Interview with Masaaki Imai – Ohno and Respect for People
The Kaizen Institute website has posted an excellent text Q&A with Masaaki Imai, who you might recognize as the author of the relatively early Lean books Kaizen: The Key To Japan’s Competitive Success and Gemba Kaizen: A Commonsense, Low-Cost Approach to Management.
I’ve never met Imai personally, but I’ve read this books (they are great to revisit over time) and I’ve seen people from the Kaizen Institute present at a healthcare conference in Sweden and I was impressed with their approach to Lean as a people-based methodology.
The interview was posted on the Kaizen Institute website, “Interview with Masaaki Imai.”
Imai was fortunate to work directly with Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno, so he talks about Ohno in the interview.
What was he like to converse with?
He didn’t say much. Actually, he much preferred to listen.
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I think a lot of Lean leaders try to practice the old expression that we have two ears and one mouth – use them in that proportion. Being a Lean leader means gathering data and facts – which means listening to people is important. If you think you have all of the answers, you probably won’t do well in a Lean environment.
The follow up question & answer:
Is this why people were afraid of him, because they thought maybe he was watching them closely?
(Laughs.) Maybe. But also, because he had such a high expectation of the staff and managers under him. If they were not doing something the right way, he would explode. And when he exploded, he really would explode.
But for those who came to him and really asked for help, he was very patient. He wouldn’t give them the answer, but preferred to provide them with enough of an understanding of the situation, as well as help on how they could deal with the problem. So he was very much a teacher and a leader.
Since Toyota first formally published its “respect for people” (RFP) principle in a 2001 internal document, there’s been a lot of talk about this in the Lean community. RFP was by means a brand new idea to those in the Lean world who were/are very people-focused, including those of us who were first exposed to the teachings of W. Edwards Deming, a man who was very influential on Toyota and their management style.
It’s tough to reconcile RFP with exploding at people. Now, we know that RFP doesn’t mean being nice – it means having high expectations and people and you have to push people to do their best. The Shingujitsu consultants, from Japan, are famous for yelling and screaming at people.
I don’t think that needs to be the style of a modern Lean leader. We can be patient – we can ask pointed questions and set high standards… but I would never invite the type of Lean consultant who would “explode” at people into a hospital (or any modern workplace). That’s just my opinion and preferred style. Be demanding without ridiculing people or screaming at them.
Imai also recounts Ohno’s view on standardized work and kaizen:
How did workers on the shop floor respond to all this?
When you introduce Kaizen, the workers are the most grateful recipients of this improvement. They find that because of the various standardized work introduced – because things become much more regimented and well managed – they can carry on with their work without any surprises. And the result is a much more satisfying job. Workers are the greatest recipients of Kaizen work.
I’ve seen this happen in hospitals – nurses and other front line staff are GRATEFUL that attention is being paid to their workflow and the support systems that often provide lousy support. Workers (healthcare professionals) benefit from this especially when they are engaged in their own standardized work develop and they’re engaged in kaizen. Remember, Ohno wrote that people must write their own standardized work…
Final quote I’ll include here again focuses on people, Imai recounting Ohno’s view:
I’ve read that when there were problems, he didn’t blame the workers, he blamed the processes.
Yes. It is not the workers you blame, it is the management.
Again, this is very reminiscent of Dr. Deming’s teaching.
Check out the full interview here.