Taiichi Ohno’s View of Lean

If Taiichi Ohno rejoined the living, what would he have to say about Lean? The conversation might go something like this:

Bob Emiliani: Hello Ohno-san. I am happy to see you. I have a lot of questions that I hope you will answer.

Taiichi Ohno: Can you not think for yourself?

Emiliani: I can, thanks to you and some others. Then, please, let me just ask just one question. It seems you have become aware of this thing called “Lean.” What do you think of it?

Ohno-san: Yes, I am aware of it. But I do not understand it. What problem does Lean solve that the Toyota production system is incapable of solving? Why did people not take TPS and adapt it to their own circumstances? Why did they instead take the Lean reworking of TPS and adapt that to their circumstances? It is mottainai.

Mottainai 1

Emiliani: What is mottainai? Mot-tai-nai.

Ohno-san: It is difficult to describe what mottainai means in English. There is no direct translation. It has the meaning of being unfortunate that something has gone to waste, with a sense of sorrow that it has been wasted.

Emiliani: What, exactly, has been wasted?

Ohno-san: Those of us who developed the Toyota Production System, and my supervisors who supported us, made big efforts and sacrifices over many years. Our human spirit created TPS. Once created, TPS has its own spirit. TPS was not cherished. It was not used the right way. This wastes TPS and disrespects its spirit.

Emiliani: How does TPS have spirit?

Ohno-san: In Shinto teaching, everything has spirit; spiritual essence. TPS has that.

Emiliani: We call that “animism,” the life or soul of something that exists.

Ohno-san: The MIT people who studied us, and others before them, had a good heart. I am grateful for their effort to bring awareness of TPS to many more people. But I think they went too far and not far enough.

Emiliani: What do mean by too far and not far enough.

Ohno-san: Lean is not TPS, and Just-in-Time is absent. The Toyota production system did not have the opportunity to reach its potential that I had hoped for. Many people sweat to create TPS and bring it into existence, and then we shared it with the world. This effort is wasted when Lean was created. I feel deep sorrow for all that has been wasted.

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