Creating a Survival Work Culture

The following is an excerpt of an article originally written by Robert (Doc) Hall and Jinichiro Nakane many years ago but still relevant today.


1. Mentally force yourself into tight spots (something

like a gun to the head concentrates the mind).


2. Think hard; systematically observe reality.


3. Generate ideas; find and implement wise, ingenious, low-cost solutions.


4. Derive personal pleasure from accomplishing kaizen.


5 Develop all peoples’ capabilities to accomplish steps 1-4. Everyone learns kaizen by doing it. Managers and staff learn to support workers, proposing only big-step improvements. They learn not to control self-functioning workers.



  1. Problem Visibility

  2. Kaizen Problems

  3. Look carefully; think hard

  4. Minimize all waste

  5. Gain satisfaction by overall improvements

  6. Develop everyone’s capabilities (mentor them)

  7. Develop flexibility (ability to quickly and easily respond to changes)

  8. Long-term survival


When a company “goes lean,” the tradition of managerial control is easily transferred to process improvement. If staff or specialists generate and implement most of the ideas, worker “empowerment” is generally limited to concurrence. They are not personally and deeply into see-it-yourself, do-it-yourself kaizen.


One sign of this is overly neat or graphically embellished problem-solving records. Workers’ problem solving is typically done by hand on white boards or flip charts. .


Another sign is work layouts fixed for long periods of time, whether on shop floors on in offices. Then implementing a change is a “big project.” If everything is “on wheels,” easily reconnected to utilities, working people can quickly try different ideas.


In repetitive work, a sign of grass roots kaizen deficiency is line balance. The average worker often has 40-50 percent slack time to look around or do other things. Staff-led kaizen may decrease slack time by 10-20 percent. The work pace may not be faster, but the intensity of concentration increases, and workers object. If they have removed the wasted time themselves, not only are they less likely to object, but remove an additional 10-20 percent of slack time besides. They are being treated as “real people.”4


Probably the most telling sign of staff control is that workers or teams do not write their own instructions. “Yellow” work instructions, written by non-workers, are the telltale sign that standard work hasn’t arrived. Workers are minimally involved.


Staff control of improvement (including kaizen blitzes) appears to arise when process improvement results, nicely measured, become important to staff/management status. Staff may fear “looking bad,” “looking stupid,” or “just being a worker’s assistant.”


By Ohno’s Method, status accrues by evidence that leaders have done a great job of mentoring and coaching. The process may not at present win any performance awards, but if the entire workforce – every person in the headcount – is well practiced in process improvement, and if they can clearly see how the company needs to change or improve, the likelihood is great that they will survive.



An Excellence Culture is a survival culture


1. Besides the techniques employed, kaizen minimizes all kinds of waste by developing the capabilities and talent of all people for see-it-yourself, do-it-yourself improvement.


2. Kaizen is integrated into overall operations by standard work.


3. Develop process techniques to promote integrative kaizen and standard work.


4. Management’s role is leadership developing all the people to autonomously work toward common ends.


5. Strive for a targeted ideal system. However, conditions change. All systems are transient, so people and systems must be flexible and adaptive, not just “optimal.”


6. The basic TPS culture with kaizen and standard work can apply to any kind of organization – business, government, or non-profit.


7. The work culture is motivated by mutual survival and an appreciation for excellent work in itself. Financial returns may be tremendous, but they are a result, not a goal.


When TPS was in the making, Toyota, constantly near bankruptcy, was motivated by survival. (Late in his life, a British journalist for The Economist asked Ohno why TPS developed. Ever a crusty shop man, he said it was “the last fart of the ferret.” When a ferret is cornered, it emits a powerful stench, something like a skunk.)


More than money motivated people. With survival at stake, within Toyota the inspiration to develop TPS has been described as “fighting a war.”


Everywhere, when collectively in deep trouble, old ways obviously not working, and no point left in protecting anyone’s status quo, people set aside their differences. Several lean stories in Target arose from a desperate situation.6


Summary of Lessons from Ohno’s Method 5

When money rolls in, a survival mentality fades; people without the survival experience reason that everything must be going along nicely, and start to talk about “winning and growing.” Interest fades in operations, much less total human development, until the next crisis.


Normal business “incenting” isn’t compatible with Ohno’s Method. A collective survival mentality is. To do what they have never done before, people need a genuine, intrinsic conviction of the need for excellent work – motivation beyond mere profits and paychecks. At Toyota, the quest for a superior performance culture continues.7


Culture change never goes completely as planned. New work cultures emerge because leaders live them and demonstrate them. Ohno’s Method, with its mentoring cascade of see-it-yourself, do-it-yourself, is one of the practical ways it has been done, and there is nothing artificial about it. Creation of a new culture goes hand-in-hand with creation of grass roots kaizen and standard work. Both are dependent on a different philosophy of business.



­­Jinichiro Nakane is Professor of Operations Management at the Graduate School of Business, Waseda University, Tokyo. He knew Ohno personally and has long worked with TPS and has studied the system during its formative period.


Robert W. Hall is Editor-in-Chief of Target and a founding member of AME.

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