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Christopher Martin

Innovation

The Traveling Ohno Circle

Wherever you go, draw a circle

Published: Thursday, June 22, 2017 - 11:03

Many of us are familiar with the concept of the Ohno Circle, innovated by Taiichi Ohno at Toyota during the 1940s. While familiarity with the technique and the goals it sets to accomplish is one thing, how many of us have actually participated? The surprising answer is… probably all of us, in a way.

During the 1940s, Ohno established the famous Toyota Production System, and with it one of his most famous exercises, the Ohno Circle. Employees are tasked with standing inside a circle (either drawn with chalk or simply imagined) for hours and simply observing the processes until they find waste. From there, they seek to eliminate it. For a more in-depth overview and examination, check out this recent QD article by Bonnie Stone, A New Spin on the Ohno Circle.

While his exercise remains extremely well known, how many can say they confined themselves to one location for an extended amount of time and just watched? Some of us might say no, but I’m positive most of us have stood (or sat) in place for upwards of at least an hour (but less is OK!) at someone else’s business.

The truth is, anywhere we go can become a temporary Ohno Circle. The pharmacy, the post-office, an airport, restaurant… the list goes on. If you have to wait, you’ve entered the circle. While we obviously don’t get to see all the behind-the-scenes dirty work, having to wait patiently at a place of business where you’re the customer allows for a unique opportunity to form the circle and practice your observation skills.

Soon you’ll begin noticing glaring problems with processes; things the employees themselves likely can’t see because they are on the other side, wrapped up in their own part of the machine. Problems such as the bottlenecking at the pharmacy, where one manager is in charge of checking off most prescriptions before they can be signed out. Or how about the staff not being cross-trained, leaving one employee to stand around doing little while the others are overworked and behind? How about the employee at the post office who can’t locate the correct roll of packaging tape because they have no visual tool, such as a shadow board, telling them where something should be?

After you spot things you perceive to be problems, the real fun begins. What kind of solutions can you come up with? This part can be challenging, or impossible, based on how much of the processes you can actually see from your perspective, but that’s OK. Your solution doesn’t have to be practical, and you’ll likely never know if it would work or not. The key part of the exercise is simply to think of the solutions in the first place.

While you’re at it, take the time to not only observe the waste, but also the processes that work well. Take the famous In-N-Out Burger, for example; every location I’ve ever visited is almost always extremely busy, no matter the hour of the day, and yet the lines move smoothly, orders are rarely wrong, and the overall experience is satisfying. This isn’t by accident. Though most of what makes their processes special is not something that can be seen from a customer’s perspective, stick around for a little while and observe the employees; it won’t be long until you notice a well-oiled machine with minimal waste in action.

So, what do you do with the information you’ve observed? Probably nothing. Typically, a random stranger telling employees what they’re doing wrong isn’t going to go over that well. In addition, since we’re only observing pieces of the process and not fully aware of the rest of it, it’s likely our solutions will be met with several hurdles, or perhaps not be viable solutions at all. The idea here isn’t actually to solve their problems, but to hone your critical thinking skills in the workplace. An hour of impatiently waiting and looking at your phone over and over can be turned into an hour in the circle, where you might observe some waste that can be applied to your own place of employment. Perhaps a solution you think of for their problem might actually be something you can apply at your own business.

So next time you find yourself stuck in line, waiting for hours for an appointment, or just bored, enter the circle. You might be surprised at what you observe.

Discuss

About The Author

Christopher Martin’s picture

Christopher Martin

Christopher Martin is an account manager at Quality Digest and a freelance journalist in his nonexistent spare time. With roots in covering the entertainment industry, he has expanded his reporting to include the ever-growing and ever-important role of quality management in everyday life.  

Comments

Involve the customer in identifying waste

Great article! There are so few companies that really USE the customer's perspective other than through surveys, but your article highlights an enormous opportunity. Here you've got dozens, hundreds, or tens of thousands of customers that could be acting as lean consultants to identify waste. Bigger companies (and the government!) could provide an app to record waste (complete with the video that you took and included in your analysis), how you perceived it, and possible recommendations. Smaller companies could solicit active feedback in a low tech manner: Group Health posts a sign in their waiting rooms, "If you have been waiting more than 15 minutes, please notify the receptionist." They have a written procedure for handling this so it's treated with consistent importance. Taking it a step further, you could include in the sign, "If you see waste, we want to know about it! See the form below." I know this sort of customer feedback is anathema to companies of all types, but, if people are already disgusted with your obvious and visible inefficiencies, why not put them to work for you—while they're waiting?

Great concept!

Nearing the end of our Lean training we would send participants to lunch in a food court environment to observe 2 pre-selected outlets (with and without attention to Waste), obtain some performance data at distance and study what in their operations accounted for the difference. A great live learning experience!!