Re-Translating Lean from Its Origin

Re-Translating Lean from Its Origin

Location: www.linkedin.com/
3 February 2017

Decades of Confusion

The world first became aware of TPS (The Toyota Production System) when Taiichi Ohno published a book about his groundbreaking efforts at Toyota. It was published in Japan in 1978. The Japanese version of his book wasn’t translated into English until 1988. Since ten years had passed, this translation did not fully communicate the nuances of Ohno’s vision. The direct translation into English does not communicate the depth hidden within Ohno’s choice of words. Ohno was very specific in his use of language. He did this to express to his trainees the intent, sequence, and purpose of each TPS principle and method. Some important concepts, such as The Spirit of Kaizen, were not even mentioned in his original book. I am here to communicate what has been lost in translation based on a number of unpublished lessons from Taiichi Ohno and what I have learned from those who have continued to evolve TPS beyond Toyota after 1979. (More on the TPS beyond Toyota)

Photo: Taiichi Ohno's original TPS training manual used internally at Toyota from Hitoshi Yamada's personal collection.

For example, Kaizen was loosely translated as “continuous improvement” since there was no explanation in Ohno’s original text. It has never been accurately addressed, and for this reason many organizations are struggling to initiate and sustain a Lean culture, as they could not develop leadership based on the Kaizen mindset. When we look at the original Japanese characters alone, Kaizen has a deeper meaning as intended by Taiichi Ohno. In fact, Ohno often used the Japanese word “Kairyo” to describe continuous improvement that mainly focuses on physical improvements to processes, technology, and machines through monetary investment. However, Kaizen is not about making physical improvements. Kaizen is about changing one’s behaviors in order to benefit others. It is a state of mind. In 1990, the year he passed away, Ohno defined Kaizen as the “Spirit of Toyota.” We can see, even from this one example, that looking deeper into the original meaning of each Japanese word that Ohno intentionally used to create awareness will guide us out of confusion, arguments, and everything else that is holding us back from achieving the results that Ohno proved were possible. (More on Redefining Kaizen)

Back to the Basics of the TPS House: The Roots of Jidōka

The concept of Jidōka as it is generally understood was extremely important for Toyota early in its history when they made automated looms. Today, the Jidōka concept is most apparent in how Toyota Motor Corp. has applied it to their final assembly line where anyone can stop the entire production line upon discovering a defect.

But how good is the production line if it continues to create defects? The ideal state is for the line to never have to stop. The real question is how we can eliminate the root cause of why people or machines produce such defects in first place? How can we ensure the production line never has to stop? At a Toyota investors meeting in 2015, President Akio Toyoda said, “If workers know they have the ability to stop the line, they will do everything they can to avoid having to stop the line.” Instead of simply responding to defects, Jidōka also teaches us not to create those defects in the first place. The deeper meaning of Jidoka is improving production process and machines so they can always do work that adds value instead of just spinning their gears. Ohno’s choice of spelling for Jidōka (See image below) emphasizes that if we remove non-value added work and improve value-added work the defects will ultimately be eliminated.

It is now common knowledge that TPS has two pillars: Just-in-Time and Jidōka. Many Lean guides talk about the Japanese Kanji (characters borrowed from the Chinese alphabet) that are used to write Jidoka (自働化)They explain how the symbol “dō 働” means humans assisting machines when defects are found. “Ji-Dō-Ka” is therefore translated as “automation with a human touch.” If we look deeper into this symbol, we will see many more important lessons beyond just autonomation. Read more.

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