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Standing in the Circle: Ohno’s Method

Updated: Jul 3, 2021

The legacy of the late Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System, is much larger than the system’s techniques, none of which he is known to have invented himself. During the formative period of the Toyota Production System, roughly 1945-1965, as Toyota fought to survive, Ohno’s leadership instituted a new way of thinking and a new work culture. In time it filled all of Toyota, and eventually other companies, becoming a culture of excellence, motivated by more than the traditional business goals of growth and profitability. At its core it remains a survival culture.

Ohno’s Method

Through mentoring, Taiichi Ohno developed other people by challenging them with provocative questions, stimulating them to improve processes on their own, and then learning to self-manage them. His leadership approach is called Ohno’s Method.

Kaizen, the core technique of TPS, begins with behavior. Observe carefully to see the facts of a situation. Make maximum use of everyone’s brainpower to devise simple, ingenious solutions to problems. TPS culture is this approach to grass roots kaizen, which Ohno promoted in many ways.

Standing in the Circle

Ohno coached his budding TPS leaders to carefully observe reality by drawing a chalk circle on the floor, telling them to stand in it for several hours observing reality, mind wiped clean, undistracted by things seemingly more important to do. This practice in intensive observation imbued them in kaizen thinking, which was necessary before they could coach others.

Part of Ohno’s philosophy was by forcing engineers to stop and observe prevented them from jumping to solution and perhaps working on the wrong initiatives that may not provide the biggest and easiest overall impact to the organization. It was also an act of creating humbleness within the engineers. What the engineers did not realize is that often Ohno had stood in the same circle the day prior so when the engineer was reporting their observation Ohno would quickly ask additional probing questions educating the engineer that perhaps they had “looked” but not “observed”

Kaizen is the core of TPS. All other techniques promote kaizen by maximizing the number of opportunities to practice it. Kaizen is learned primarily by doing; classes merely familiarize people with techniques.

Developing a few experts helps a little, but the power of kaizen is multiplied many times if the experts coach everyone else to see and solve problems. Reality is that no one becomes an expert with magic answers. The power is in the method.

Process visibility, seeing reality, is the primary way to see process problems and to identify kaizen opportunities.

Process visibility reveals problems to anyone, not just managers. When something is amiss, workers can quickly determine the cause and take action. Process visibility also stimulates everyone to think of still more ways to improve it. Thus, empowered by the method, workers learn to self-manage processes and spontaneously improve them.

Visibility – thoughtful visibility – is a tenet of the Toyota Production System. Empty-headed gawking is insufficient. Ohno’s basic problem-solving method was “to ask why at least five times,” which means that he didn’t ask people to literally confine themselves to the circle, but to dig through the clutter to see the essential problem.

Very small processes, like Integrated Circuit production, cannot be seen directly, so they are made largely through data and remote control. But even with fully gowned workers and minute processes, process visibility reveals a remarkable amount of waste.

Large dispersed processes cannot be seen all at once. When flow charting (or Value Stream Mapping) a large process, people must communicate precisely, or someone must travel around to see reality. Staying in touch with reality is the important part. The only way to be sure that a chart is up to date is to review the process frequently. In large processes, like automotive engineering change systems, someone is likely to be tinkering all the time, so that at any instant, no one knows how it really works.

The stand-in-a-circle exercise is good anywhere, for example, when studying customers’ evaluation and use of a product. It works on docks, in offices, and everywhere else.

Merely installing visibility tools doesn’t accomplish their purpose, staying connected with reality and remaining curious – always asking why and identifying problems. That takes constant practice. Although careful observation can be cultivated into a habit, it is never simple. Toyota veterans know that when observing a process for the first time, it takes several hours – sometimes days – to develop an initial grasp of it. (Seeing nothing happen in many hours may be a marvelous discovery, not a waste of time.)

“Standing in a circle” is taking the time to understand reality before acting. It is not creating some kind of model, in software or otherwise, and seeing if it works. It also counters the instinct of managers (and others) with so strong a bias for action that they always want to be making something happen – even if it is wrong.

With a huge acknowledgement to Robert (Doc) Hall for his ongoing coaching and sharing of insights. Thank you!


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