Taiichi Ohno (1912 – 1990)

Taiichi-Ohno-at-the-GembaOhno is considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System (TPS).

He was the primary architect of rebuilding Toyota after the 2nd World War, through to the mid 1970s. It wasn’t until 1978 that he was persuaded to formally write down the management system, and associated principles, that had evolved through his leadership.

  • Born in 1912 in China;
  • 1932: Joined the Toyoda family’s textile looms company;
  • 1943: Moved across to the family’s motor business – Toyota – as a production engineer, and rose through the ranks to become an executive.

He built on the earlier Toyoda family ideas of:

– Jidoka: processes stopping automatically as soon as an error has occurred and calling for immediate attention to the problem (often referred to as ‘stop the line’); and

– Just-in-time production, which arose from Kiichiro Toyoda visiting Ford’s operations in the 1930s and adapting it for small production volumes.

He did this through coaching constant experimentation by his workers.

  • 1956: Sent his people to America to look at automobile plants but his most important discovery was self-service supermarkets, which Japan did not yet have.

He marvelled at how customers chose exactly what they wanted and how much of it, and then at how the products were replenished. This led to thinking about the stages in production as being supermarkets for the following stage to choose (only) those items it needed…and the preceding line would then replenish accordingly. This became the pull system, in direct contrast to the conventional push system. A number of pull tools were developed, such as kanban to convey information between processes.

  • 1978: Retired from Toyota and finally published the Toyota Production System, for others to read.

This is about the same time that American academics at MIT began a research programme to codify what the Japanese, and particularly Toyota, had been doing to be so successful. This led onto the MIT researchers codifying what they saw and labelling this as ‘Lean Thinking’.

  • Died in 1990 (aged 78) in Japan.

Author of the books:

  • ‘Toyota Production System – Beyond Large-Scale Production’ (1st published in 1978, translated into English 1988); and
  • ‘Workplace Management’ (1982, English version in 1988).

He is best known for:

  • His radically different path to what was accepted business practise in America;
  • His absolute focus on the flow of work (from the customer’s demand through to its satisfaction), and the relentless drive to remove inefficiencies and wastefulness;
  • His persistence, continually asking ‘why, why, why…’, resisting opinions and drilling down to facts and root causes.
  • His reliance on managers and workers to work it out for themselves – he set them tough challenges and pushed them hard to come up with improvements…he didn’t tell them what he thought the ‘answer’ was. He was essentially a really tough coach – but his managers loved him for this.

Some great quotes from Ohno:

On walking the Gemba: “It should take you hours to walk 100 metres each time you enter the factory. If it takes you no time at all to walk 100 metres that means no one is relying on you.” 

On understanding the numbers: “People who can’t understand numbers are useless. The gemba where numbers are not visible is also bad. However, people who only look at the numbers are the worst of all.” 

On work worthy of humans: “I think it ruins people when there is no race to get each person to add their good ideas to the work they do within a company. Your improvements make the job easier for you, and this gives you time to make further improvements. Unlike in the [Charlie] Chaplin movie where people are treated as parts of a machine, the ability to add your creative ideas and changes to your own work is what makes it possible to do work that is worthy of humans.”

On Kaizen [Continuous Improvement]: “Kaizen ideas are infinite. Don’t think you have made things better than before and be at ease…It is important to have the attitude in our daily work that just underneath one kaizen idea is yet another one.”

…and finally, a favourite of mine:

On taking his advice: “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.”

2 thoughts on “Taiichi Ohno (1912 – 1990)

  1. The comment about Ohno letting managers and workers work it out for themselves rather than telling them the answer risks reinforcing the popular but misguided belief that senior managers don’t need to engage with details and can instead set goals and then hold them to account (what Henry Mintzberg calls management by deeming).

    Ohno said, ‘You need to struggle together and think about the problem together. You have to offer various suggestions, as much as possible. If the subordinate comes back and says they tried what you said but it did not work, you must have some advice to give them or you will lose their respect.’ [chapter 25 of Workplace Management, p95 in McGraw Hill edition 2013].

    The idea that giving advice robs people of learning opportunities is popular but doesn’t appear to be supported by evidence that self-directed learning is more effective than traditional teaching methods. Good coaching and teaching combine advice with getting people to think. That seems to have been Ohno’s view.

    Paul Elliott


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