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 his books (they are great to revisit over time), 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.

I think many 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 essential. 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 Shingijutsu 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 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 development and they're engaged in kaizen. Remember, Ohno wrote that people must write their own standardized work…

The 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.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    • Mark T., ironically I first learned of the “Seddon Watch” site from a tweet sent out by John Seddon’s P.R. guy, Howard Clark (@SysThinkReview). The site gave me a chuckle and I was going to ignore it basically.

      It’s strange that you would call that site a “hate” campaign, when it seems (to me) to be basically material from Seddon’s own website, with a bit of snarky commentary (that just seems to be mirroring the style of Seddon’s own newsletters, by the way).

      The more hateful thing, from the most recent post, is the picture of a female anorexia patient that John Seddon (or Howard) used as some sort of illustration of problems with Lean. My reaction was “have they lost all perspective???” It’s insensitive and offensive what they’ve done there.

      I will criticize John Seddon’s comments and bad attitude on my own blog, here, thank you very much. Such as my final comment — how is Seddon’s use of that picture showing any “Respect for People?”

  1. Ohno was no consultant who needed to comply with any dicta or decorum.

    In many ways, Toyota was ‘his’ company and he had every right to explode, as you say, without going outside the bounds of employer/employee relationship.

    I find that a few critical mass moments with my supervisors in a given year tends to keep the eyes on the prize.

  2. Thanks for sharing this on your site. I have spent a lot of time with Imai and it is a real honor to listen to some of the stories that he tells about some of the now legendary figures of Lean. We will have to start writing up more articles as some of his tales are real gems!

  3. As promised I am writing today to the shareholders of Thedacare and unions about the Lean consultants hate campaign against critics. Plenty of evidence as to the identity of the author

  4. I would like to congratulate the Lean Blog to capture the essence of the words from Mr. Masaaki Imai and his observations about Mr. Ono and the Toyota approach.
    In fact we from Kaizen Institute are very happy and proud to have the opportunity to be close of him to listen his advices and especially when his comments unveil the “behind the scenes” of Toyota and Mr. Ono.

  5. As I said in a post a few years ago,

    “The difference between respect and disrespect is not avoiding avoiding criticism. In fact often if you respect someone you can be much more direct and critical than you can with someone you treat as though they don’t have the ability to listen to hard truths and improve. I think we often have so little respect for people we just avoid dealing with anything touchy because we don’t want to risk they won’t be able to react to the issues raised and will instead just react as if they have been personally attacked.

    I would say that while Taiichi Ohno was truly remarkable that doesn’t mean he did everything right. And he might well have failed to communicate in a way that conveyed respect for people fully. He was great but his methods could also be improved.

    Personal attacks are not useful. Attacking bad practices and bad thinking is showing respect for people. An environment that is so emotionally immature that criticism of bad practices and ideas is seen as disrespectful is an environment that is in need of improvement. A fundamental aspect of evidence based management is the ability to have thoughtful discussion of ideas, including critical ones, that people do not take personally. The pressure of trying to lead an effort (as Ohno knows better than almost anyone) is extremely stressful, his letting off some steam is not surprising even if it isn’t ideal. Also to some extent showing some fire may be helpful at times to get people to take things seriously (avoiding the need for this is even better, but not everything will be done as well as it possible can be).

  6. Good post Mark. I used to work with emotionally disturbed children in a treatment centre. The idea of respect for people was paramount. However, it is not a genetic predisposition, it is a learned behaviour. If Mr. Ohno or Mr Imai uses a confrontational style in order to teach, then other lean leaders might think this is a rational or helpful way to teach people. When dealing with people, I remember the mantra I learned in group therapy that change comes through relationship. People tend to listen to people they know and respect. Respect for people is not a tool of lean or a way to manipulate; it is a human condition that gives us the opportunity to talk to people and have them listen. If these gentlemen want people to listen, then getting to know the employees, their thoughts, their dreams, their fears, is a precursor to change. It takes more time to do this but the results will be longer lasting. You can bully people to change something but it will not engender a powerful employee or a well respected organization. I know people at Toyota that don’t like the discipline that exists and can hardly wait to retire, but they are still doing the job, regardless of the personal costs. Change is messy, to say the least, and respect will obviously help the process along.


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