Guest Post: What is “Yokoten?”


Mark's Note: Today's post is from Al Norval, with the firm Lean Pathways, Inc.

In the Lean world, we hear all kinds of Japanese words. Indeed, it seems like a badge of honour to know obscure Japanese words that baffle your fellow teammates. I'd like to highlight one that isn't mainstream but is critically important –  Yokoten.

Yokoten is a process for sharing learning laterally across an organization. It entails copying and improving on kaizen ideas that work.

You can think of yokoten as “horizontal deployment” or “sideways expansion”. The corresponding image is one of ideas unfolding across an organization. Yokoten is horizontal and peer-to-peer, with the expectation that people go see for themselves and learn how another area did kaizen and then improve on those kaizen ideas in the application to their local problems.

It's not a vertical, top-down requirement to “copy exactly”. Nor is it a “best practices” or “benchmarking” approach nor is it as some organizations refer to a “lift and shift” model. Rather, it is a process where people are encouraged to go see for themselves and return to their own area to add their own wisdom and ideas to the knowledge they gained.

Simply put, Yokoten equals copy and improve. The role of the senior managers is to make people aware of the existence of these good kaizen examples so that they can go see for themselves, gain the knowledge and improve upon it further. Simply telling subordinates to copy it may be kaizen of a sort but it would not serve the second important aspect of the Toyota Production System, the respect for and development of people.

An effective Yokoten process is a critical step to building capacity within the organization and becoming a true learning organization. It truly is one of the capabilities of outstanding organizations.

About the author: Alistair Norval is a professional engineer who developed his skills at Eastman Kodak Company, where he helped design and implement the Kodak Operating System, based on the principles of the Toyota Production System. In this capacity, he received in-depth personal training with leading international senseis. He has applied lean methods in new product development and the supply chain and has a passion to apply lean thinking across the enterprise so as to achieve consistently superior results.

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Lean Pathways, Inc.
Lean Pathways helps progressive organizations implement the Lean Business System for breakthrough performance. Lean Pathways has developed a proven transformation model that roots Lean thinking in all areas of the organization. We have supported successful transformations in manufacturing, health care, construction, the process and service industries.


  1. I had a discussion with my friend Mike Lombard, which he turned into a blog post:

    There’s a big difference between Yokoten and blind copying. Yokoten, for example, is practiced at ThedaCare, where there’s an obligation to learn from another department but also an obligation to THINK and to IMPROVE, sharing your ideas back with those who went before you.

    Here is a video from a Jim Womack visit to ThedaCare on Yokoten:

    I’ve been at many other hospitals where people say “just give us the answer” as if that answer would be a substitute for thinking and PDCA experimentation. Don’t reinvent the wheel, but don’t just use somebody else’s wheel without thinking and improving it.

  2. Good post, and good comment by Mark. I wanted to emphasize what you said at the end, Mark, which was “as if the answer would be a substitute for thinking and PDCA experimentation.” I couldn’t agree more. Truly understanding the current-state, analyzing root causes, designing countermeasures (or adopting countermeasures obtained elsewhere, possibly via yokoten), testing countermeasures, and making adjustments based on what we learn from the testing. In that context, yokoten is a powerful and truly wonderful concept.

    • Thanks, Mike. And I’ll add, as we’ve discussed, that I think there’s a role and a proper timing for learning from other organizations.

      I prefer to have people look at another organization’s methods AFTER they have already taken a first stab at their own process design or improvement. Seeing what others have done can limit creativity, as there’s such a natural urge to copy something that’s “proven to work” someplace else. Except our organization is different… which is one reason we need to copy and adapt, not just copy. Learning from others – other departments or other organizations – can play a role, but it can’t be the only approach to improvement.


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