Guest Post: The Risk of Ignoring Muri


Today's guest post is by author  Natalie Sayer, who was my guest for  Podcast #145.  

While doing research for another project, I had the opportunity to watch the move Happy, a documentary looking at the science of happiness around the world.  If you have not had the chance to see the movie, I highly recommend it, especially as the holidays approach (Mark's note: available via Amazon instant video, for free even, if you're an Amazon Prime member, or on DVD).

According to the movie, the research shows that, while 50% of our happiness is from a genetic set point, only 10% is due to external circumstances like income, social status, age; in other words, the things we think will make us happy.   We actually have 40% that we can change through intentional activities, like gratitude, connection to others, and acts of kindness.   Imagine the culture we could create, in organizations and societies, if people intentionally focused on increasing their personal happiness skill set!

One statement in the movie caught my attention – Japan is one of the least happy of the developed countries.   A key reason for this is toxic lifestyles due in large part to the work culture.   It is not uncommon for employees to work consistently for more than 10 hours per day, not all of it officially on the clock.   One of the consequences of this culture is an increase in karoshi (death by overwork); another consequence is an increase in suicide due to depression.

The filmmakers interviewed Hiroko Uchino a widow whose husband, Kenichi, was a third-generation Toyota employee, and a victim of karoshi; he died in 2002 at the age of 30.   According to an Economist article from December 19, 2007, on November 30, 2007 the Nagoya District Court accepted Hiroko Uchino's claim of karoshi, which may have caused companies to review their work cultures and policies toward “free” or unpaid overtime.   This is not a new story; Mark did a blog post in 2007 about it; however, the movie has me thinking about muri.

Hiroko Uchino directly ties the Toyota focus on the elimination of muda and quest for efficiency to overwork, which is pushing people to their limits.   As I think about many organizations starting on a Lean journey, they focus mainly on “continuous improvement” and sometimes forget “respect for people” all together.   They focus mainly on eliminating muda, which is great, but not without risks if you lose sight of mura (unevenness/variation) or muri (overburdening).   My initial reaction to the interview of Hiroko Uchino was that the culture and leadership created waste by their relentless focus on muda and lack of focus on muri, which taken to the extreme results in karoshi.     This is not “respect for people”.

Is this “death by overwork” only a phenomenon in Japan?   From the research I've read, I don't think so.   Why is happiness important to a Lean culture?   Happy people are more productive, creative, collaborative, and enjoyable work colleagues.   Over-stressed or overburdened people – not so much – they make mistakes, have higher rates of health issues, including depression, are more withdrawn, and less able to make effective decisions.

While happiness isn't formulaic, some of the skill areas you can intentionally develop are

  • taking time for play,
  • having new experiences,
  • spending time with friends and family,
  • doing meaningful activities, and
  • appreciating what you have.

Creating time for people to be able to develop these skills is actually good for business.   So remember, for long-term success eliminate not only muda, but also mura and muri, and muri includes overburdening your people, process, and systems.

Reference links:


Happy the Movie:

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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.


  1. Thanks for the post, Natalie.

    As I wrote in 2007, I think the cases of “death by overwork” seem to be a “Japan problem,” not a “Toyota problem.” When I was there in Japan this month, we heard a lot of the general work culture of working really long days, having to go drink with colleagues, and then getting home to your family at 11 PM… that husbands and fathers don’t get much time with their wife and family… so cheating and affairs are commonplace, but people don’t get divorced because that would look bad.

    That all sounds like a recipe for personal unhappiness. But, as one person said, the long hours and devotion to company are the tradeoff for what’s essentially lifetime employment.

    I doubt we would see “death by overwork” at a Toyota plant in the U.S. because our national culture of “work/life balance” just wouldn’t allow that to happen, I’d say.

    I’d suggest that Toyota, if they are really living by their “respect for people” company philosophy, has an obligation to really guard against death by overwork in their Japanese sites. They’re not a perfect company and they don’t always abide by their stated philosophies and goals because, well, they’re human. We’re imperfect. Hospitals don’t always live up to their stated goals of doing everything they can do to protect patients from harm, either (sadly).

    The thought in your post about not only focusing on “continuous improvement” and ignoring “respect for people” is a great one. I’d also recommend that people look up Bob Emiliani’s work on this subject. Lean isn’t about “ruthless efficiency,” it’s about engaging people. That leads to satisfaction, when people are fully engaged and can participate in kaizen, or improvement, that benefits their customers, makes their own work easier or more interesting, and benefits the company.

    In the workplace, I think the words “engagement” or “satisfaction” are what I’d go for… but that would lead to “happiness” in the bigger picture of our entire life.

  2. Natalie made a lot of very valid points in her short post. Good Lean is about improving the process so that people can do more with the same or less effort, it should never be about getting more work by working people harder.

    Second the unhappy workplace becomes dog eat dog very quickly, and though that may drive some short term gains in the end it always weakens the company because people stop working together.

    Improving happiness results in improved relationships which just plan drives people to work together to do better and improve evrything about a place, from safety to production and everything in between. Some improvements show instantly in cost savings, but other show up slower as you find the better safety reduces injury costs overtime and improves attendance, all of which help the end result.

    When we are in a happy frame of mind its is just far easier to focus on our jobs at work the mind is not troubled with other distractions.

  3. One of my teachers (a Toyota veteran from Cambridge, ON – thank you Pascal!) was asked what he would do differently if he could go back through his Toyota years again. His answer was “celebrate more”. One of the many things that has stayed with me from that workshop!

    Never being satisfied with the current condition is a great driver of improvement but if we spend all of our time wringing our hands as a result of our acute awareness of problems and never look back to see how far we’ve come and what we’ve accomplished, we risk the kind of unhappiness Natalie talks about.

    “No problem is a big problem”, yes, but “Nothing but problems” is a big problem, too, perhaps.

    • Great point, Andrew!

      Lean thinkers tend to focus on problems, the gap between today’s reality and the ideal state. We have to remind ourselves sometimes to celebrate the positives.

  4. This post reminds me of the theory of the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who says that each of us has a set-point for our level of happiness, which we go back to time and time again – no matter what happens to us, even if we win the lottery, or lost someone really special, we will eventually get to that baseline of happiness.


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