Excerpts From: WORKPLACE MANAGEMENT By Taiichi Ohno
Part I: The Superior Person Knows how to Adapt...
I have been asked to write about ‘workplace management,’ but I do not feel confident enough to discuss the topic in a systematic way. I would rather talk about some ideas that are of primary importance to me.
I am not of the opinion that subtle or gentle actions will set the workplace in motion right away. Life would be simple indeed if things moved constantly - but that is not the way the workplace operates. If you want change, you really have to persuade people first, bringing them around to your way of thinking.
To bring people around through persuasion, you should have something to back up what you are saying. Otherwise, most people will not be moved. I have been asked in many forums how one goes about persuading people, and I think to a certain extent you must have a certain amount of self-confidence when giving instructions or orders to others. Yet even with self-confidence, the mind of a man or woman is such an uncertain thing that perhaps we should be happy if as much as half of what we say is true.
In Japan we have an old proverb that says even a thief is right one-third of the time. If a thief can be right a third of the time, then the average man or woman ought to be able to be right half the time. It seems to me, however, that we should accept that we are going to be wrong the rest of the time.
When I was a middle-school student under the old prewar educational system, we had a class in reading classical Chinese. In the Analects, Confucius says Chat "the superior man knows how to adapt" and "the superior man does not fear change." Now, the term "superior man seems to refer to a pretty admirable kind of person, the sort who says the right thing more than half of the time. Yet the point of saying that such a person "does not fear change" or "knows how to adapt" is that not even a superior person will be right 100 percent of the time.
Even a superior person who is right 70 percent of the time cannot avoid being wrong about three times out of 10. Though wrong, however, that person does not fear being corrected. I am saying that the leopard should not be afraid to change his spots. The saying means that though you stubbornly insist that everything coming out of your mouth is correct, this may simply not be so.
Another old expression we learned was: "Don't issue orders in the morning and repeal them that evening." According to my somewhat unreliable memory of the time, we were taught to avoid the wavering shown by giving commands or instructions in the morning and then changing them the same evening. Yet it seems to me that the superior person who knows how to adapt and does not fear change should issue orders in the morning and repeal them in the evening.
If the orders you issue in the morning are hazy and equivocal in the first place, then perhaps they should not be changed until you see their results. Yet once you issue an order, why wait until later if the results lead you to think you have made a mistake? Why not issue orders in the morning and repeal them the same evening? You need to run things in such a way that you can change or repeal them even in the afternoon. Yet in some countries, once laws and ordinances have been enacted, they are left in effect rather than changed. Indeed, in some places you can hear people exclaim, "What? You mean that rule is still on the books?"
There may well be a fair number of countries in the world that, for better or worse, leave laws in effect for years be cause it would be unacceptable "to issue orders in the morning and then repeal them in the evening." As customary as this thinking seems to have become, there is no reason for your own company to be content with it.
Technicians are especially prone to stick by what they themselves have said or thought. Yet despite their reputation for thick-headedness or stubbornness, it is important for technicians to see themselves as superior people who can easily adapt to change. If you realize that something you have said is wrong, admit it. Otherwise, subordinates or others in the workplace will not follow you. Humans are al ways going to make mistakes. So isn't it then natural to apologize to subordinates for one S own errors? It seems to me that frankness of this sort will eventually have an effect on persuasiveness.
It out of fear of someone, you go along with things just to be doing something even though you suspect it to be wrong - the negative impact will grow and grow, and you will never understand how bad things really are. Whenever you decide that conditions are not right for making a change, you end up with a rule that is on the books forever. Do that, and other people will eventually stop listening to you.
We are all human and as much as half of what we do is mistaken; managers may sometimes even tell subordinates things that are wrong. The people managers deal with will gradually begin to turn away unless those managers first adopt the attitude that those under them are human beings, too and that at least half of what their subordinates say is right.
It seems to me, in short, that the development of this sort of personal humility is an essential condition for building solid powers of persuasion.
Part II: If You Are Wrong, Admit It!
Why are we wrong half the time, we might ask? Even when we speak with great confidence, our basic conceptual approach is often in error.
Language provides us with the word "illusion," implying the sense of sight or something visual. For example, if we arrange two lines of the same length to form an inverted T as shown in the figure 1 the vertical line will invariably appear longer than the horizontal line. This elementary example is often used in explaining illusions. The basis for error lies in assuming that one line is longer than the other because it looks longer.
As long as the lines are in this configuration, one will always look longer than the other. To prove that the lines are really the same length, we have to break apart the inverted T and place the lines side by side. Visual illusions of this sort are easy to explain because it is easy to convince people that neither line is longer than the other.
The lines may appear to be a certain length, but you cannot tell how long they are with respect to how long they appear just by looking at them. In the final analysis, you cannot tell unless you place the lines parallel to each other for comparison.
Similarly, many things in the world cannot be understood without trying them out. Indeed, a surprising number of things, when tried, yield results that are exactly opposite to what one expects. This shows us how inescapably dogged by illusion humanity really is. It is quite easy to dispel visual illusions by putting such illusions to the test. A little experimentation in such cases will suffice to persuade people. Illusions involving mental processes, however, are much more difficult to overcome.
Since human beings labor under illusions, we should be happy if half of our instructions or orders are correct. In olden times, Confucius surely knew that we were wrong half the time - perhaps that is what allowed him to say that the superior man does not fear change.
In the final analysis, there are always some people who persuade themselves on the basis of illusion that one line is longer than the other. Even if you tell them the lines are the same length, they will not believe you. They have to test the idea themselves. Having verified it, some may regret having made others act on ideas they once thought were correct. Others may continue to have workers on the shop floor test various ideas so that they too can recognize illusions.
When allowing people to try out an idea, the person who gave the instructions in the first place should be present to follow the results closely. If the idea does turn out to be a mistake, then the fact that the error is witnessed firsthand will have an effect on the workers. They will realize that since the boss apologizes when he or she makes a mistake, they as workers can feel freer to experiment with whatever ideas might occur to them.
On the other hand, wouldn't workers be even more cooperative when mistakes are met, not with reproving looks, but with encouragement and the explicit recognition that only five out of 10 ideas that you yourself come up with are right? When workers start thinking that they have to keep quiet and stick with whatever the boss tells them to do, for better or worse, they will gradually stop listening.
In the end, persuasiveness comes when both command giver and doer see each other as human and only right half the time. Even if one party is tempted to say ~'I told you so, the other will not take it amiss. In fact, both will begin to cooperate before long. This, I believe, is true persuasiveness. If humans were not prey to illusions, then there would be no need for persuasion. Illusions involving people's unspoken thoughts yield only grudgingly to persuasion. It seems to me, also, that the more of an intellectual you are, the more likely you will succumb to illusions.
Part III: Illusions Lower Efficiency
In the workplace, ideas can be tested right away. For example -- and I think this is true just about everywhere -- it is thought that doing things in batches allows you to do them more quickly. The idea is that it is extremely inefficient to have someone handle one item at a time. People are convinced that efficiency and productivity improve when they repeat the same thing over and over.
I once observed the way a woman performed an inspection task. She took a number of items, lined them up, and then inspected them. She would not listen, no matter how often I pointed out that it would be easier and more efficient to take each item as it came off the line, inspect it, and then pack it in a box.
"Look," I said, "your method is fine. But, just once, why not do them one by one, the way I'm suggesting? I know it's a little tedious, but I think you'll be able to inspect more pieces with my method."
I had her try out the new idea for a day -- a day in which she normally would not be able to inspect 5,000 pieces without running into overtime. By doing one piece every 20 seconds, she was able to do 5,000 pieces during regular hours. Even so, she could hardly believe such a relaxed method could result in such efficiency.
I suppose it is natural to succumb to the illusion that more is done if you busily gather pieces into lots, take 20 or 30 in one hand, and line them up in neat rows. But what happens if, as described, you inspect the items one by one? It is more like play than work. And if you play around with it and find that you finish during regular work hours, it means no overtime and less pay. So, while the idea seemed fine to me, it turned out to be a loss for the worker.
Inspecting the items one by one, however, made the task more relaxed and less tiring. What is more, the worker could accomplish the same quantity of piecework as before without going into overtime. After trying the new method, she was won over. This involved a relatively simple approach. Yet, surprisingly, simple approaches like this are often not put into practice in the workplace.
Let me tell you an old story from the postwar years, a story that takes place at Toyota Jiko. The job was to drill holes into round rods that is all we wanted to do. Now, it happened that this operation was expected to turn out 80 rods a day. A young worker fed the rods manually into the machine where the holes would be drilled. But why feed them by hand? Why not leave out the manual part of the operation so the worker could relax while the holes were being drilled?
Well, somehow, feeding the rods by hand seemed faster. If we fed them in automatically, the bits would break off lose their edge, and produce defective holes. The objection to automatic feeding was that you could tell how well the bit was cutting when you fed the rods by hand. Therefore, manual feeding was faster.
So I asked the worker, "How long does it take to drill each hole?"
"About 30 seconds," he replied.
"Thirty seconds?" I said. "That means you could drill two per minute, doesn't it?"
The worker nodded.
"In an hour, then, you could drill 120 rods," I continued. But this time the worker did not respond. Why?
“I'm drilling these rods by hand,” he had said, "and because I work like the dickens I can do 80 a day."
Now, however, the suggestion was that, with 60 minutes in an hour, he could drill 120 rods an hour. He stopped answering me because it was awkward being told that he could drill 120 rods per hour, when he had boasted about being able to drill 80 rods in 7 hours. Why would he need 7 hours to do 80 rods when he ought to be able to do that many in 40 minutes? That would mean that he was only doing 40 minutes of work a day!
"Look here," he said. "I'm working my tail off. What are you complaining about?"
"It doesn't matter how hard you're working or how much sweat you're putting into the job.” I said, "You're still only drilling 80 holes in 7 hours. Maybe we should just have you come to work for an hour every day.”
"Don't be ridiculous!" he replied.
Let's think about this. If somebody is drilling by hand as fast as he can, he will have the impression that he is working quickly. Automatic feeding would take 40 seconds, but he can do it by hand in about 30 seconds. So he concludes that it is more efficient by hand. If he continues at that pace, however, the drill bit will overheat, lose its edge, and not cut as well. He must then take the bit to a grinder and re-hone the edge. He brings it back and drills about three more holes. Then the bit overheats and goes bad on him again. After two or three more holes he must re-grind the bit again, an operation he considers part of the job. He thinks that by really working at it, he can drill a hole in 30 seconds. But he is deluded when he assumes that continuing at the same pace will improve efficiency.
If he had to drill 80 holes per day with automatic feed, however, he would only have to process one rod every 5 or 10 minutes. Ideally, an appropriate cutting speed would allow him to drill a hole in 40 seconds, leaving 4 minutes and 20 seconds for the bit to cool down. The unit would again be at room temperature when it came time to drill the second hole. Whenever the bit gets a little too hot, you can either put it aside for 4 minutes or apply cutting Oil to cool it down to the temperature of the oil. This permits a bit that used to be sharpened between every hole to hold its edge for 30 or 50 rods.
What's more, workers do not have their own whetstones. There is one whetstone with five or six people lined up to use it, each going through pretty much the same procedure. Lathe bits, for example, may also be used to the utmost which means that they, too, will lose their edge quickly - so workers who have to grind lathe bits will be lined up at the whetstone as well. So, even if in theory it only takes 30 seconds to do the grinding, with five or six other people in line, it ends up taking about 10 minutes to grind the bit and get back to the machine. When we consider that occasionally the new edge will not be good enough, forcing us to return and regrind the bit, we might end up processing only two rods in 10 minutes.
On the other hand, we might work through a number of rods one after another. If we find that the table of the old-style drill press is too small, we might take 10 or 15 unprocessed rods and line them up on the drill press stand. On the other side, we might have 10 or 20 rods already processed that we can place in a wire basket.
The worker doing all this is imagining he is working. So, while he can only process three or four rods every 10 minutes, the worker himself concentrates on the 30 seconds it takes to actually drill the hole and compares this to the 40 seconds it takes if a rod is fed in. The truth is that, if we only need one rod every 5 minutes, we can cool the bits for 4 minutes between each rod and get away with only taking the bits to be reground once a day. You can also take the bits to be ground three at a time. So in the end, while employees may be working up a sweat and thinking that they are working skillfully and efficiently, the shop is, in fact, operating inefficiently.
Part VI: Confirm Failure With Your Own Eyes
Even in a case like the one I have just described, it is comparatively easy to persuade people in the workplace when you actually give an idea a trial run there. When you go outside the shop, however, you no longer have any means of proof, and very often people will wind up convinced that their own ideas are the best ones.
I think perhaps the hardest to persuade are managers, higher-level management people, and supervisors. Things get a little difficult, for example, when a unit leader wants to win over a supervising foreman. If the foreman is not convinced, the workers will not be allowed to give the idea a trial run. Indeed, even though the foreman may think there is some merit in what the unit leader says, neither of the two will really know who is right and who is trapped in an illusion. The result will be an argument while the workplace will remain as it was with no increase in worker productivity.
So give new ideas a chance. If opinion is divided after doing a trial run, then the two people with opposing views can spend a day running the procedure the way each thinks is right. Or you can try it the way another Supervisor thinks it ought to be done. All you have to do is compare the results of these various trials until everyone is persuaded that one method is indeed better than the others.
In any case, you cannot have people clinging to their own convictions. Rather than stubbornly refusing to change their opinions, they should concentrate on identifying what is valuable in their ideas or suggestions. Focus on the positive aspects of ideas even when misconceptions are involved. If an idea does not work out right, then it is a failure and should be recognized as such. I think it is important to get in the habit of verifying failures with one’s own eyes.
In general, failure is the outcome when the only response managers have to hearing results is, "Didn't work, eh? You should have listened to your boss." The same goes for ideas that turn out to be successful - people will not be persuaded just by listening. They have to see it with their own eyes and say, "So, that's what you do! I really hadn't figured that into my calculations, but now that I've actually seen you do it; I understand what's going on."
The idea developed in this particular instance was to find some way to centralize the grinding, since spending the whole time sharpening blades or bits would keep us from making any headway. As soon as the subject of centralized grinding was brought up, one of the older, experienced people replied, "You know, we tried that during the war, but it didn't work. That's why we do things this way now.
I told him that since I had not witnessed the failure of the method during the war, I wanted to do it again so I could see the method fail with my own eyes. If I was persuaded that it would not work, I would go along with the current method.
I thought the method had failed because certain aspects of it were carried out wrong, so I said to him, "The Company failed before because it was dealing with war supplies and you had people from the military here pressuring you to centralize the grinding. Of course, you re not going to get good results when you're doing something unwillingly. So, you see, showing me how the method failed doesn't really constitute failure."
Along the way, the grinding experts spared no efforts to point out things we did not know about various materials, telling us that castings had to be processed in such and such a way or how we had to handle iron. I told them that this information was irrelevant and had nothing to do with centralized grinding. To put the right angle on the blade, people doing the grinding had to know what kind of material would be cut through on which machine. All we had to do was set up standards specifying the different blade materials to be used in each case. It would have been extremely inefficient to tell hundreds of people what they could and could not do In sharpening their bits.
In situations like this one, where experiments are failing or are about to fail, you can avoid failure by taking precautions. This approach will eventually increase productivity many times over. Indeed, you can turn out first-rate products even if the workers themselves do not possess specialized technical knowledge.
Since the end of the war, this kind of problem no longer occurs' and I don't think any production shops today go about grinding this way. Even so, I think we all labor under similar misconceptions that exert a tremendous influence over our relations with other people.
Part V: Illusions that Lurk Within Conventional Wisdom
What I call illusions or misconceptions can easily turn into conventional wisdom. When that happens, either debates become endless or you act so haphazardly that things do not move forward.
Conventional wisdom contains illusory elements that we want to believe are correct. So, at one time, I urged a kind of “post conventional wisdom,” telling people to break away from preconceived ideas and think on their own. Also, while a rule of thumb may not actually benefit us over time, in general, the (act that -it has no distinct disadvantages makes it acceptable.
To my way of thinking, having significant advantages paradoxically implies that significant disadvantages are also waiting around to have their say. Disadvantages are to be shunned; the fewer of them, the better This notion, however, runs counter to the conventional wisdom that tells us something is all right as long as there are few disadvantages - even if the advantages are nothing spectacular.
I think we should prevent disadvantages from surfacing so that only the significant advantages remain. This is what I refer to as post conventional thinking. And illusions may intrude even here, requiring us again to break away from conventional wisdom. This requires a bit of courage.
Specifically, people at all 'levels in a company - top executives, middle managers, or people actually doing the work - are human beings bound together by illusions. Their work is driven by certain assumptions they may think each other's current methods are best, or they may not, but they see no other way of doing things. What's more, nearly all companies now have labor unions composed of people who, being human, are also subject to illusions.
As we approach a variety of tasks, therefore, we encounter areas where things do not proceed smoothly. In my view this calls for a sort of revolution in consciousness. Unless we make drastic changes in the way we think, our mental processes will be limited to a linear extension of what we have done in the past.
I really believe we will be unable to blaze new trails unless we boldly turn our thinking processes upside down, and unless everyone - from top management to workers, and even labor union people - participates in that revolution. Labor unions may be able to affect a relatively smooth revolution in attitudes, but I suspect it will be a bit more difficult for them to join a revolution in consciousness.
Consciousness-raising is enormously important. Without it, we will have to be content with 10- or 20-percent increases in productivity in terms of projections from past performance. As we discussed earlier, it is hard to give up the illusion that it is more efficient and probably cheaper to process items in batches than one at a time. Where costs are involved, "number-pushers" rush in and talk about costs in a way that creates the illusion that once a press setup is completed, it is cheaper to run 10,000 rather than 1,000 pieces. This illusion, backed up by calculations, is always acknowledged as truth.
Someone once put the following question to me: "Toyota has been able to achieve remarkably rapid press setup changes. We understand, for instance, that what used to take 2 hours or an hour and a half is now done in less than 10 minutes. But even with 10-minute setups, wouldn't it have been more efficient to process, say, 20,000 items between setups instead of 10,000?"
Now, the point is valid if you go by arithmetic calculations. In the past, we would want a press to run for at least 2 hours because each setup change took 1 hour. But by shortening setup times, wouldn't we be able to make items more cheaply by increasing the number we run through the press? Wouldn't it be more efficient that way? The question is whether reducing lot sizes does not cut into the advantage of going to all the trouble to shorten setups to 10 minutes.
But this differs completely from the way we look at the situation. Even if I were to give a serious response to the question, the asker might not understand what I was talking about. All I can say is that his point is only valid in terms of arithmetic.
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