Learning to See:

Rembrant van Rijn - The Mill (Detailed) - 1648

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

To look is one thing.

To see what you look at is another.

To understand what you see is a third.

To learn from what you understand is still something else:

To act on what you learn is all that matters.

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

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

In chapter 2, Mittler continues;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always keep on learning…

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

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

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

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

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

Popper’s Circle:


I have been reading a lot these days about Western Philosophy. The most recent book that I have been reading is from one of the great Philosophers of the twentieth century, Karl Popper – All Life is Problem Solving. This is a collection of Popper’s writings. One of the great teachings from Popper is the concept of “falsification”, which means that as a scientist one should always try to disprove his theory rather than trying to confirm it. A classic example is the case of black swans (not Nicholas Taleb’s black swan) – if one were to say that all swans are white based on the empirical evidence of his observations of only white swans, he is looking to only confirm his theory. He is not actively trying to disprove his theory. When a black swan is discovered, his theory now breaks down. Loosely put, falsification should lead to attempts to disprove or challenge one’s theory. The more survival of attempts to falsify the theory, the more “reliable” the theory becomes. An extreme example is if I claim that I have the psychic ability to have my coin turn heads on all tosses. I can toss a thousand times and show one thousand heads. However, if I refuse to look at both sides of the coins to see if it is a two-headed coin, I am not looking to reject my claim. I am only looking for evidence that supports my claim.

My post today is not about falsification, but about Karl Popper’s advice on observation. Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, was said to have drawn a chalk circle on the factory floor and asked a supervisor or manager to stand inside the circle and observe an operation on the floor. The task he had was to find as much waste as possible by observing the operation. This has come to be termed as “Ohno’s circle” in the Lean world.

When I came across a section in the book, All Life is Problem Solving, where Popper also talked about observation as part of his three step scientific methodology, I was very interested. His three step model is as follows;

  1. Problem
  2. Attempted solutions
  3. Elimination

In Popper’s words, the first step, “problem” arises when some kind of disturbance takes place – a disturbance either of innate expectations or of expectations that have been discovered or learnt through trial and error. The second stage in our model consists of “attempted solutions” – that is, attempts to solve the problem. The third stage in our model is the “elimination” of unsuccessful solutions.

Popper had strong words about observation;

The old theory of science taught, and still teaches, that the starting point for science is our sense perception or sensory observation. This sounds at first thoroughly reasonable and persuasive, but it is fundamentally wrong. One can easily show this by stating the thesis: without a problem, no observation. If I asked you: ‘Please, observe!’, then linguistic usage would require you to answer by asking me: ‘Yes, but what? What am I supposed to observe?’ In other words, you ask me to set you a problem that can be solved through your observation; and if I do not give you a problem but only an object, that is already something but it is by no means enough. For instance, if I say to you: ‘Please look at your watch’, you will still not know what I actually want to have observed. But things are different once I set you the most trivial problem. Perhaps you will not be interested in the problem, but at least you will know what you are supposed to find out through your perception or observation.

The standards on the production floor are an important aspect for observation. They tell us what the sequence of operations is, what the takt time is, and what the standard work-in-process should be. Another important aspect to look out for is muri or overburden. If an operator is doing an operation where he is required to lift heavy loads or if he has to reach out to grab something, then it is an opportunity to improve the work. Popper’s advice brings into mind that when we are out on floor and observing, we need to know what we should be looking for.

I will finish off with another great twentieth century philosopher Bertrand Russell’s somber Turkey story, that I have paraphrased;

There was once a turkey that lived on a farm, and the turkey was scientifically oriented. He observed that the farmer gives him food everyday at 7:00 AM. Since he was a smart turkey, he knew that he needed to take a lot of data points. He is observations were made on cloudy days, rainy days, sunny days, weekdays, weekends and all kind of days. Months go by, and by now the turkey feels that he has enough data now and feels confident that tomorrow the farmer is going to feed him at 7:00 AM. However, the next day was Christmas Eve and the turkey was not fed but instead had his throat cut.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Effectiveness of Automation:



The Forth Bridge Principle:


The Forth Bridge is a famous railroad bridge in Scotland and is over 125 years old. It needs painting to fend off rust. Albert Cherns, the late famous social scientist who founded the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, identified the Forth Bridge principle as part of the nine principles for designing a sociotechnical system. He also referred to this as “the principle of Incompletion”.

The main idea is that the Forth Bridge was never fully freshly painted – it was always incomplete. The posse of painters started at the Midlothian end, and by the time they reached the Fife end, the Midlothian end would require repainting. In Cherns’ words;s;

Design is a reiterative process. The closure of options opens new ones. At the end, we are back at the beginning.

As soon as design is implemented, its consequences indicate the need for redesign.

This concept is further elaborated in the book, “Knowledge Management in the SocioTechnical World” edited by Coakes, Willis et al;

Cherns emphasizes that all periods of stability are in effect only temporary periods of transition between one state and another.

Cherns identified the nine principles in his 1976 paper “The Principles of Sociotechnical Design”. I will discuss this list further in a future post. He called all organizations as sociotechnical systems and called for joint optimization of the technical and social aspects. The systems are dynamic and always changing. Cherns also stated that there is no such thing as a final design of the system. The system has to be continuously changed to cope with the impact of changes in the environment the system is in and the impact of changes within the system. This is the idea behind the Forth Bridge principle.

The Forth Bridge principle reminds me of the concept of kaizen and standards in the Toyota Production System. The concept of kaizen is about never being satisfied with the status quo, and improving the process. The concept of standards is about having a high definition of all activities. Dr. Steven Spear in his HBR article with H. Kent Bowen “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System talked about the first rule as – All activities are highly specified in terms of content, sequence, timing and outcome. The standard consists of three elements. They are;

  • Takt time
  • Work sequence
  • Standard Inventory

Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System talked about the relationship of Kaizen and Standards as;

“Without standards, there can be no kaizen”.

The problem with standards is that it can create a need to maintain the status-quo. This is against the principle of kaizen. Cherns wrote about the “stability myth” in 1987;

“The stability myth is reassuring but dangerous if it leaves us unprepared to review and revise.”

It is important that we realize the concept of the Forth Bridge principle and appreciate it. The system design is never finished, and we have to keep on improving it. The system is always incomplete and it is our duty to keep on making things better – make the standard, review the standard, make it better, and repeat. This is a Zen-like lesson.

I will finish this post with a story about the never ending quest.

After years of relentless training, a martial arts student has finally reached a pinnacle of achievement in the discipline. He knelt before his sensei in a ceremony to receive the highly coveted black belt.

“Before granting the belt, you must pass one more test,” the sensei solemnly tells the young man.

“I’m ready,” responds the student, expecting perhaps one more round of sparring.

“You must answer the essential question: What is the true meaning of the Black Belt?”

“Why, the end of my journey,” says the student. “A well-deserved reward for my hard work.”

The master waits for more. Clearly, he is not satisfied. The sensei finally speaks: “You are not ready for the Black Belt. Return in one year.”

As the student kneels before his master a year later, he is again asked the question, “What is the true meaning of the Black Belt?”

“It is a symbol of distinction and the highest achievement in our art,” the young man responds. Again the master waits for more. Still unsatisfied, he says once more: “You are not ready for the Black Belt. Return in one year.”

A year later the student kneels before his sensei and hears the question, “What is the true meaning of the Black Belt?”

This time he answers, “The Black Belt represents not the end, but the beginning, the start of a never-ending journey of discipline, work and the pursuit of an ever higher standard.”

“Yes,” says the master. “You are now ready to receive the Black Belt and begin your work.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Sideroxylon Grandiflorum and the Unintended Consequences Phenomenon.

The Value of Silence:


Today’s post is an introspective post for me. I will be looking at “silence”, its cultural implications in Japan, its use as a form of self-improvement and some stories about silence in the Toyota Production System. I was in a meeting recently, and during my self-reflection time at night, I observed that I did not learn or try to understand the perspective in the meeting. I was not listening because I was trying to prove my knowledge to the other side. I was not being silent or listening. Perhaps, I am a harsh critic of myself. But I have made up my mind that I will be practicing silence more.

One of my favorite sayings about silence is;

Knowledge speaks and wisdom listens.”

This is sometimes attributed to the great musician Jimi Hendrix. However, there is no proof that he did say this. There is a similar quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes;

“It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.”

I am an avid fan of Japanese Culture and interestingly, silence is an important facet in Japanese culture. It is said that it is tough to negotiate with Japanese businessmen since they employ long periods of silence that others are not used to. In the West, silence is generally unbearable. It is viewed as a break in communication. In Japanese culture, silence is viewed as a communicative act. Silence can be effectively utilized in negotiations since it can make the other side nervous. In the Japanese culture, however, silence has several positive attributes which includes being respectful and polite, and avoiding confrontation.

I am looking at silence in four regards as a practice of self-improvement;

  • Respect for others:

Stephen Covey said “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” He identified this as the fifth habit of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In Zen, there is a great lesson that you are given two ears and one mouth, and that their use must be in the same ratio – listen two times more than you speak.

  • Self Reflection:

Engaging in silence is a pre-requisite for self-reflection. This allows the mental fog to clear out and the mind to organize better. Think of silence as an act of clearing up space in your mind to allow deep-felt thoughts to come in.

  • Teaching:

Being silent sometimes prompts the other side to keep on talking and perhaps encourage them to come out of their comfort zone. This can have the effect of being a good sounding board for their ideas. This is similar to the Socratic teaching method of asking questions. But in this case, remaining silent allows the other side to focus on their thoughts more and find the solutions to the problems at hand.

  • Effectively Communicating:

This may seem counterintuitive, but engaging in silence can improve your communication. In Japanese calligraphy, the empty space is as important as the written words. This empty space is quite similar to the “negative space” in design. It is the valleys that point our attention at the hills. The same is applicable for the use of effective silence in communication.

Silence in the Toyota Literature:

There are two instances I have seen where “silence” jumped out at me. The first one was in Masaaki Sato’s “Toyota Leaders”, where Sato talked about the ex-President and Chairman of Toyota. Eiji was a person who employed silence in his communication; he considered each question seriously and provided responses after much thought. EIji is hailed by Forbes as the creator of the Modern Version of Toyota. EIji was also a strong supporter of Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, and his “out of the ordinary” methods.

The second instance is from the book “Just-In-Time For Today and Tomorrow”, co-authored by Taiichi Ohno. In the book, Ohno talked about how the other employees were against his methods that would later become the Toyota Production System. All the hate and resentment were absorbed by his two managers, Eiji Toyoda and Saito Naichi. They both allowed Ohno to continue with his methods and to find ways of reducing manufacturing costs. Ohno referred to their relationship as a silent relationship of mutual trust. They both did not question Ohno and in turn Ohno did not ask for their approvals.

“I knew all too well how they worried about me and what I was doing. Yet they never said “Do This!” or “Do that!” For my part, I never had to say “I’d like to do this” or “Please let me do that.”I just did everything I thought had to be done. Had I asked permission, my resolve would have weakened because of the pressure to prove what I was doing. Had either side said anything, the relationship would have collapsed.”

Final Words:

This post was written as a reminder to myself to use silence more. I will finish with a great Zen story on silence;

There once was a monastery that was very strict. Following a vow of silence, no one was allowed to speak at all. But there was one exception to this rule. Every ten years, the monks were permitted to speak just two words. After spending his first ten years at the monastery, one monk went to the head monk. “It has been ten years,” said the head monk. “What are the two words you would like to speak?”

“Bed… hard…” said the monk.

“I see,” replied the head monk.

Ten years later, the monk returned to the head monk’s office. “It has been ten more years,” said the head monk. “What are the two words you would like to speak?”

“Food… stinks…” said the monk.

“I see,” replied the head monk.

Yet another ten years passed and the monk once again met with the head monk who asked, “What are your two words now, after these ten years?”

“I… quit!” said the monk.

“Well, I can see why,” replied the head monk. “All you ever do is complain.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Spirit of Mottainai in Lean.

Own Your Lean Journey:


One of my favorite quotes by Taiichi Ohno came when he was scolding a supervisor for not coming up with his own ideas to solve the problem at hand. The supervisor was trying to do just as he was told. Ohno remarked;

“You are a fool if you do just as I say. You are a greater fool if you don’t do as I say. You should think for yourself and come up with better ideas than mine.”

If we are to heed Ohno’s words, he is asking us to “own” our lean journey and avoid copying Toyota because Toyota’s solutions are specific to Toyota’s problems. If we do not have Toyota’s problems, their solutions might not work. Even Toyota has evolved and adapted to continue being the leader of the automotive world.

In a similar vein Ohno said the following;

“Defend your own castle by yourself!” (Source: Tom Harada)

Ohno wants us to take charge and be in control of our own destiny. These are strong words for a Lean Leader. Ohno’s teachings and sayings are very similar to several of the Zen koans – not everything is straightforward, and they have rich and deep meaning. Ohno’s quotes remind me of a quote from Buddha;

“Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts. Don’t rely on logic alone, nor speculation. Don’t infer or be deceived by appearances. Find out for yourself what is true and virtuous.”

Buddha’s words add a deeper understanding to what Ohno said.

Final Words:

The essence of Ohno’s advice is about understanding our problem at hand and going outside our comfort zone. Being inside our comfort zone means that we are not venturing out on our own, we are copying what we have heard or seen. By understanding the problem at hand, we can propose countermeasures, experiment with ideas and break the mental models holding us back.

I will finish this off with a story about Buddha;

Buddha was teaching his disciples one morning.

A man came up to him and asked Buddha. “Does God exist?”

“He does,” Buddha responded.

About noon time, another man came to Buddha and asked, “Does God exist?”

“No, he does not,” Buddha replied.

Later that day, a third man came to Buddha and asked the same question, “Does God exist?”

“That is for you to decide,” was Buddha’s answer.

After the man left, Buddha’s disciples started questioning him. “Master, why did you give  such varying answers to the same question?”

Buddha smiled and replied, “Because they are all different people, and each one of them will reach God by his own path. The first man will believe what I say. The second will do everything he can to prove me wrong. The third will only believe in what he is allowed to choose for himself.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Aim for System Optimization with Kaizen.

Aim for System Optimization with Kaizen:


Kaizen is often translated as “Continuous Improvement” in Japanese and is identified as one of the core themes in lean. In today’s post I am looking at the question – can kaizen ever be bad for an organization?

In order to go deeper on this question, first we have to define kaizen as a focused improvement activity. The question at this point is whether we are optimizing the process. Merriam-Webster defines Optimization as;

Optimization – an act, process, or methodology of making something (as a design, system, or decision) as fully perfect, functional, or effective as possible.

In my opinion, kaizen does not mean to optimize the process to 100% perfection. My point of contention on this is that kaizen should not be about local optimization. Local optimization means to optimize a process so that it is fully optimized without taking the whole system into consideration. This leads to tremendous waste. The local improvement should not cause a problem to an upstream or downstream activity. My best analogy is to work out the upper body without taking the lower body into consideration. This leads to a disproportionately developed body. In a similar vein, Prof. Emiliani views kaizen as a non-zero-sum activity – “everybody wins’!

Let’s look at an example. As part of a kaizen event at a hospital, the intake staff was able to make the client intake process very efficient. They were able to show that their improvement activities resulted in a much shorter time for client intake and they were able to get more clients in through the door. However, this caused more problems at the downstream processes. The staff at these processes were not able to serve the higher number of clients adequately which resulted in higher customer dissatisfaction and staff burn-outs.

Kaizen is a gradual and small incremental change towards the ideal state. The key point here is “ideal state”. How would you define “ideal state”? The “ideal state” means the ideal situation for the organization as a whole. Taiichi Ohno, the creator of Toyota Production System, said that “No standard = no kaizen.” The standard defines the process at its current goal and has three elements;

  1. Takt time – the defined rate of production to meet customer demand
  2. Sequence of work – the defined sequence of work to ensure safety, quality and efficiency
  3. Standard Work in Process – the defined inventory required to ensure that the takt time goal is met

Toyota’s goal is to improve overall efficiency and not local efficiency. This defines the goal of kaizen. Break the current state and create the new standard – while keeping the overall efficiency in mind. Ohno’s favorite way to challenge the current standard is by asking to use fewer operators to achieve the same required output.

Management’s Role:

What is Management’s role in all of this? Management has to lay the framework for everything to function properly. Dr. Deming, the pioneer of continuous improvement activities, says the following;

It is management’s job to direct the efforts of all components toward the aim of the system. The first step is clarification: everyone in the organization must understand the aim of the system, and how to direct his efforts toward it. Everyone must understand the danger and loss to whole organization from a team that seeks to become a selfish, independent, profit center.

Source: The New Economics, Dr. Deming.

Final Words:

It is important to view the improvement activities from a big picture standpoint. Viewing kaizen from a system standpoint is essential. I have always been curious about how the small incremental improvement activities would make a big difference in the end.  I will finish this post talking about the 800 year old Bronze statue of St. Peter holding the keys to Heaven in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

St Peter

It looks like St. Peter is wearing shoes on his right foot and sandals on the left foot. Over eight centuries, pilgrims have been touching his right foot that is more accessible (it sticks out more) and asking for blessings. No one has been rubbing on the foot or sanding it down.  There has been no complaint of vandalism or apparent damage to the statue. The simple act of touching and kissing over time worn the bronze statue down – that St. Peter lost all his toes on his right foot. It is said that the Church started requesting visitors to start touching the left foot more. It appears that the left foot has got a lot of catching up to do.


Always keep on learning…

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

In case you missed it, my last post was Seneca’s “On Shortness of Life”.

Seneca’s “On Shortness of Life”:

Time- Life is Long

Lucius Seneca (4 BC- AD 65) was a Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman. He was Emperor Nero’s tutor and unfortunately was forced by the emperor to take his own life. One of Seneca’s famous works is “On Shortness of Life”, a collection of letters and essays he wrote. Seneca’s ideas and thoughts on time gel very well with the concepts in Toyota Production System, and are still appropriate today.

There are two concepts that stuck out to me in reading the collection “On Shortness of Life”, and these both have the underlying theme of “personal time”. The first concept is about learning the value of personal time. Seneca said;

  • I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself — as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap — in fact, almost without any value.
  • Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing… We have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.

Along the same vein, the second concept is about productivity and improving productivity by spending your time wisely. People often complain about “not having enough time”. Seneca said;

  • It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.
  • Life is long if you know how to use it.

The Value of Time in the Toyota Production System:

One of the core themes in the Toyota Production System is time – respecting other’s time and reducing the time spent in getting the product in to the customer’s hands from the factory floor. In a similar vein to Seneca’s view on the value of time, Eiiji Toyoda, a strong supporter of Taiichi Ohno, said;

  • A person’s life is an accumulation of time – just one hour is equivalent to a person’s life. Employees provide their precious hours of life to the company, so we have to use it effectively; otherwise, we are wasting their life.

This is a strong statement as Michel pointed out in his post, and it exemplifies the idea of Respect for People. Respect for People is about respecting the person’s time – not allowing him to squander it away on non-value adding activities. Wasting others’ time is a cruel activity.

Taiichi Ohno has said the following about productivity;

Measure your performance based on productivity and not by how busy you are.

Ohno’s first challenge to anybody on the floor was to find a way to get the job done with fewer operators. I should point out that Ohno never wanted to get rid of the operators. His view was that every operation or process is full of waste and this leads to operators being engaged in non-value adding activities. Being busy and getting things done are not always the same.

Similar to Seneca, Ohno pushed the supervisors and operators to use their time well and find ways to eliminate waste. It was not about working longer or bringing in more people to get the job done. It was about eliminating the waste in the operation – thus increasing the value of the operation. Toyota challenged every employee to view their production system as the Thinking Production System. This challenges people to spend their time wisely and not squander it. It is about knowing how to wisely use time in your life.

These two ideas align very well with the two pillars of the Toyota Way;

  1. Respect for People – value other’s time
  2. Continuous Improvement – learning how to use time wisely

Final Words:

I will finish off with an Ohno story that clearly shows an appreciation for others’ time (source: Pascal Dennis);

Taiichi Ohno was visiting a supplier’s plant in the early 1950’s. He spent his time observing the operators on the floor. He observed one particular operator on a machine. The operator stood in front of the machine, watching it. Ohno observed him for a few cycles of the machine.

He then asked the operator, “How often does this machine break down?”

“Never”, the operator replied.

“So what do you do all day”, Ohno continued.

“Well, I watch this machine, Ohno-san”, was the response.

“So you watch this machine all day, and it never breaks down?”

“Yes”, the operator responded, “that is my job.”

“What a terrible waste of humanity”, Ohno exclaimed to himself.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Colors of Waste.

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.

The Pursuit of Quality – A Lesser Known Lesson from Ohno:


In today’s post, I will be looking at a lesser known lesson from Taiichi Ohno regarding the pursuit of Quality.

“The pursuit of quantity cultivates waste while the pursuit of quality yields value.”

Ohno was talking about using andons and the importance of resisting mass production thinking. Andon means “lantern” in Japanese, and is a form of visual control on the floor. Toyota requires and requests the operators to pull the andon cord to stop the line if a defect is found and to alert the lead about the issue. Ohno said the following about andons;

“Correcting defects is necessary to reach our goal of totally eliminating waste.”

Prior to the oil crisis, in the early 1970’s in Japan, all the other companies were buying high-volume machines to increase output. They reasoned that they could store the surplus in the warehouse and sell them when the time was right. Toyota, on the other hand, resisted this and built only what was needed. According to Ohno, the companies following mass-production thinking got a rude awakening in the wake of the oil crisis since they could not dispose off their high inventory. Meanwhile Toyota thrived and their profits increased. The other companies started taking notice of the Toyota Production System.

Ohno’s lesson of the pursuit of quality to yield value struck a chord with me. This concept is similar to Dr. Deming’s chain reaction model. Dr. Deming taught us that improvement of quality begets the natural and inevitable improvement of productivity. His entire model is shown below (from his book “Out of the Crisis”).

Deming Chain reaction

Dr. Deming taught the Japanese workers that the defects and faults that get into the hands of the customer lose the market and cost him his job. Dr. Deming taught the Japanese management that everyone should work towards a common aim – quality.

Steve Jobs Story:

I will finish with a story I heard from Tony Fadell who worked as a consultant for Apple and helped with the creation of the IPod. Tony said that Steve Jobs did not like the “Charge Before Use” sticker on all of the electronic gadgets that were available at that time. Jobs argued that the customer had paid money anticipating using the gadget immediately, and that the delay from charging takes away from the customer satisfaction. The normal burn-in period used to be 30 minutes for the IPod. The burn-in is part of the Quality/Reliability inspection where the electronic equipment runs certain cycles for a period of time with the intent of stressing the components to weed out any defective or “weak” parts. Jobs changed the burn-in time to two hours so that when the customer got the IPod, it was fully charged for him to use right away. This was a 300% increase in the inspection time and would have impacted the lead time. Traditional thinking would argue that this was not a good decision. However, this counterintuitive approach was welcomed by the customers and nowadays it is the norm that electronic devices come charged so that the end user can start using it immediately.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Challenge and Kaizen.

If the Learner Has Not Learned, Point at the Moon:

point at the moon

In today’s post I will be looking at the role of teaching in lean and I will try to look at the role of the student in learning. “If the learner has not learned, then the teacher has not taught.” This has come to be a common expression in Lean. This saying was introduced as part of Training Within Industry’s Job Instruction (JI) program. The original expression in the JI Program manual was “If the worker hasn’t learned, the instructor hasn’t taught.” The JI card carried the statement “If the learner hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”

My favorite record of this statement is from the 1942 November issue of “The Rotarian” magazine. The Albert E Wiggam’s article was titled “Foremen in 10 hours” and it talked about the Job Instruction Training program (JIT). According to the article, The purpose of the JI program was to enable the foremen to have the “show’em how” – the ability to pass the “know-how” to the new-comers in ten hours.


The implication in the statement “If the learner hasn’t learned…” is that the responsibility of the student’s learning rests solely with the instructor. It is my view that the student has the responsibility to be willing as well. My favorite quote regarding this comes from the most famous Japanese Samurai Miyamoto Musashi (1584 – 1645).

“Let the teacher be as a needle, the student as a thread.”

The student has to follow the teacher like a thread that follows the needle. This is a beautiful expression. The focus of the JI program is to show how to prepare the student and how to explain “the why” and “the how” of each step. It also focused on having the student repeat the operation, and to ensure that the instructor follows-up and provides the required feedback creating a closed learning loop.

 “The Ackoff Model”:

My favorite model of Knowledge Management is the DIKUW model made popular by the famous Management Science professor Russell Ackoff. This is shown below:


The five components in the order of importance are;

  1. Data – discrete packets or values. An example for this is just a set of numbers and nouns.
  2. Information – data with context. Answers to questions such as Who, What, When, How many etc.
  3. Knowledge – answer to the question How?
  4. Understanding – answer to the question Why in a global level?
  5. Wisdom – ability to understand the situation to know what to do and execution with results

I will be using this model to further explain my thoughts. Data, information and knowledge can be imparted, and are external to the student. However, understanding and wisdom cannot be imparted and are internal to the student. The teacher can only guide the student and it is the student’s responsibility to practice and learn on his own to achieve understanding and wisdom. Perhaps, the intent of the JI is to impart knowledge to the worker on how to properly perform the operation. But the understanding and wisdom to improve one’s work (kaizen thinking) should come from the operator.

The teacher has to ensure that the student has achieved knowledge, and the student has to ensure that he achieves understanding and wisdom.

My favorite expression describing the difference between knowledge and wisdom (inspired by Peter Drucker) is;

Knowledge is doing things right and wisdom is doing the right things.

The above expression indicates that knowledge has to do with being efficient, and wisdom has to do with being effective.

The Role of the Sensei:

“Sensei” is a Japanese word that has roots in Chinese and the literal meaning in Japanese is “lives (born) before”. Sensei has come to mean “Teacher”. The term is connected with martial arts training. There are four criteria that a sensei should possess;

  1. Technical ability – understanding of the technical aspects of the subject and ability to keep on polishing/learning
  2. Taking Responsibility – ensuring that the sensei passes along his knowledge so that the “chain” does not get broken
  3. Ability to communicate – the sensei must be able to communicate his mastery to his students of all levels of aptitude
  4. Understanding – the sensei should be understanding of his students

The Role of the Student:

There is a notion in Zen that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. The implication here is that the student has to be ready first and pursuing learning, only then will the teacher appear. The student can learn from everything around him only if he is receptive to learning. The student has the responsibility to present himself with humility and determination to understand and practice the skill. The student must be eager to learn and willing to “forget” what he has learned before.  My favorite account for this is an anecdote I have heard before:

A student went to a teacher and asked him “can you teach me how to meditate” and the teacher said “No. I might let you learn under me.”

 My Final Words:

It is the responsibility of the teacher to help the student attain knowledge, and it is the responsibility of the student to reach wisdom from there. Both the teacher and student have to be willing to give and receive learning. The student has to surpass the teacher. The student cannot do this simply by copying the teacher. The student has to build upon the teacher’s teachings and find wisdom on his own, leapfrogging the teacher.

teacher - student

I will finish this off with a Zen story about pointing at the moon – don’t mistake the finger for the moon.

The Buddha says “my teaching is not a dogma or a doctrine, but no doubt some people will take it as such.” The Buddha goes on to say “I must state clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”

To see the moon you have to look beyond the finger.

Always keep on learning…

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