Is Shingo overrated?

Unless you subscribe to Superfactory, you probably haven’t noticed a nearly raging debate on the true contributions to “lean” and the Toyota Production System by one Dr. Shigeo Shingo. Here’s a little of the storyline. It basically comes down to a contention of one main point: Shingo did / did not co-invent the Toyota Product System with Taiichi Ohno. There are several supporting details of contention including whether or not Shingo, at Ohno’s request, helped get changeover times down to 10 minutes.

To kick off the debate, Art Smalley, an independent lean consultant and good guy, did an interview with Mr. Kato of Toyota called Shigeo Shingo’s Influence on TPS. Kato was responsible for organizing Shingo’s visits to Toyota. Kato provides the direct challenge to some of these claims. He acknowledges Shingo as a significant contributor, but certainly not a co-inventor.

This argument to a much-accepted history received a response by Norman Bodek, who published the English versions of Shingo’s book. This didn’t pull any punches, called Dr. Shigeo Shingo – The Greatest Manufacturing Consultant. Bodek was “considerably annoyed” by the interview and goes on to call one of the points “ludicrous.” If you get through the rhetoric, you hear Bodek’s version of the story, based on conversations with the late Ohno and the late Iwata. I wasn’t anywhere near Bodek’s relationship with Ohno. I can only add that Mr. Iwata, one of my many teachers, spoke often of Ohno but not Shingo. That, by itself, means nothing however.

The return response come from both offenders, both Mr. Kato who writes Mr. Shigeo Shingo’s P-Course and Contribution to TPS and Art Smalley who posts a Powerpoint presentation on A Brief Investigation on the Origins of the Toyota Production System. Both are thinly veiled responses to the Bodek article, meaning they say things like “perceptions voiced by some parties” but they clearly mean Bodek.

Personally, I don’t know who’s right and don’t care. I feel fortunately that I am not old enough to have been there. I do believe that this is an important debate for a very small number of people. It is important to get history as accurate as possible. This allows everyone in the future to learn from history. I believe that the importance of learning from history is underrated. There are consequences to this. The Shingo Prize is the self-proclaimed Nobel Prize for Manufacturing. Is it wrongly named? Are his books not among the most important lean books?

Who invented lean? Whenever I’m asked this, I believe the answer is no one. It could have been one of the Toyoda family members that gets credit. Or Ohno or Shingo. Or Henry Ford. Or the guys who did all the work at The Ford Motor Company. They all deserve some credit. And so do all the people that continue to innovate and carry the torch today.

However, as the debate rages on, most of us really shouldn’t care. Read a book by Shigno. Based on this debate, does it make any of his teachings more or less wrong? No. More or less useful? No. Most of us should be focused on the knowledge, and more importantly the know-how, of making the change in our own organizations. Lean success is not measured by how much information you have gathered, or whether you met some Toyota guys, or visited the company, or know some Japanese words. Lean success is measured by your ability to think, act, lead and deliver results.

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Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor. These companies range from high-performance motorcycles to SaaS tools for continuous improvement. He has advised over 300 companies around the world in lean transformation, including Intel, Harley-Davidson, Crayola, BMW, and Amazon. Jamie co-authored the popular book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, and continues to share his experiences as a Contributing Editor forIndustryWeek and as a blogger at He holds degrees from Lehigh University, University of Michigan, and MIT, and continues to teach and mentor on campus. Jamie is best known for helping to transform how we think about lean from a tools-centric model to one based on principles and behaviors. His passion for lean transformation comes from seeking to unlock the great potential that people possess to build inspiring organizations.

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