She was swept into the wonderful fantasy land of Oz by a cyclone. All she wants is to go back home to Kansas.
  • Scarecrow – the first friend Dorothy makes on her journey home.
  • Tin Woodman – a character who originally was a real human, but now is completely made of tin. Tin Woodman is the second friend that Dorothy makes.
  • Cowardly Lion – the third and final member of Dorothy’s team.

True North (Home):

“True North” is a strong concept in Toyota Production System (TPS). True North depicts our ideal state. True North is what we are striving towards. We are trying to reach True North. In a TPS/Lean way, Dorothy represents the characteristic of True North, our ideal state. All she wants is to go home (True North). A change agent should form his/her team, like Dorothy did, to reach their goal (true north).


The scarecrow represents the quality of “the heart”. A change agent should have his/her heart in the game. This allows you to think from the other person’s viewpoint. Having the heart characteristic makes you realize that this is a win-win, non-zero sum game. The heart represents empathy and compassion, without which you cannot gain the buy-in from your team. You should be open for suggestions and ideas for improvements. Toyota has identified “Respect for Humanity” as one of the two pillars of Toyota Way.


Tin Woodman represents “the brain” characteristic. A change agent should never stop learning. You should be smart enough to try things out and learn from your mistakes. You should also be smart enough to realize that you need to train and develop more change agents. A change agent should know how to approach when he/she is trying to implement a change. Here, Brain represents both knowledge and wisdom. A wise change agent will request his/her team to try things out at first. The “for trial only” approach eases them into the actual implementation.


Cowardly Lion represents “courage”. A change agent should be brave enough to look back at himself/herself with a critical eye and challenge assumptions. A change agent should be open about the problems, and transparent in communication. At Toyota, they talk about the importance of “Hansei”. “Hansei”, a Japanese term, loosely translated means “self reflection”. This can act as a strong and effective feedback loop that will steer you back on course towards True North. Having courage also means that you are capable of saying “No”. Ultimately, a change agent should be brave enough to stand up for what he/she thinks is right. Winston Churchill, the former UK prime minister, said the following about courage:

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Final Words:

I will finish off with an Arabian story that goes by the name “The Camel’s Nose”. The story has created the phrase “camel’s nose” in English language that is a metaphor for allowing a larger change in the pretense of small incremental changes. This phrase has a negative connotation since the change represents something that is not desirable. Here, I will be presenting it as a tactic for a change agent to encourage their team to implement the change. This story is about a wise camel, and the importance of implementing a change little by little at a time.

It was an unusually cold night in the desert. The camel was outside, tied to the tent. The master was inside the tent, comfortable and getting ready to sleep.

“Master,” the camel said putting his nose under the flap, “it is so cold outside. Can I at least put my nose inside the tent?”

“Sure,” the kind master replied, and rolled over.

A little later, the master rolled over and found that the camel had his whole head inside the tent.

“Master, it feels so nice here. Can I please put my front legs inside the tent too?”, the camel asked.

“Okay, you may”, the master said moving a little toward the edge since the tent was small.

The master again rolled over trying to sleep. A little while later, the camel again said “Master, Master, can I come inside the tent all the way? I will stand inside. It is very cold outside.”

“Yes,” the master said unwittingly. The master went back to sleep.

The next time the master woke up, he found himself outside the tent and cold.

I am not suggesting here that the change agents should be the camel kicking out the master. I am presenting the story to show the importance of taking things a small step at a time.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Learning from Dr. Seuss.

Learning From Dr. Seuss:


Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), the renowned children’s book author, was born on this date (March 2nd) in 1904. Interestingly, he used “Dr.” in his pen name since his parents really wanted him to be a doctor. In today’s post, I will look at eight great quotes from him to learn from.

I immigrated to America from India. I did not know Dr. Seuss until I met my wife here in America. I grew up with Enid Blyton, the English author. I very much enjoyed reading the Dr. Seuss books with my kids because of his unique writing style. As I was introducing my three children to his books, I was also learning from Dr. Seuss at the same time.

Here are eight lessons from Dr. Seuss:

  • From there to here, and here to there, funny things are everywhere.(Source – One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish)

As Lean practitioners, we can translate this as “from there to here, and here to there, wastes are everywhere”! The funny things are the different wastes! Everything we do has waste in it. Taiichi Ohno is a big proponent of eliminating waste. He made managers stand inside a circle and look for wastes. Wastes forces us to be non-value adding, and increases overall cost.

  • Why fit in when you were born to stand out? (Source – Unknown)

If you try to copy the best, you will only come in second. Trying to copy Toyota does not make sense unless you have the same problems as Toyota. You should try to create your own system – Company XYZ Production System rather than a frail copy of Toyota Production System. Understand your problems and then address them, creating your own production system.

  • Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple. (Source – Looking Tall by Standing Next to Short People)

This is a true gem. The insurmountable problems become ant hills once they are solved. This is akin to Occam’s razor in some sense. Occam’s razor can be loosely stated as “the simplest answers provide the best explanations”. We have a tendency to complicate things. As an Engineer, I can vouch for this. At Toyota, they talk about using automation as the last resort to improve a process. They push for simple solutions.

  • You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.” (Source – “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!)

You have brains in your head – you need to use them. You have feet in your shoes – you need to go to the Gemba. This is a perfect summation of Genchi Genbutsu – going to the Gemba to learn the actual facts. You have to go to the source, where the action takes place and see for yourself.

  • You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.(Source – I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!)

You have to keep your eyes open but you have to observe. Seeing and observing are two different things. When you keep your eyes open, you start to see things. When you see more things, you start to observe things. When you observe things more, you start to understand things more.

  • “It is better to know how to learn than to know. (Source – Unknown)

It’s not the tools system, it is the thinking system. To know and to understand are two different things. To know something makes you rigid in your thinking. To understand something makes you flexible in your thinking.

  • How did it get so late so soon?(Source – Poem by Dr. Seuss)

There is no better time than now to start improving and to start learning. Do not wait for the best idea to happen. Do not wait for the new and improved machine. Do not wait for next month. Now is indeed the right time. As Hillel the Elder said, “If not now, when?”

  • Try them, try them, and you may! Try them and you may, I say.(Source – Green Eggs and Ham)

This is the best way to implement process improvement activities. You can say “try them, try them, you may like them”. All you need them to do is to try the idea out. Once tried, they will provide ideas to improve and make them better. The lesson here is that you should not try to force your ideas, rather ask them to try it out. After all, what is the harm in trying it out? Brian Fitzpatrick, and Ben Collins-Sussman recommends saying “let’s try this for 30 days. If this does not work, we will go back to the way it was.” This approach helps in getting buy-in. Almost always, they will start using the new method. If they do not, at least you will get feedback as to why the new method does not work.

Thank you Dr. Seuss for everything you have done.

Happy Birthday!

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Be an Amateur at the Gemba.