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Harish Jose


Being in the Ohno Circle

Learning how to better ask “Why?”

Published: Monday, September 12, 2022 - 11:03

In today’s column, I’m looking at the Ohno Circle in light of German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s ideas. I’ll try to stay away from the neologisms used by Heidegger and will only scratch the surface of his deep insights.

One of the best explanations of the Ohno Circle comes from one of Taiichi Ohno’s students, Teruyuki Minoura, the past president and CEO of Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America. He had firsthand experience of it. Minoura noted: “Mr. Ohno often would draw a circle on the floor in the middle of a bottleneck area, and he would make us stand in that circle all day long and watch the process. He wanted us to watch and ask “Why?” over and over.

“You may have heard about the five ‘whys’ in TPS. Mr. Ohno felt that if we stood in that circle, watching and asking why, better ideas would come to us. He realized that new thoughts and new technologies don’t come out of the blue—they come from a true understanding of the process.

“In my case, I thought it was strange when he asked me to go into the circle. But what could I say? I was a freshman, and he was the big boss and a member of the board of directors! So, I went into the circle and began to watch the process. During the first hour, I began to understand the process. After two hours, I began to see the problems. After the third and fourth hours, I was starting to ask ‘why?’ Finally, I found the root cause and started to think about countermeasures.

“With the countermeasures in place, I reported back to Mr. Ohno what I had observed, the problems I saw, and the countermeasures I put in place, as well as the reasons for the countermeasures. Mr. Ohno would just say, “Is that so?” and nothing more. He never gave us answers. Most of the time he wouldn’t even tell us if what we did was good or bad. Now I realize what Mr. Ohno was trying to do. He was trying to make us think deeply—and think for ourselves.”

I truly appreciate Minoura’s explanation. There are certain aspects of this that resonated with me. First, standing in the circle isn’t a quick activity. Minoura called it an “all day long” activity. The intent wasn’t to simply identify wastes but to gain the greatest possible understanding of the process. Minoura described it almost in phases:
• “During the first hour, I began to understand the process.”
• “After two hours, I began to see the problems.”
• “After the third and fourth hours, I was starting to ask ‘why?’”

From Heidegger’s viewpoint, every “thing” is in relation to another “thing.” There is a realm of totality, and the meaning of an object comes from this interrelationship. We use a hammer to nail wood, which is used to build a cabinet, which is used to... and so on. Heidegger pushed back on the subject-object distinction that was put forth by René Descartes. Much of science is based on this distinction of pretending to be able to separate the subject (the scientist) from an object (the “thing” at hand).

In all actuality, we engage with things without realizing that we’re engaging with them. When we drive a car, we can’t possibly pay attention to every little action we take. We go with the flow. There is a Zen-like aspect to this in that we don’t say we’re pushing the pedal down on the gas or that we’re rotating the steering wheel to go left. We simply do the needed action by being part of the flow that has emerged around us. We do this by being a part of the environment around us. This includes other drivers in their cars, the objects lying on the road, the animals that may try to cross the road, etc. This activity isn’t about being careless when we are driving. Instead, we’re engaging in an inclusive activity where the car is part of our extended body, and we’re immersed in our environment.

From this standpoint, when we’re on the shop floor, we shouldn’t try to “look” for waste without understanding how we’re immersed in the gemba. We’re not going there to fix issues. Our role is to understand how things are in relation to each other on the floor. We’re not rushing in to find problems. We’re standing there to understand how the operators are interacting with the artifacts available to them. How are the materials coming in and out of the assembly station? How is the operator engaging with the artifacts and the materials? Are they stopping and looking at their equipment every step of the way? Is the equipment flowing with the operator as an extension?

Returning to the driving example, if we have to search for the gas or brake pedal every time, we won’t be driving in a safe manner. Just like knowing where the appropriate pedal is without looking, and knowing how much to press on it, the operator should be able to engage with the equipment or the artifact. The equipment or the artifact shouldn’t just be present there, but available and ready to use.

One of the deep insights that Heidegger had was that we don’t really understand something until that “something” breaks down, and the need of the relationship is exposed. When we’re engaging with it fully, we don’t always know where the breaking points are. We understand the limitations only when that “something” starts to behave in a fashion that makes its presence conspicuous to us. If the equipment is working well, we don’t really notice it. We start to notice things when they’re not working the way they should be.

To take this thought further with the Ohno Circle, if we don’t understand how the process should be working, we can’t see the numerous possibilities that are present to make the process work even better. When we care about the operator, the process, the product, we start to realize the many possibilities of running the operation. In some of these possibilities, the operations may be more ergonomic to the operator, or the product quality may be improved further. But we can’t begin to get to these possibilities unless we’re able to understand how things work together. These possibilities will then make us realize where they’re not working together.

In other words, unless we deeply understand the current state, we shouldn’t even begin to think of an ideal state. This requires us to go back to the gemba as often as possible to understand the variations of material, operators, etc. Perhaps we can interview the operator, or try to build the part ourselves on the floor. The more we’re engaged, the better we get at improving our understanding.

I’ll finish with a great Ohno story from Minoura that explains this further:

“I want to relay one of Mr. Ohno’s stories here. This is a lesson from a kaizen attempt on kanban collection. Let me explain the background of this story. Many of you know that Toyota uses what we call kanban cards to keep track of parts and components. Most of them are small pieces of paper that contain all the information related to a particular part. When a worker begins to use a part from a box, he or she takes the kanban out and puts it in a kanban collection post. The conveyance group comes around to pick them up and take them to the kanban room for processing. They normally drive a tow motor. In order to pick up kanbans, they have to stop the tow motor, get off, pick up the kanbans, then get back on the tow motor and head for the next collection area.

“Now, as you know, TPS (Toyota Production System) despises waste. Stopping the tow motor, getting off, and getting back on the vehicle is a waste of the team member’s time and motion. So, one group went ahead and figured out a kaizen for kanban collection. The kaizen was to eliminate the wasted motion and time by making it possible for the kanban collector to gather kanban cards without getting down from the vehicle. They proudly presented this kaizen to Mr. Ohno.

“To their surprise, Mr. Ohno got really angry when he heard the presentation. The group couldn’t understand why he wasn’t pleased because their kaizen had eliminated the No. 1 sin in the Toyota Production System: waste. So Mr. Ohno explained. He told them that if they were to implement this kaizen, the tow-motor drivers would be on the vehicle all the time. They would be twisting the accelerator grip for a couple of hours straight. That isn’t good for the driver’s wrist. Also, Mr. Ohno pointed out that getting off the vehicle and walking a few steps and getting back on provided exercise of different muscles that weren’t used by driving the tow motor. That would be beneficial for the kanban collector’s well-being.

“Mr. Ohno was looking at a bigger picture. He placed the ergonomic well-being of the worker before the short-term goal of efficiency. This happened almost 30 years ago. It was many years before the concept of ergonomics became a household word.”

Stay safe and always keep on learning.

First published on the Harish’s Notebook blog.


About The Author

Harish Jose’s picture

Harish Jose

Harish Jose has more than seven years of experience in the medical device field. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, where he obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering and published two articles. Harish is an ASQ member with multiple ASQ certifications, including Quality Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and Reliability Engineer. He is a subject-matter expert in lean, data science, database programming, and industrial experiments, and publishes frequently on his blog Harish’s Notebook.


Ohno Circle

Hi Harish,

From almost the get-go. I've had a major problem with the actual pragmatic nature (as opposed to the philosophical nature) of Ohno's Circle.  First and foremost, no indication is ever provided as to what the optimal placement of an observation circle (i.e., vantage point) ought to be relative to a process of interest.  Second, most end-to-end processes are spread out and, as a result, would be impossible to fully observe and understand from a single vantage point, no matter how judiciously it may have been selected.  Third, making anyone,  regardless of the underlying intent, spend an entire day in a single spot observing a process (or some subset of the overall process) seems - IMO - to run contrary to the fundamental principle of having and demonstrating respect for the human being.

In light of these perceived issues/whete short-comings, what I consider to be a more appropriate, value-adding approach is to actually walk around the entire end-to-end process with the intent of understanding it as an integrated system whose constituent elements are both interacting and interdependent.  Then, IN THAT CONTEXT, try to figure out both WHERE and WHY inefficiencies exist.  And I would allow - within prescribed safety limits - an observer to move about at will - including interactioning with the worker(s) until they are satisfied with their understanding and findings.  Then, I would under take a debriefing with the observer(s) and focus on WHY they came to the understanding and conclusions they did.

Bottom line:  The approach to learning and building understanding and knowledge as prescribed by Ohno - via his standing circle method - is too static, limited in perspective, not open to investgative initiative, and totally reliant upon one's pre-existing and often limited knowledge base.  In these multiple regards I tend to view the Ohno Circle approach as being outdated and fundamentally flawed.

Walking is Waste

Sometimes exercise is waste.

Nurses in a nursing unit can walk 10,000 steps during a shift looking for supplies. While they are walking, they are not with patients. Virginia Mason identified the seven supplies nurses need. Now, instead of spending only 30% of their time with patients, nurses spend 90% leading to better care, outcomes and satisfaction.

Most of the time, walking is waste.