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Bruce Hamilton

Quality Insider

Dr. Shingo’s Last Visit

A dinner to remember

Published: Tuesday, September 6, 2011 - 11:45

In April 1989, the first Shingo Prize for Manufacturing Excellence had just been awarded at Utah State University. Shigeo Shingo was on hand at this auspicious event to receive an honorary doctoral degree from the university and also to bestow his name on the prize. I had the honor of meeting and speaking with Shingo on this occasion, and invited him to visit my company, United Electric (UE), if he ever was in Massachusetts. I really had no expectation that this would ever occur. To my amazement, however, he did happen to “be in the area” shortly after the Utah conference, visiting his publisher, and took this opportunity to pay a short visit.

The story of Shingo’s visit has been told in three parts, of which this is part three. In some ways this article is like a three-act play, with the first act dealing with UE employees’ momentous reception for Shingo, and the second describing his observations on the factory floor. (Readers who have not read the previous two entries might want to peruse these installments on the Shingo Prize website first to develop context.) The final “act,” which takes place in a Boston-area restaurant that had been researched by his sponsors from Productivity Press to offer the most authentic Japanese cuisine in the area, provides a vignette of Shingo himself and his reflections on his contribution to manufacturing productivity.

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After his trip to Utah State University, Shingo commented to his sponsors that, while the snow-capped mountains around Logan Utah reminded him of home, he’d not had a home-cooked Japanese meal since he had landed in the United States. He was longing for a good Japanese meal. When his gracious visit to our company was concluded, we invited him to dine with us “at a good Japanese restaurant.” Our party of perhaps 18 persons took the restaurant by storm, other customers sensing the presence of a dignitary.

 Shingo, oblivious to other activity around him, promptly called the waitress to his side and began to ask questions in Japanese about the menu. Unfortunately, the Japanese-American waitress spoke only English. Apologetically she retreated to find an interpreter. As it turned out, the restaurant’s only Japanese-speaking employee was the cook, who accompanied the waitress to our table. This suited Shingo perfectly. He had found his way to the source—the shop floor—and began a lengthy conversation with the cook. Not speaking Japanese, I could still glean that the cook and Shingo had established a connection, and there was as much reminiscing as food-ordering taking place. With much laughter between the two, the exchange continued for several minutes while the rest of the party sat awkwardly.

Shingo’s conversation with the cook put him in a mood to talk. First, through his interpreter, Shingo announced that he had already ordered his meal—something special, not on the menu. And because he believed that this cook was the real deal, Shingo let us know that he had also ordered an additional meal to go. He joked that he had taken these steps to reduce the external setup. We all laughed as he continued with his oft-told story of the banana peel (related in at least two of his books): We as customers do not buy the banana for the peel. Suppliers should always understand value from the customer’s perspective and provide only that.

Next, Shingo took aim at engineers, one of his popular targets. He described three kinds of engineers who prevent improvement:
• Table engineers—those who just sit around a table and talk about problems
• Catalog engineers—those who think the solution to every problem can be found in a catalog
Nyet engineers—those who say no to every request. (Nyet is Russian for “no.”)

I don’t think Shingo realized that our CEO, Bob Reis, was an engineer by training. Bob, bristling a bit, responded as Shingo finished his story, “Well, I’m a can-do engineer!” Shingo smiled. Continuing on, he mentioned that his name, roughly translated, meant “changing red lights to green,” and that he had always felt that was his life’s purpose: to change red lights to green on the shop floor. This brought a tear to my eye as I reflected on how many red lights had turned to green on my shop floor as a result of Shingo’s contributions.

When Shingo finished his meal, he announced that he would take a short nap—and he did. Table conversation continued as he power-napped (another concept ahead of its time in 1989) for several minutes. Suddenly, a rejuvenated Shingo awakened with the announcement that he would sing a Japanese folk song about turning red lights to green. Not shy, he belted it out as startled patrons turned to observe. It was a surrealistic moment capping a memorable visit. I wished I’d understood the lyrics because this was his grand finale. He sang with a passion that was the hallmark of his life’s work, and when he finished, he grabbed his boxed meal for takeout and said it was time to go.

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About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change. Also, he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an ongoing reflection on lean philosophy and practices, with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.