The Spirit of Mottainai in Lean:


In today’s post I will be looking at “Mottainai” and the many ways it relates to Lean. The Japanese word “Mottainai” is sometimes used in connection with “Muda”, the Japanese word for waste. Muda literally means “no (mu) value (da)”. Mottainai on the other hand is translated as “wastefulness”. This is a very loose translation. Mottainai literally means “absence of intrinsic value” (Mottai = intrinsic value, and Nai = absence of). The best explanation of the difference between the two is;

  • Muda – Storing rotten food in the refrigerator. There is no value or use.
  • Mottainai – Throwing away food that is still good. There is still some use left.

There are two meanings to Mottainai in the Japanese culture;

  1. Regret about not utilizing something. This can be a regret about not using resources, talent or even time.
  2. Gratitude about kindness or thoughtfulness from others.

In the first context, children are often scolded in Japan for not eating all of their food. The act of scolding children for not eating all of their food is a global phenomenon and the reason generally given is about the starving people in the other parts of the world. However in the backdrop of mottainai, the scolding is about the lack of respect to all of the people who worked hard to produce the food. In the second context there is a sense of humility. People say “mottainai” when they receive blessings or help from their superiors or elders. They are grateful for the blessings or the good wishes, and they are proclaiming that they will not let those blessings go to waste. I will look deeper at the concept of Mottainai as it relates to Lean or the Toyota Production System.

Lean Implementations:

One of the oldest and strongest religions in Japan is Shintoism. The concept of Mottainai has roots in Shintoism. Shintoism teaches that everything has a spirit or soul, including inanimate objects. The idea of Mottainai stems from the belief that it is wrong to not fully use the intrinsic value of a thing, and teaches reverence for your personal things like katana and tea pot. Ignoring this will bring the “wrath” of the spirit of that object.

Hajime Oba, a Toyota veteran was once asked why other organizations cannot replicate Toyota’s success. He responded with an analogy that it is like trying to create a Buddha image without having the spirit of Buddha inside. He said

“What they are doing is creating a Buddha Image and forgetting to put soul in it.”

Simply copying the tools of lean without understanding your problems is Mottainai. As a Lean Leader, your responsibility is to first understand the problems you are trying to solve. This understanding becomes the soul or spirit.

Respect for People:

Respect for People (RfP) is one of the two pillars in Toyota Way. RfP has a strong connection with Mottainai. The inspiration for this article came from an article I read by Toshihiko Irisumi at the Lean-In website. He wrote;

“The fact that women managers are extremely rare in Japanese corporations is a wasteful (“mottainai”) reality for both talented women and for the future of corporations.”

I found the particular use of the word “Mottainai” qute interesting. This is a strong admonition from Irisumi. In the same light, engaging operators in non-value added activities is Mottainai. In the same line of thought, not engaging in the improvement activities is not showing respect to your management. This is wasting their trust in you and calls for Mottainai. Respect for people goes both ways!


Tomo Sugiyama, in his book “The Improvement Book”, talks about an improvement activity being a “problem-free Engineering” activity. One of the examples he gives is “Air Free” Engineering. Sugiyama was a Production Manager at Yamaha Motors, and one day he started staring at the shelves on the floor. The shelves were storing items in a random order with no thought. There were signs on the floor stating “Don’t store air!” He pointed out that there was lot of wasted space on the shelves and based on his advice the operators rearranged the shelves and was able to generate about 35% more space. Sugiyama may have potentially gotten rid of unwanted shelves and saved production floor space as well. The prior state resulted in wasted space, time and motion looking for things. Thinking in terms of Mottainai leads to kaizen.

Eighth Waste:

“Not utilizing others’ creativity” is often called the Eighth Waste in Lean. Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, identified only seven wastes in manufacturing. The eighth waste was later added by Lean practitioners. The concept of Mottainai puts the right perspective on this and identifies it as a wasteful activity – wasting talent and time!

Final Words:

The concept of Mottainai gives food for thought for a Lean Leader. I will finish off with a story that first talked about Mottainai. This is a story from the 12th century about Minamoto no Yoshitsune in the Battle of Yashima between the Tiara Clan and the Minomoto Clan.

Yoshitsune was on his horse and being chased by the enemies.  Yoshitsune accidentally dropped his bow. His bow was a low quality bow.

“Don’t pick up the bow, let it be”, one of his friends called out. Yoshitsune did not heed his words and went to retrieve his bow.

The Minomoto clan was victorious in the battle. Yoshitsune’s friend admonished him again for going after the bow and used the term “Mottainai” to state that it was a wasteful activity that could had gotten him killed. Yoshitsune’s life was after all more valuable than the bow.

Yoshitsune responded back that if the enemy had seen that inferior quality bow, it would had disgraced his clan and given hope to his enemies.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Labor Day.

Challenge and Kaizen:

Comfort Zone/ Challenge Sign Concept

Toyota describes the two pillars of the Toyota Way as “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People”. Of this, the continuous improvement pillar is comprised of;

  1. Challenge
  2. Kaizen (change for the better), and
  3. Genchi Genbutsu (Go to the source and grasp the actual facts)

In this post, I will be looking at the “Challenge” aspect of the Continuous Improvement pillar.

Challenge – Why?

The secret to Toyota’s success is its ability to maintain itself as a learning organization. In 1967 P. M. Fitts and I. M. Posner identified three progressive phases of learning a new skill;

  • The cognitive stage – we understand the skill, but we make plenty of mistakes in the process. We are identifying strategies to do better.
  • The associative stage – we are getting better and making less mistakes.
  • The autonomous stage – we are pretty good at this point and can do the task on autopilot

The danger of the autonomous stage is that one starts to create a comfort zone for himself and stops “learning”. Thus, he reaches a plateau and his performance begins to degrade. He begins becoming complacent and accepting his performance saying that “this is good enough”. Unfortunately he is in a blind spot at this point and does not realize what is going on. This atmosphere is detrimental to kaizen.

“Challenge” thus becomes an important factor to sustain kaizen. The “challenge” is not necessarily personal as in challenging the employee to work harder. The “challenge” is in asking the employee to do his best and change the status quo – to be outside his comfort zone. The employee is allowed to make mistakes and in turn is expected to learn from mistakes. The employee continues improving through continuous learning.

Final Words:

Yoshio Ishizaka, a Toyota veteran explained challenge as follows;

Challenge guides us to setting higher objectives for achieving an ideal condition and continuously realizing such goals with courage and creativity.

I will finish off with a funny Zen story about learning;

The son of a master thief asked his father to teach him the secrets of the trade. The old thief agreed and that night took his son to burglarize a large house. While the family was asleep, he silently led his young apprentice into a room that contained a clothes closet. The father told his son to go into the closet to pick out some clothes. When he did, his father quickly shut the door and locked him in. Then he went back outside, knocked loudly on the front door, thereby waking the family, and quickly slipped away before anyone saw him. Hours later, his son returned home, bedraggled and exhausted. “Father,” he cried angrily, “Why did you lock me in that closet? If I hadn’t been made desperate by my fear of getting caught, I never would have escaped. It took all my ingenuity to get out!” The old thief smiled. “Son, you have had your first lesson in the art of burglary.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Monument, Dynamo and Suitcase.

A Brief Look at Kaizen in the Light of the Toyota Way:

chie to kaizen

I have talked many times in this blog about the “Toyota Way 2001”. The Toyota Way was an embodiment of Toyota’s management philosophy and values that were passed on to its employees as implicit knowledge. Due to rapid global expansion, Toyota Management decided to write down this implicit knowledge into a booklet – Toyota Way 2001, in order to help expand their production system properly across the globe.

The Toyota Way has two pillars – “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People”. The “Continuous Improvement” pillar stands on three principles:

  • Challenge
  • Kaizen
  • Genchi Genbutsu


All is good up to this point. “Kaizen” is often translated as “Continuous Improvement”. I saw this as a linguistic “chicken or egg situation”: How can kaizen be one of the three principles of “Continuous Improvement” when kaizen itself is “continuous improvement”? Why was the pillar not named simply as “Kaizen”?

Michel Baudin has written about it here. He has shown that the pillar is actually termed “Chie to Kaizen” in the Japanese version of Toyota Way 2001. “Chie to Kaizen” is translated as “Wisdom and Continuous Improvement”. I encourage the readers to check out Michel’s blog post.

Kaizen in Japanese is not translated literally as “continuous improvement”. The literal meaning is “change for better”. The Japanese word kaizen is derived from the Chinese word gaishan. They both mean “to improve”. Kaizen is written as 改善 in both Chinese and Japanese. This is because Japanese language uses a lot of characters adopted from Chinese language called Kanji. Apparently, to distinguish between “kaizen – improvement” and “kaizen – continuous improvement”, several Japanese writers have started using “カイゼン”, which reads the same. “カイゼン” is written in Katakana script, one of several writing components in the Japanese language, besides Kanji. Katakana is generally used for words imported from foreign languages. Thus when you translate the word “カイゼン” into English through Google Translator, you will find that the word translates to “Kaizen” in English. I am assuming that Kaizen in English means “Continuous Improvement.” 🙂


Wisdom/Intelligence and Continuous Improvement:

The only source where the pillar is not called as “Continuous Improvement” in English by a Toyota personnel that I could find, was “The Toyota Way in Sales and Marketing” by Yoshio Ishizaka. In this book, the first pillar is called as “Intelligence and Kaizen”. In my eyes, this is a better phrasing for the pillar. Ishizaka explains this pillar as follows;

Intelligence and Kaizen describes an attitude in which you are never satisfied with the current condition and continuously develop innovative ideas yielding higher added values.

Kaizen achieves a better meaning when viewed in the light of Challenge and Genchi Genbutsu. There is a sense of continuity towards improvement with this view. This meaning is more synonymous to “Continuous Improvement”. Let’s look at the other two principles: Challenge and Genchi Genbutsu.

Challenge: The key point here is to challenge the status quo. Do not be satisfied with your current state. There is almost always a better way of doing things. This may push you outside your comfort zones. But that is how you can continuously improve. This principle also encourages us to have a long term vision, and to move towards it at all times. As Toyota puts it “Working at Toyota is also an exercise in long-term thinking.”

Genchi Genbutsu: This is described as “going to the actual source and getting the actual facts” so that you can make the correct decisions. It is looked down upon in Toyota to make decisions based on data (on paper) alone. You have to be at the gemba to understand the problem.

My final words:

I will finish this post with a story I read that has the spirit of “chie to kaizen”.

Once upon a time a very strong woodcutter asked for a job from a timber merchant, and he got it. The pay was really good and so were the work conditions. The woodcutter was determined to do his best.
His boss gave him an axe and showed him the area where he was supposed to work. The first day, the woodcutter cut down 18 trees.

“Congratulations,” the boss said. “Go on that way!” Very motivated for the boss’ words, the woodcutter tried harder the next day, but he could only cut down 15 trees.

The third day he tried even harder, but he could only cut down 10 trees. Day after day he was bringing fewer and fewer trees.
“I must be losing my strength”, the woodcutter thought. He went to the boss and apologized, saying that he could not understand what was going on.

“When was the last time you sharpened your axe?” the boss asked.

“Sharpen? I had no time to sharpen my axe. I have been very busy trying to cut trees”, the woodcutter responded.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Don’t be an Expert at the Gemba.