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Bob Emiliani


Observe and Ask ‘Why?’

Understanding waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness

Published: Tuesday, October 6, 2015 - 13:31

There are many ways to improve your thinking skills. One way is by practicing critical thinking. Teachers require their students, from elementary school on through college and graduate school, to do research to gather information, analyze the validity of data, determine the strengths and weaknesses of arguments, and so on. Unfortunately, this method seems to work well only while students are in school. Once they graduate, most quickly conform to the noncritical (often political) thinking that pervades the real world.

We have to go a step further to improve our thinking skills. Formal root cause analysis such as the 5 Whys and fishbone diagrams can, with practice, significantly improve our thinking skills when applied to real-world problems. A3 reports can do this as well. But if we really want to get good at thinking, we must also carefully see what’s actually happening in front of our eyes and combine that with root cause analysis.

Taiichi Ohno applied this little-used technique, observation, with great success. He would tell people to stand in a circle, sometimes for days at a time, to observe a process and generate ideas on how to improve the process and achieve flow. This, combined with understanding waste (muda), unevenness (mura), unreasonableness (muri), and asking “why?” opens the door to innumerable possible improvements.

Teruyuki Minoura, former president and CEO, Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America, stood in Ohno’s circle. He explained the purpose of standing in the circle this way in an address to the World Class Manufacturing Forum in 2002:

“Now I would like to relate a story of Mr. Ohno’s teaching on thinking. 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 [the Toyota Production System]. 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 do not 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.”

Ohno taught others in difficult and unusual ways—particular considering his teaching was in a company with real-time demands for output and not a school. Instead of giving answers to questions, he patiently guided people, encouraged them to critique their own work, and let them find their own answers. His approach communicated the view that there are many possible ways to eliminate waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness, that no countermeasure is ever perfect, and that no process is ever perfect. There is always more waste, and this could only be learned over long periods of time, similar to the time it takes a musician to learn how to play an instrument. But in either case, you are never done learning.

So, one must think deeply for one’s self. Observing processes on the shop or office floor is basic industrial engineering. Doing that, plus asking why within the framework of the seven wastes, is the most powerful way to improve one’s thinking and discover knowledge.

However, most managers who come across an employee observing a process would likely say, “What are you doing? Get back to work!” They don’t realize that observing a process is work—extremely important work. By saying “get back to work,” managers don’t realize they aren’t allowing people to think or learn, yet they will happily allow many people to be in conference rooms for days drawing value stream maps. This is technocratic work that anyone can be trained to do, but it’s not nearly as good as standing on the shop or office floor, observing the work, and asking why with the seven wastes in mind.

So, spend less time drawing value stream maps and doing A3 reports. Observe what’s happening on the shop or office floor to improve your thinking skills. Then, make rapid cycle improvements using industrial engineering-based kaizen, including trial-and-error and experiments. By doing this, you’ll make greater progress, faster.

© Bob Emiliani. First published Sept. 14, 2015, on Bob Emiliani’s Innovative Lean Leadership blog.


About The Author

Bob Emiliani’s picture

Bob Emiliani

Professor M.L. “Bob” Emiliani is an engineer, researcher, author, historian of progressive management, educational reformer, and executive trainer. A long-time Toyota Production System (TPS)/lean practitioner he was the first to focus on lean leadership as an area of scholarly study. Prior to joining academia, he worked in industry for 15 years in engineering (R&D, new product development) and operations, including implementing TPS (manufacturing and supply chain). Emiliani is the author or co-author of 19 books, 48 peer-reviewed papers, and 540+ blog posts on lean leadership, management, organizational development, supply chain, materials engineering, and more. Emiliani has bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in engineering.