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September 27, 2013

Standing in the Circle

Anyone who has read anything about the Toyota Production System is likely to have read about Taiichi Ohno making new engineers stand in a circle in the workplace, for hours on end, to identify waste in the process.

Personally the image that this story creates in my mind has always horrified me – how humiliating! I suspect I am not the only one shocked by this approach, and I guess this is why “standing in the circle” has not made it into mainstream lean practice. People in the West simply wouldn’t tolerate being told to stand on a spot for hours.

But I was wrong!

I was focussing on the circle to the exclusion of the purpose of the activity. The purpose of the activity is to identify waste in the process, and the idea of “standing in the circle” should be taken as more of a metaphor than a literal requirement.

The purpose is to identify waste, and the philosophy behind that is that , developing a deep understanding of the process, by being part of it, is the only way to become truly aware of where, and how, waste is created.

And this point, I believe, is crucial to successful process improvement. The first step in improvement – understand the problem – is often rather glossed over in much lean activity. We may “go and look” at the process, but do we really “see”? We may collect data and do control charts and other analysis, but without being part of the process we cannot truly understand how it works and why it behaves in the way it does.

“Standing in the Circle” is not about the circle, it is about the process. It is about gaining a deep understanding of it, so we can not only “see” the waste but we can know how and why it arises.

And, in my opinion, this is the most important element of process improvement. If we combine a strong understanding of what the customer values with a really in-depth knowledge of the process – gained through experience- we can very quickly identify improvement actions which will benefit the customer and reduce costs. Indeed I would advocate any improvement facilitator working in the process, and speaking to everyone involved with it, for at least 2 to 4 weeks before initiating an improvement team.

It all starts with “standing in the circle”, and doing so will deepen understanding of the problems in the process as well as make engaging the team much easier.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the whole of TPS and lean is about “standing in the circle”. Get that right and the rest follows.

I was wrong about “standing in the circle”. I wonder if you are too?