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Quality Insider

Zenjidoka: The Power of Self-Reliance, Part 2

The inspiration behind the Harada Method

Published: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 - 04:30

Imagine an automobile owner who goes to the service desk at the dealership and reports a problem, describing the symptoms in detail to the customer service representative. If the service desk employee sees the same or similar symptoms in the dealer’s or manufacturer’s database, she knows what to tell the customer and what to do to get the problem solved. But if the symptoms were not in the database, she would take responsibility for the customer’s problem. The representative would be the key point person for this set of symptoms, and would be able to call on other technical, safety, and quality resources within the company to verify and solve the customer’s problem. She would not immediately defend the company but would be on the customer’s side and enter the symptoms and raise a red flag in the database. This process becomes the zenjidoka equivalent of pulling the red cord, when a service worker relies on a combination of procedure and self-reliance to find the best approach to solve the customer’s problem.

Here’s a personal example. A few months back, in the midst of playing musical chairs with medical specialists, I was referred to an endocrinologist on staff at a medical clinic in Vancouver, Washington, that I’ve been going to for a number of years. He told me that I needed to have an operation to remove one of my thyroid glands. I didn’t like the idea of having an operation and wanted a second opinion. I’d recently read that nearly 200,000 deaths occur annually from hospital errors, and I did not want to join that statistic. I also read that last year Rhode Island Hospital doctors operated three times on the wrong side of the brain. Toyota is not the only one that makes mistakes.

I went for to a new doctor for a second opinion at the Oregon Health and Science University, where I met with Jessica, a second-year resident. I thought she was very good, and she told me about a new medication. Before prescribing it for me, she said, “I want to consult with my mentor, the chief resident.” She left for a moment and returned with her mentor in tow, who complimented her on her recommendation. I left with a prescription. Now Jessica could have written the prescription without consulting the chief resident; she didn’t need approval. However, she had learned in her training that a team often makes the best medical decisions, even if that team is just two people. This helps saves lives, prevents medical errors, and lowers the cost of health care.

Selfless reliance

Zenjidoka is not an approval system. A customer service worker draws on other resources to help solve the problem. The idea is to bring in others with different perspectives, different skill sets, to help find new ways to solve problems. No one, not even the most experienced manager or executive, has all the answers. In this way zenjidoka removes the fear of asking the questions, and the “ego” that drives some managers and executives with the need to be right.

The self-reliance of zenjidoka is the knowledge, skill, and self-confidence to make the right decision to help the customer with his problem. But zenjidoka is also “selfless-reliance,” i.e., reliance on others to help solve that problem.

How do we get people to be self-reliant? In part 1 of this this article, I mentioned Takashi Harada, the genius who has been helping Japanese corporations answer this question.

I am as enthralled with the Harada Method, to teach self-reliance, as I was back during the early 1980s when I first met Shigeo Shingo and Taiichi Ohno, the geniuses who developed the concepts that we now call lean manufacturing.

Giving people a chance to succeed

Harada was a track and field coach in perhaps the worst middle school in Osaka, Japan. He felt that most of the students were despondent, not having much hope for their future, and not believing they could achieve athletic success. He was troubled by the lack of enthusiasm and absence of motivation of his students, and decided to impose some discipline, insisting that the students come to class on time, practice as he directed, and do their homework every night. The students complained that too much was being asked of them. Their parents agreed and scheduled a meeting with the school principal and Harada. The parents confronted him during the meeting; he told them that to be successful in life, their children must learn discipline. He went on to tell them that if they gave him three years, the parents would see the school’s athletic program go from the worst to the best in the city. He concluded, “If I don’t succeed, then fire me, but at least give your children a chance to succeed.”

Harada had noticed that there were schools that were able to succeed year after year, and he believed it was the coach, not the students, who determined the school’s success. He felt that with the right method, he could bring out the very best from the students. The principal and parents agreed to give him the three years to see if his method would work.

As promised, three years later, his school went from the worst to the best—that was out of 380 schools—and stayed the best for the next six years. It was amazing to see how inspired the students could become and to watch them put in the necessary effort to succeed. Moreover, 13 of his students won gold medals in their track and field discipline. The medal represented the best student at that age level in all of Japan.

Students were taken through the Harada Method to become self-reliant. Not only was the school rated highest athletically; the Harada Method also lifted the entire school academically. The children learned how to establish their own goals, work out their own plans to attain those goals, evaluate their progress toward those goals, and do the necessary work to develop themselves to achieve those goals. It is an amazing story, and as a result, I am dedicated to teaching the Harada Method to the West.

In the next article, I will talk about the groundbreaking Harada Method and how it has helped build the self-reliance of middle-school students, teachers, and corporate employees. I’ll explain the Harada Method and show how it has had a profound bottom-line impact in Japanese corporations, just as Shingo and Ohno did with the concepts we now call lean manufacturing.


About The Author

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Norman Bodek and Jeremy Green

Norman Bodek is president of PCS Inc. a publishing and consulting company in Vancouver, Washington. In 1979, he started Productivity Press and published hundreds of management books on productivity, quality, and lean manufacturing. He is now an adjunct professor at Portland State University teaching a ten-week course, The Best of Japanese Management Practices. In the fall he will also teach the course at Utah State University. Bodek is also a member of the American Manufacturing Hall of Fame. He is also the author of How to Do Kaizen: A new path to innovation - Empowering everyone to be a problem solver (PCS Inc., 2010).


Jeremy Green is a certified lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, and an ASQ-certified Six Sigma Black Belt and certified quality engineer with 25 years’ experience in manufacturing management and quality. He received his Ph.D. from Indiana State University and his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois. Green is on the board of directors of the Emerald Valley High Performance Enterprise Consortium and has taught public and corporate seminars nationwide in lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, change management, strategic planning, risk management, and the psychology of influence.