Hide Oba Discusses His Legendary Father, Toyota’s Hajime Oba


Joining me for Episode #397 is Hide Oba. His father was the late Hajime Oba, famous for his work at Toyota and the TSSC, as Steve Spear and I discussed back in Episode #386.

Hide worked with his father at TSSC and also worked with him through the company H&M Operations Management, LLC. He is based in New York City. He says that his mission is to continue spreading his father's wisdom and I appreciate him doing so here with me on the podcast.

Hide Oba

I asked Hide to summarize his father's life and work and he then talks about some of the unique aspects of his approach.

“Going to the shop floor was fun… his hobby.”

Hide tells a story about his father telling Bruce Hamilton, “You should do Kaizen, too,” and you can read Bruce's side of the story here.

We discuss the balance between asking questions versus pointing people in a direction. Hide says Hajime “never asked people what they should do,” but he asked questions based on his vision.

Hajime saw TPS as “management engineering” — being very scientific about creating the right structure that allows you to create a kaizen culture. Hajime was also “careful” about the word “scientific” as it is meant to mean “continuous discovery and learning… understanding why.” Hide says his father was “addicted to learning.” Hajime aimed to always learn from the client.

From the new 2nd edition of The Toyota Way (an interview with Jeff Liker about that is coming soon, by the way):

“Oba said “TPS is built on the scientific way of thinking… How do I respond to this problem? Not a toolbox. You have to be willing to start small, learn through trial and error.”

Hide also talks about how his father visited hospitals in Pittsburgh via Kent Bowen and Paul O'Neill.

We also talk about why others have struggled to copy or emulate Toyota. “Stick to Ohno,” says Hide. Solve problems one at at instead of having a big program. He “never asked a company to start by creating a Lean / CI office, sitting and making presentations.” Hajime said the plant manager is the key person, and he would say,

“Come with me and let's go through the process together.”

Why does the idea of “challenge” not mean “asking people to do things that are impossible?” Why did he “hate giving a format for problem solving?”

We discuss all of that and the idea of “respect for people.” Hide says he father taught that we should “respect humanity” — human life is limited and we shouldn't waste it… that's why we do kaizen. He also “saw a lot of waste in his final days” in the hospital.

I'm very thankful that Hide can keep his father's work and legacy alive for all of us.

A full transcript can be found below. Thanks to Lesa Nichols for making the connection between us.

The podcast is sponsored by Stiles Associates, now in their 30th year of business. They are the go-to Lean recruiting firm serving the manufacturing, private equity and healthcare industries. Learn more.

You can listen to the audio or watch the video, below. I hope you enjoy the discussion.

For a link to this episode, refer people to www.leanblog.org/397.

Thanks for listening or watching!



Announcer: Welcome to the “Lean Blog Podcast.” Visit our website at www.leanblog.org. Now here's your host, Mark Graban.

Mark Graban: Hi, welcome to the podcast. It's Mark Graban. This is Episode 397. It's January 20th, 2021. My guest today is Hide Oba. He is the son of the late, Hajime Oba, who passed away last year.

You may recall in Episode 386, I talked to Professor Steve Spear, about his recollections of learning from Mr. Oba, who's of course famous for his work at Toyota and TSSC organization. His son, Hide, worked at TSSC. He also is listed as a senior consultant with H&M Operations Management, LLC. He worked closely with his father.

In today's episode, Hide shares a lot of his insights and personal reflections on working with his father, what he learned, what others learned about the Toyota Production System, what a lot of us would call Lean.

If you'd like to see show notes and more, you can go to leanblog.org/397. To find the episode with Steve Spear, you can either scroll down in the podcast feed or you can go to leanblog.org/386. Thanks for listening.


Mark: All right. Again we are joined today by Hide Oba. Thank you so much for being a guest today. How are you?

Hide Oba: Thank you, Mark. Thank you for this opportunity.

Mark: It's a real pleasure. It's a real honor. I thought we could start, first, if you could tell some of your story. How did you start working with your father?

Hide: It was 2001. I was working at a different company as accountant. I told my company that we need to reduce inventories. I was an arrogant accountant telling them, “Hey, you reduce inventory.”

Then I told my dad, “Hey, I'm doing the same thing as you do.” I told these guys to reduce the inventory. He didn't get angry. He asked me, “What's the Lean Time?” I didn't know what was the Lead Time. I start investing about Lean Time.

I found out that the company had two weeks of Lean Time. I told my father, “Our inventory targets should be two weeks.” Then he started laughing. Lean Time is less than one day or something.

How can a product that's less complicated than automobile can take two weeks of Lean Time. That's when I start feeling like, “My God, my father knows something different than my company knows, or some of these other people that I talk to knows about.” I begged him like, “Give me the opportunity to work with you.”

He gave me a project in USA. From there I start working with him. That was 2001, 2002.

Mark: Your story, that's such an interesting introduction to your father's career and his approach. Hearing you tell that story, it makes me reflect and think this happens a lot in companies. It's easy for people to think they understand TPS, or Lean, or they understand one part of it.

I've been guilty of that, myself. I don't claim to fully understand all. What are some of your thoughts and as you went to go visit other companies and see how your father worked with others? How do you help people get past the temptation to say, “Oh, I've learned a little bit. Now I understand it, let's just get rid of the inventory, for example?”

Hide: Every time he comes to the shop floor, there's always a new point of view. I learn from him. The companies welcome him. It's like this never end to this journey. There's always a lot more to do it.

There are people who get confused. Like, why we hit the target, and he doesn't look happy. On the other hand, it's almost getting addicted to this journey. You always explore and find something new. I turned out to be one of those people [laughs] getting addicted to my father, and I followed him.

Mark: Becoming addicted to learning, addicted to improvement, that's a good thing to see in an organization, right?

Hide: Yes, I think so. A lot of people enjoyed it, too.

Mark: I never had the opportunity to work with your father. I've talked to many people who have. I did a podcast episode with Steve Spear. Lesa Nichols from Toyota, Vickie Pisowicz who worked at Alcoa and learned from Steve Spear and was introduced to your father.

There are always so many great stories about him coming out to the shop floor. I was wondering if you could talk about that. The importance of going to the shop floor and some of the other unique aspects of your father's approach.

Hide: Going to shop floor for him was almost…How can I say it? Fun or entertainment. He didn't have much hobby, but going to the shop floor was his hobby. First is the detail that he captures is completely different.

Like we went to this factory without talking about training for the people and we made a program that sort of, “You either work in this way.” He says, “Something is wrong with that program.” Then we found out on the shop floor the people was doing the different direction.

My father was asking us why we teaching them different direction because when you take them to the real world it's going to confuse them. None of us captured that, but he just got it and once we change it, it makes so easy for everybody to understand the process.

How careful he watching this detail but crucial for people was unbelievable and that's something that I'm still trying to learn.

Mark: Your father had the opportunity and the fortune to learn from Taiichi Ohno. What did your father pass along in terms of what he learned from Mr. Ohno about the importance of going to the shop floor? Did he tell stories about him?

Hide: I think he said he didn't directly learn from him. I think he is like the second generation like Mr. Cho or somebody like that. They are the first-hand students and Mr. Oba learning from them. I know Mr. Oba. My father met Mr. Ohno once in a while. Going to the shop floor was like so normal thing for him to do.

I still remember I get a phone call and he's like, “I'm outside the factory. Let me in.” He just go into the factory and start pointing out things. That was a way that a lot of Toyota managers behaved. They don't give advance notice that they are coming, that we can prepare.

They would come suddenly and whatever happening on the shop floor is the result and any excuses is not accepted. That's their style.

Mark: Tell me more about that. You said no excuses acceptable?

Hide: Right. Like one example happened was the machine was not running for maintenance reasons, I start making some excuses and said, “Today is a bad day. Today we happened to have blah-blah-blah.” He always looked at me and I stopped making excuses.

He only comes once in, I don't know, once in a year. This happening on that particular day, it is only two option, it's a miracle or it's happening every day. “Tell me the truth.” I'm like, “Yes, dad. You're right. It's happening all the time. We haven't solved this issue yet. We need to work on it.”

Whatever the other result look fancy, but he was now, “What's the real problem? If that's the real problem, let's fix it.” I learned that multiple times.

Mark: It's funny. Then you talk about this idea of no warning about showing up at the Gemba, what's the risk of giving two weeks' notice to say, “I'm going to come visit in two weeks' time.” What's that? I think I know the answer, but I want to hear it.

Hide: Then they would do this painting and they clean up the whole floor and they make nice presentations and adjust the grass and whatever. It looks nice but these guys you cannot fool them like that. Once they start the presentation, they would walk around the route.

They would go off the route for sure. Go to any process and he would start asking question, “If that's happening there right now, could that happen to the line that you were working on?” I have to say, “Yes sir, you're right. There's no excuse about it.”

Mark: I guess the smell of fresh paint is a dead giveaway that [laughs] which is the real…

Hide: Yeah, fresh paint, fresh board or…He loved those dirty boards with pencils and even standardized work. He doesn't like the fancy PowerPoint standardized work. Write there on a piece of paper with a pencil, just keep updating and that's perfect fine with him or any of the other Toyota people. That's how I get framed.

Mark: It's interesting because you're one of had the opportunity to visit Toyota plants. I think of the plant in San Antonio Texas where you used to live. As your taken through different part of the factory, you don't see these really beautiful looking team boards or improvement boards. There is inconsistency.

I think that throw some people off, but I guess the question is if you're going to elaborate about it's going to be more about the problem solving thinking than it is having some sort of standardized white board that has fancy labels and might look nice from an outsider, right?

Hide: Yeah. That's why he hated giving us a format for problem solving. He would give me a big white sheet of paper, “Write down what is the problem and then what was the hypothesis? What did you test? Hypothesis is tested. Keep just updating the whole story on the paper.”

It's not about being beautiful it's about… or what we thought was the problem and then we investigate it. “No, it was wrong. That's fine, but show me the whole investigation.”

Maybe in the end, you might ask them to summarize so that you can keep a file of what was the real problem and the countermeasure so that you can feedback the future generation like designing a new product or design a new machinery, something like that. They do their basis, dirty is beautiful.

Mark: That theme of going to the Gemba, going to the shop floor comes out very strongly. Bruce Hamilton who I'm hoping to also interview, your father did work with his company in Massachusetts. Bruce wrote a blog post, I'll link to it in the show notes, where Bruce was vice president of manufacturing and your father would want him to go the shop floor.

The other executives were skeptical, “But why should we go the shop floor?” Your father told Bruce as he wrote, “You should do Kaizen, too.” That the entire management team should do Kaizen. What's your perspective on that idea that everybody in leadership should be doing Kaizen themselves?

Hide: First is, I think in this they should have some idea how they want the process to be improved and then making sure I think my father was sometimes…How going to say?

I was working with my father and my brother and he saw my brother working with a team. He didn't immediately go to the team. He was looking at how my brother was managing a team dynamics, what kind of a guidance he is giving, what are the problems that he is facing.

He is a manager making sure that the organization is working on the problem solving, working on sometimes one by one. That's something as a managerial he's always want the management to think about is how to make sure that we are giving them the right environment for this class to do Kaizens.

Is those Kaizen leading to the level that they expect? Another episode but long time ago I did a workshop and before we started the workshop, he gave me a hint and say, “Focus on the tool. Focus on the positioning of the tools and stuff.” I got there otherwise, but we didn't work on that, but we got the result.

The management was happy and clapping hands because we doubled the productivity and it's going to save a lot of things for the management. He was looking at my face and he didn't make a comment during the presentation, but end of the day he came back to say, “I asked you work on this tool hanging, what happened?”

I said, “Wow, we can work on it.” It was the complicated, but we got the results with the different things and he's like, “I know that you can work on those other Kaizens, but I know that you haven't seriously completed this tool hanging and this was a great location. That's the reason why I'm challenging you work on this Kaizen.”

Yes, it might not have the exact impact, but the other impact he knows that we can do it. He knows the people can do it, but he always wants us to work on something new so that when some next challenge comes, we can add a list of things that we can do.

I think that was something that all the managers are always challenging is they know what we can do and they want to challenge something more. Maybe a little bit, but something more all the time.

That's why I think they come to the Gemba to understand what can you do and where do you need to go. I think he's always looking for that gap not only the opportunities.

Mark: In observing how your father worked, I'm curious. People often talk about leading by asking questions. In your story, it sounds like your father was sort of pointing in a direction, I'm curious, the balance between only asking questions versus steering somebody about where to look to where they should be asking questions about.

Hide: I definitely thinks he had a image of how it should be and he had the clue. He never asked the question, “What should we do?”

He don't have any idea of what needs to be done. He always had some answer and it's OK if my answer was not perfectly right, but if it's going the same direction or not, that's something I think he always had inside his mind and he wants to make sure that the people are going toward the right directions.

He wasn't asking what to do next or “Please, tell me the answer.” That kind of question he never asked. It's always based on his true north or his vision. He has something that he want us to work on and am I thinking the right way or not. That's his question.

Mark: Thanks. I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit more. You've touched on this how your father viewed TPS, I know there's a phrase you used when we talked before, management engineering. The role of managers creating a culture, could you tell us more about that?

Hide: Oftentimes, I hear, “What's the incentives to pay to the people so that they would work on Kaizens?” My father always liked shaking his hands. Toyota is not going to pay a dollar for every Kaizen ideas.

It's like the whole process is designed in a way that, hey, if the problem happens, the process will stop and the management responsibility is solve the issue so that they can hit the targets that they are given by the higher bosses.

Therefore, they have to work on the problems and they also have the target for the Kaizens, so they have to work on those problems. If you cannot meet those target, somebody will come and help to accomplish the target. These dynamics is carefully designed.

It's not like other process where we keep a lot of inventory, we keep a lot of detail, we keep a lot of people in between so that even if somebody don't hit the target it's OK we don't care because overall up the design. If you design the process that way, there's no need to really work on Kaizen.

I think that's where my father was really careful about is, “Are we sure that the management structure with the way we managing the process is a design that we have to do Kaizen?” It's not Kaizen by fear, but Kaizen by responsibility or ownership of those process.

Mark: Kaizen by necessity perhaps?

Hide: Yeah, Kaizen by necessity I think so and people feel fun about it. It's not like they need pressure to hit the target. They would do their best, but if they cannot, they feel comfortable pulling down. Don't say, “Sir, I cannot accomplish this. Can you help me?” That's when they know that they are learning something new.

They feel comfortable that they found out that there's something new happen. Then they will say, “Next cross, let me do it by myself.” That become the Kaizen culture.

I think that's something I think he was very cautious about is like, “Don't get easy on adding inventories or [laughs] having big times, take it out so that the management feels a need to do Kaizen and the people feel the need to do Kaizen and provide the support.”

Mark: People I think very broadly know the word Kaizen. The Japanese word that come to us in a lot of cases via study of Toyota, but there is another word in English word of course that comes up a lot and that word is challenge.

I was curious to your thoughts when we talk about the concept as Toyota describes in English either respect for people or respect for humanity. How do you see that idea of challenge being respectful in a TPS type environment?

Hide: I don't think there is any challenge there. The managers don't feel like it's impossible to accomplish. I don't think there's any challenge that would give such a challenge. I think my father like I said already has a road map of how he would improve the process according to the road map he challenges us.

He's not asking us to do something impossible. There's another word that we use like Muri Mura Muda. Muri means hard work or impossible non-logical things. He told the people never give us a…It's challenging, mentally challenging, but it's not a really impossible to accomplish target.

If I look back and look at the results, it might look like it's a crazy target if somebody told me to do that from day one. It might look crazy, but I think the leaders always have that vision and step by step they challenging us. I think that's the beauty or art of this Toyota way.

Mark: That's a good way of putting it, challenges that are not too easily accomplished but also don't seem impossible where it might be demoralizing or asking questions that are not so open-ended. As you said, not just asking what do you think we should do, but also asking questions that are not, let's say, maybe just directive.

Toyota talks about developing people through problem solving. It's seems the risk of if somebody asked the question that's so specific that it's basically telling someone what the answer is. The risk is that that we don't develop that person's problem solving skills. What are your thoughts on striking that balance?

Hide: A lot of people will say that my father never gave answers but in many cases. I think that's why I think we learn as we trying to figure out. Actually, recently, I was talking with my father about my son. He's like three-year-old now.

He's going through kindergarten and stuff. A lot of schools, preschools are now changing from traditional teaching board to more like play-based, or Montessori, or other methodology where it's so open-based, where you give the kids to explore and from exploring things, they learn.

I think Toyota is to some degree is giving us an opportunity to play around and explore and learn. Obviously, they want to use…If I say I want a new toy, they would say, “No, you have enough toys around. Use those toys to find out something that you can learn.”

When I was talking about my son's education and my father felt…actually he started reading about those education system and he's like, “Wow, there's some similarity there.” I felt same way. It's just in the many of the corporate world, they don't think about how can I create a safe environment to make mistakes like preschools.

That's why a lot of people become more afraid to challenge is because if there is a mistake, I lose my job. I lose everything, blame your new challenge. That's why he's like, “You have to accept that we might fail, but it's important. Keep it safe.”

Mark: That idea of scientific problem solving or experiments or opening that risk to fail, I have a coffee mug I'll hold up for those who are watching if you can read it. I started a separate podcast series called, “My Favorite Mistake.” That is really the theme talking about mistakes that we've learned from in our careers.

Often, we end up talking about how do we create an environment where as you put it, a safe environment to make mistakes. I think that's a very important thing that I've been fortunate to learn from Toyota people and my work and my career.

Hide: I think they always challenge something that it's OK to make a mistake and you learn a lot from that and then we challenge something higher level. Like, I didn't start working designing a layout of factory until very late because…

Even if I look back to some of the layout like a year later after you start implementing the whole system and stuff, you start looking at it like, “Oh my God, I made some [laughs] mistakes.” I didn't consciously think about it. Fortunately, it was a mistake that is fixable but if I have to move like workmen and stuff, I do have to have additional resources to move around equipment.

He never gave us that kind of challenge or Toyota never gave that kind of challenge on the early days of the career but once you learn those easy mistakes that you learn about it, then they would gradually give us a higher one. They might cost more, but I think that's how they train people.

Mark: Well, it also seems like an argument for doing things like having equipment that's on wheels so that when we inevitably make a mistake with the layout, to your point like you said, it's fixable instead of being in the concrete of the floor.

Hide: That's why they designed the racks, designed the machinery with the wheels and easy to move if I want to. A lot of places already have equipment that already have deep root in the concrete so if I want that to be moved, it's a huge deal. Ideally, we would love to find something that has a wheel and easy to move.

Once in a while we have to have the monuments. Before we learned to design the monuments, he always challenge us. He flexed for open-minded, understand what's the good layout should look like, then think about designing the monument.

Mark: On the topic of mistakes and learning, just recently was sent by Jeff Liker the second edition of his book, “The Toyota Way.” Earlier in the book he quotes your father from a presentation that said, “TPS is built on the scientific way of thinking. How do I respond to this problem? It's not a toolbox. You have to be willing to start small and learn through trial and error.” I'm curious. Your thoughts or reactions to that quote.

Hide: I'm not surprised because that's how he's being acting. He was very I think cautious about the scientific, a science, the meaning of science. I think Frederick Taylor a long time ago, early 19th centuries, no sorry, early 20th centuries, he wrote the book called “Scientific Management,” which is like the starting point of every study of management.

Myself and him read the book. It sounds like science in that age looked like science is a authority. Science defines what is best at the beginning and you tell people this is the right way you follow. I think a lot of people still see science as that way.

It's like, “There is a guru in the factory and they know everything about the so-called science. They are the authority, ask them. They define the process, we follow.” I think Taylor's science is I think more closer to what the real meaning of science because science is a continuous discovery and learning.

Every time we test something, we might find something new and we need to understand why. It's a continuous journey of that. I think Dr. Bowen wrote that as like, “Every employee in Toyota is like a real scientist.”

It's because they know that at the beginning we start with something based of what we know, but at end of the day we might find a new science and we need to continuously update ourselves.

That's the reason why I think there's that kind of to understand your science. One is saying, “Hey, somebody is going to give you the answer. You follow them. They are the authority.” The other one is saying, “No, it's a continuous improvement.”

You never reach the complete answer to the problem, but there is always something better that we can introduce. What is it? Let's look for it. If you only have few expert, then you only going to find few new science. If every your employer is looking for a new science in their process, you'll find millions of new science.

Mark: That makes a lot of sense. I haven't heard anyone say it exactly that way before of science as authority, the top-down directive approach. I think there's this…

Hide: There's also a joke T-shirt that end, “I'm a engineer, consider myself right” T-shirt.

[laughs] I know it's a joke, but I don't know how many percentage [laughs] [29:31] of that is a joke or they think a little bit that, “I'm an engineer, I'm right so just follow me.”

I think my father challenged so many engineers, so many engineers, like, “Come to shop floor. I don't care what you say, what's happening on the shop floor is not necessarily what you are saying.” We need to understand what's the logic behind this science.

Mark: There could be a similar T-shirt that says, “I'm a manager. Consider myself right.”

Hide: That's another one. [laughs] That's another good one, too.

Mark: You mentioned Kent Bowen. I was wondering what your recollections were of your father working with Kent Bowen and Steve Spear when Kent Bowen was at Harvard, Steve Spears at the time was at Harvard and they had collaborations.

This is where some of my professional circle start coming together, where they had worked with Paul O'Neill from Alcoa. Vickie Pisowicz, who I mentioned earlier, was part of that learning and that collaboration, which included visiting some hospitals.

I was curious, your recollections of your father's learning in general from living and working in the United States. What he might have told you about those interactions with people like Bowen, Spear and O'Neill?

Hide: That's something he always appreciate. He thought Dr. Bowen was his good friend. Despite the fact that they came from completely different backgrounds, they seemed to understand each other about TPS, very, very fluently, despite the fact that my father's English wasn't that good. That was fine with them.

What my father learned from them is that in the United States, there's a lot of more studies or development done in the area of coaching, of double-loop learning. There's a lot of theories about how people learn. When my father saw that, and he also attended some of the Harvard case study class environment, he's felt that that's unbelievable environment.

He wanted to learn that. He wanted to practice that on the show floor. Instead of a little bit a strict, traditional teaching style in Japan, which he had that influence, but he gradually tried to shift toward more questioning. Got this method of something that doesn't drive by fear, but more respecting the humanity itself. That's what my father was learning from.

I would like to say that all those people that my father met, like Paul O'Neill as another example that you mentioned, every one of them was somebody. I know everybody will say they learned from my father, but may father also learned from them about their style. Another word, [Japanese] . That was not a popular word when he was… '90s in Japan.

Now as he see that, he tried to understand that concept and he's like, “Wow, there's so many things to learn from United States.” Therefore, it's a game of catch. He's learning, and myself is learning a lot about American-style management, learning, coaching and that kind of things. On the return, he will throw this TPS.

Dr. Bowen and Mr. Oba was always doing that game of catch, exchanging ideas.

Mark: That's great. He's very much associated with TSSC. TSSC, in recent years, has done pro bono work helping healthcare organizations. Do you know if he ever had the opportunity to work with a hospital?

Hide: While doing the TSSC area in Pittsburgh, that's the hospital. After that, I don't think he had a project in hospital. Healthcare equipment, yes, but not hospital.

Mark: One other thing I wanted to ask about, you mentioned Harvard, case studies and that way of learning. One other popular way of learning, and people may have known of your father, was from a “Wall Street Journal” article that was quite famous. The headline of this article asked, “How does Toyota maintain quality? Mr. Oba's hair dryer offers a clue.”

In short, talks about him going to an auto supplier. They were having difficulty with parts drying properly. They had this robotic, automated oven that cost almost $300,000. The story talks about him using a $12 hair dryer to do the work just as well. Earlier, you mentioned sometimes there's this idea that he didn't give answers.

It sounds like the hair dryer might have been, if not an answer, pointing in the direction of…What are the lessons there? That simplicity can be more effective sometimes?

Hide: Yeah, I've been to the factory where they put the hair dryer thing. I've been to factory where he will say, “OK, instead of using the huge monument washing machine,” for example, and that was a gear factory. He said, “Well, let's make this small gear washing machine.” Obviously, engineers will say, “That's too complex.” If he make one, it's simple device.

I need a metal box and it spin in the metal, and that's it. Pour the washing liquid in and it washes up nicely. I don't know what's the right way to say…He trusted, how can I say, engineers for trying to tell you a good answer, but he never believes the story until he sees it. First thing he will say is, “Let's try. It's a $12 hair dryer. What could go wrong if I buy $12 and it didn't work?”

This washing machine that I talked about, it's not going to cost me less than $100. Let's try those cheap option first. If it fail, I'm sorry. It's good at monument. Most cases, the things that he tried is very cheap, but it worked effectively. Then why we need to think about million dollars?

Mark: I'll put a link to that article in the show notes. It's an old enough article, hopefully there's free access to that online. The article talked about your father's mission. They described it, “A mission that transformed Toyota's American auto part suppliers into Lean, high-quality manufacturers.”

They're using that word, Lean, which, quite often, The Wall Street Journal thinks Lean is “get rid of the inventory,” as you were talking about earlier. Question for you, do you know what he thought about the word Lean, as opposed to talking about TPS, the Toyota Production System? Did he have much use for labels? You mentioned he didn't like templates. What about words and labels?

Hide: I don't know if you want to compare Lean and TPS, that's a tough question. He never considered himself the Lean expert. He will always say TPS. One thing he was concerned, is Lean is becoming so big that sometimes the TPS, the original philosophy, might disappear. That's why he wants to stick to Taichi Ohno's teachings.

That's the reason why he's little bit worried about Lean is becoming more and more. Dr. Womack might have the original definition, and he might have the good intention, but then so many people adding things and changing the meaning. The other thing is, Lean is also the opposite…He always wanted to say, “OK, you want to be Lean, but thinking, this part is also important.”

I need to have a healthy body, but I need to have a good thinking, good mindset. That part of TPS, we shouldn't forget about. It's not just being less inventory, less people, less lead time, that kind of thing. There's a famous professor in Japan [inaudible 39:07] up with TPS called Dr. Fujimoto.

He once said in his book is that, “Toyota's strength is not TPS, it's the capability to give birth to TPS.” They designed it. They implement it. They test system. That's the capability, is what makes Toyota interesting and unique. That's the thing that my father is always thinking about.

Yes, your body needs to be Lean, but your mindset also have to be very sharp, continuously thinking, challenging. That's the part that he doesn't want to forget about.

Mark: If I hear you correctly, when you said Lean was getting too big, you mean too popular? Then there was risk that it changes or gets misunderstood? Is that fair to say?

Hide: One example, Taichi Ohno's book, “Workplace Management,” there's a chapter that called, “Standard Time Should Be The Lowest Time.” That's the final chapter of the Workplace Management.

Whoever is sticking onto that simple concept, it goes, if you cannot accomplish the lowest time, [Japanese] , the team leader, will come and help you and we solve the issue together and we improve. A lot of versions are now saying, “Oh, it's OK to have this 80 percent grow. Let's use the average.”

Even the stock time, “Oh, we're going to use this fake demand because we want to accomplish more than the actual demand, to be safe.” Once you allow that kind of calculations to creep inside, it goes back to the original point that you asked about you designing the process that doesn't necessarily need to do Kaizen or problem solve one by one.

That was his concern. Are we really adding things by understanding what Taichi Ohno tried to do, or changing to a complete different monster? If it's complete different monster, let's be careful about it.

Mark: That's good advice. You talk about, going back to Taichi Ohno, that Wall Street Journal article described how your father was trained at OMCD, Operations Management Consulting Division.

In that article, one other thing I wanted to ask you about, your father was quoted as saying what The Big Three, referring to the auto makers, and this idea might apply to any manufacturer or a hospital that's trying to emulate and learn from Toyota. His quote was, “What The Big Three are doing is creating a Buddha image and forgetting to inject soul in it.”

I was curious to your reactions to that idea, or what you would add to that. That's a interesting, provocative statement.

Hide: You mentioned, you need a three-hour training and you can start talking about TPS. To really understand, it's going to take years of practice to understand it. It's a very similar point. Whatever they saying is very simple. Problem solve one by one. Run the line with a lower cycle time.

They saying simple things, but in practice, every day, it's going to look dirty [laughs] if we design the process like that. We have to do problem solving, really have to do. That's going to require some work to do. If the managers just want quick result, sorry, but it might not be the right version. That's why, for example, Andon lights.

My father sometimes goes to factory and, oh my God, why we have so many Christmas trees here? You have so many color lights flashing everywhere, nobody's reacting, nobody's taking action about it. At Toyota, if Andon goes on and the light goes on, you will see immediate action. Some of the manager will come and jump onto the problems.

That's what I always see when I visit their factories, really fast. I pulled on them once for a simulation, which I shouldn't have done that, but the people will come. There was the question why and they were saying, “Oh, sorry, this guy pulled it by mistake.” [laughs] I shouldn't have said that.

Mark: That's OK. That idea of, as your father was quoted, thinking of the soul. There was a different article written in the early 1990s, I believe, in “Fortune” magazine, so again, another popular, broad business publication like The Wall Street Journal. I forget who was quoted.

It might've been Fujio Cho who talked about Big Three automakers coming to visit Toyota, saying they try to copy tools, but they…It was Mr. Cho who also used the word soul. They don't understand the soul of Toyota. They're not copying the right things. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on what you see and why other organizations struggle when they're emulating Toyota.

There's another example of a BBC article about a Ford truck plant that installed the Andon cord system, that might be the Buddha image. There was a culture of fear, where people would get yelled at [laughs] for pulling the Andon cord. What are your thoughts on some of these struggles of why organizations maybe don't try to copy the right things?

Hide: That's a tough question to answer. First of all, Big Threes are trying and they are catching up, not just Big Three, but the Europeans, the Koreans, or the Chinese manufacturers. Automotive industry is a tough industry. These guys are improving their process significantly. Still, I have to say that Toyota stands out.

It's a tough question that my father and myself always discuss about. One thing I will say that these whole TPS tools, is not TPS group's tool. It's the management tool. Andon, Kanban, or any of these fancy tools, there's a small group of people who's expert in it. It's the team leader. It's the group leader. It's a normal guys on the show floor are actually using those tools.

They sometimes master little things more. To make that happen, the management takes time to understand. They work as a line manager, team leader position to understand what does help means. That way, the system continues to evolve. If I just implement the light or add additional resource to react to the problem, it might not react the same way.

It's still an ongoing question and I don't have an answer to it.

Mark: That's OK. What I hear you saying is there's a difference between…This happens at different types of organizations, sometimes hospitals. They will hire a couple of people from manufacturing companies. They may train some of their employees or leaders. They're the ones who go out and run improvement projects.

They will call that Lean, but that's very different than making sure the equivalent of a team leader and a group leader in a nursing unit has the problem solving skills that we would associate with TPS. What are your thoughts?

Hide: Yeah, and that's a major difference in my father's approach. He never asks a company to say, “Hey, let's make a new office.” I've been to a factory where they have a Continuous Improvement Office, a Lean Office and a Initial Alert of the Company PES Office. Three of them sitting next to each other and they're making bunch of presentations.

My father thinking is, you don't have to start there. That manager, he thinks that's the key person inside a factory. He will say, “You will come with me and let's go through this whole process together, understand the problems and starting work on problem solving together.”

Once the organization is reaching to a higher level where I need to deploy the similar concept to different factories, or connect to the supplier or customers, or we need to challenge more, then he might start thinking about, “OK, let's have a TPS group or the Lean group.”

One of the best people who actually did Kaizen should lead that organization, instead of hiring somebody from outside. Somebody inside should develop and take that position, and get the challenge to spread. He was never, ever asking that question. Make that office first, he never said that. He didn't like that. He wants to work with the plan managers or COO, that kind of guy first.

Mark: That makes sense. Maybe the final question for you, Hide. Can you talk a little bit more about the work that you're doing and will continue doing, continuing your father's work and his legacy. What are some of your plans that you have?

Hide: Myself and my brother talked about this after my father's passing. One of the favorite phrase of my father, you touched it, is respect humanity. He will say that human life is limited, therefore we shouldn't waste their time. That's why we need to do Kaizen because we want people to add value the society more. At the same time, [Japanese] is something that we can continue on.

The creativity, curiosity and also this passion. We feel that we learned so much from my father, that we want to pass this pattern to next generations. We still see a lot of opportunity everywhere, like hospitals. [laughs] We saw a lot of waste during my father's final days.

I know that if my father could get of out a hospital, he would go back and say, [laughs] “We need to do Kaizen.” That's what myself and my brother is now thinking about. We want to continue my father's teaching and pass that pattern to next generations.

Mark: That's great. Thank you for sharing that idea. Really makes you think, we have a lot of listeners of this podcast who work in healthcare. To think of that idea of the waste in patient care and the impact that has. Like you said, that's why we have to do Kaizen.

I hope that inspires listeners to continue what they're doing for other people's fathers and for other people's loved ones who are there in the hospital to make sure that everyone gets the best care possible. Thank you…


Hide: They're very, very professional, unbelievable talented peoples. I have to say real thank you to all those doctors and nurses tried to help my father with his last minute.

I know that my father would say such a talented people is not necessary focused on the right thing. We provide a better environment for them to do their work, then more and more people will be saved, and more and more people will have more quality time with their families.

My father's desire is that these professional people should be released from waste, do what they are capable of doing and adding value to the patient.

He want to say thank you to the doctors and nurses. He hopes that these people can spend more time on adding values, not just wasting time. That's some of the passion with humanity. Something that we as a student of him would like to continue.

Mark: Thank you. That's beautifully said. Thank you for sharing that. Again, I want to express my condolences to you and your family on your father's passing. I appreciate that you can take some time to share some reflections and stories that we could document and capture here in the podcast.

Again, we've been joined by Hide Oba. Thank you so much. I appreciate the time that we could spend together here.

Hide: Mark, thank you very much for this opportunity. It was a great opportunity. It gave me an opportunity to rethink about what my father have done and gave me more positive memory back and in getting us from this hard times.


Hide: Thank you very much.

Mark: Thank you.

Announcer: Thanks for listening. This has been the Lean Blog Podcast. For Lean news and commentary updated daily visit www.leanblog.org. If you have any questions or comments about this podcast, email mark at leanpodcast@Gmail.com.


What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleWhy Did Some Patients Get Injected With 5X the Pfizer Covid Vaccine Dose?
Next articleSome Lean and Leadership Thoughts From Inauguration Day
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. Here is a great story shared by another son, Yasu Oba, on LinkedIn:

    With our father’s passing in the fall of 2020, my brother has been trying to find ways to continue my father’s work.

    Podcast isn’t something my father did but we hope this is start for my brothers to continue his work and have a meaningful impact to people like father had. His passion for the work became is life and it was awesome to see his commitment.

    I still remember, when we used to go to McDonald’s, my father used to ask us “how can you make this production line better?”….. my response was “Can I order Big Mac now?”

  2. We were very fortunate to have over a ten year relationship with Mr Oba. we learned so much through his questions and humility is seeking understanding of our company’s opportunities. TPS (Thinking People System) inspired us to develop our EDGE (Employees Dedicated to Growth and Excellence). Our learning allowed us to reduce waste and keep 90% of our Furniture production in Hickory NC while so many left and became importers. The lessons allowed us to provide industry leading Lead times for Upholstery and wood, as well as customization options to improve our value to our customers resulting in steady growth in sales and profits. We shared bonuses with our employees until our parent company prohibited it because other divisions could not. Personally I am honored and inspired by witnessing such a wonderful person so intent on helping people achieve their potential.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.