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Bonnie Stone


A New Spin on the Ohno Circle, Part 1

Being able to spot waste is one of the hardest parts of improving a process

Published: Monday, June 19, 2017 - 11:01

During the mid-1940s, Taiichi Ohno established the Toyota Production System, which is primarily based on eliminating nonvalue-added waste. He discovered that by reducing waste and inventory levels, problems get exposed and that forces employees to address these problems. To engage the workers and therefore improve processes, Ohno developed many exercises.

One of his most popular exercises, the Ohno Circle, helps managers and students see process waste. During this exercise Ohno would take the manager or student to the shop floor, draw a chalk circle on the floor, then have that person stand inside the circle and observe an operation. His direction was simple: “Watch.”

Several hours later, Ohno would return, asking: “What do you see?” If the person saw the same problem Ohno had seen, then the exercise was over. If not, Ohno would say: “Watch some more.”

This would continue until he or she saw the same problem Ohno had seen. This exercise helped managers learn to observe waste, and thus helped organizations identify and deal with the seven wastes of lean:
1. Overproduction. Producing more than what’s actually needed by the next process or customer (which is the worst form of waste because it contributes to the other six)
2. Waiting. Delay, waiting, or time spent in a queue with no value being added
3. Transportation. Moving parts and products unnecessarily
4. Overprocessing. Undertaking nonvalue-added activity
5. Inventory. Having more than the minimum
6. Motion.  Unnecessary movement or action
7. Correction [defects]. Inspection, rework, and scrap

I’ve been thinking about Ohno’s famous exercise a lot since the winners of the Lean and Six Sigma Excellence Awards were announced at the Lean and Six Sigma World Conference held in March 2017, in Nashville, Tennessee.

For the second consecutive year, Arrow Electronics took the category for innovation, this time for its “Lean Sigma Drones” project. This project combines drone technology, proprietary video technology, and a rapid-improvement methodology to observe Arrow’s extensive warehouse operations from a birds-eye view. This more effectively helps identify areas for continuous improvement.

This new approach—appropriately named “Fly in a Circle”—has already increased the efficiency of targeted processes by 82 percent and eliminated more than 6.5 million walking steps in warehouse processes since its launch in late 2016.

Standing (or flying) in a circle means you go to the gemba and observe for yourself what is actually happening. Get the facts about what is being done, not what is supposed to be done according to the procedure. Observe all wastes that you can, and write them down. Keep an open mind about your observations. Even if you know the reason behind a workaround, document it anyway—it’s still a workaround, and potentially a wasteful task. Being able to spot waste is one of the hardest parts of improving a process.

Figure 1: Waste analysis by operation

When performing this exercise, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to fix the waste on the spot. Instead use lean tools to thoroughly understand the process, then develop ways to eliminate the waste. Companion by Minitab contains professionally designed roadmaps and forms that can be used to document and further diagnose the root cause of wastes. Using the waste analysis by operations function (as seen in figure 1) and performing the 5 Whys on the identified waste (as seen in figure 2) will help you document and discover ways to eliminate waste in your operations. 

Figure 2: 5 Whys

The simple exercise of standing (or flying) in a circle will open your eyes to new ways to improve your processes by eliminating wasteful activities. As your processes and services become more effective and efficient, your customer will appreciate the improvements made in delivery, quality, and price. When an organization eliminates waste, improves quality, and reduces costs, they gain a competitive advantage by responding faster and better to customer requirements and needs. 

As you prepare to stand in a circle, remember these inspirational words from Yogi Berra: “You can observe a lot by just watching.”


About The Author

Bonnie Stone’s picture

Bonnie Stone

Bonnie K. Stone is the market development manager at Minitab.