A reminder from a recent visit to Japan: Lean is not inherently Japanese

View from my hotel room of Tokyo Tower. I love this city.

I just got back from a week and a half trip to Japan to prepare for an upcoming Japan lean study trip I’m leading on behalf of the Ohio State University.

Any reason to visit Japan is a great one in my book, and I’m thrilled to be able to share my connections and insights with others on this upcoming study trip.

Update: we may have a few spots available to non-OSU affiliated individuals. If you would like to join us in Japan May 12-19, 2018, reach out to me!

5 Intense and Fun Days of Lean Learning

Our trip preparation was packed full of interesting learning experiences that I intend to write about in future blog posts, including:

Plus of course, the always enjoyable rides on the Shinkansen and copious delicious Japanese meals.

I also added an extra visit with my friend Tim Wolput and visited  in an accounting company’s engaging morning meeting (“chorei”) with him and Christoph Roser (check out the morning meeting I experienced with Tim last year too!).

Mr. Isao Yoshino talking with the president of a Tier 2 supplier to Toyota about how he engages people in kaizen and uses hoshin kanri.

The uniting theme: Focus on people!

While visiting these organization and talking with their leaders, we learned a lot about respect for people, kaizen, and management, and saw some amazing production principles and visual management in action – and definitely opportunities for improvement.

No matter where they are on their improvement journey, what unites all of these organizations is their deep respect for focus on people first and foremost.

A reminder that Lean isn’t inherently Japanese

These experiences also confirm my belief, which I’ve written about many times on this blogPlanet Lean, and the Lean Post, that Japanese culture does not equal Toyota Culture, and that not all aspects of what we in the West consider “Lean” thinking and practices are inherently easy for the Japanese.

There is a tremendous amount of learning about lean thinking and practice that can be had in Japan. But it is clear that not all Japanese companies – be they manufacturing or other industries – are Toyota! How could they be?

Visual management at a “lean” restroom in Japan.

“Lean” isn’t a Japanese term

For the most part, as a term describing what we in the West know as management practices that originated as the Toyota Production System, “lean” (or a Japanese translation) does not broadly exist.

“Kaizen” is a common term, but “kaizen” does not encompass the wider management system that we often think of in the West when we think of “Lean management”. Similarly, many companies have a deep practice of TQM or other quality management practices – especially in healthcare – but this does not equate to what we in the West might expect to see from a “lean management system”.

As I wrote in a blog post after living in Japan for 14 months:

While in Japan, I’ve come to learn that what we in Western societies consider “Lean” is not inherently Japanese. Not all Lean practices are intrinsic to traditional Japanese ways of thinking and not all Japanese businesses are run like Toyota (or other Japanese organizations that we might label as “Lean” practitioners).

Response to the Wall Street Journal’s article about “Japanese Manufacturing”

A recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Companies Everywhere Copied Japanese Manufacturing. Now the Model Is Cracking” was published last week and has sparked a lot of commentary in the Lean community.

Several Lean thinkers that I know and respect wrote some great responses within 24 hours of the article that echo many of my thoughts on the subject and on which I commented, including:

My comments – its about reflection and learning

My comments on all three of these articles written in response to the WSJ article include a variation on the following thoughts (this excerpt from my comments on Mark’s blog):

One of the biggest takeaways for me from living in Japan for 18 months, and subsequent visits, is that not all Japanese companies have a kaizen mindset, and certainly the Toyota culture is unique.

I remember talking to Mr. Isao Yoshino, John Shook’s first manager at Toyota, two years ago about some recent scandals at Toyota and issues faced by other Japanese manufacturers. He told me that one of the biggest differences with Toyota is that it has a practice of “hansei” or deep reflection. The test for Toyota would be how it *learned* from its mistakes. He was not so sure the other companies had as deep of a practice of humility and reflection.

Yoshino’s reflection on these various issues across different Japanese companies was:
“If you believe you are perfect, you won’t find the answer. If you don’t believe you are perfect, then you are open to finding the answer. Once you are ready to accept that mistakes can happen, then you are okay because you will learn.”

The cleaners bowing at the Shinkansen’s arrival to the terminal station. Bowing for apology requires a much deeper bow.

Apologies versus reflection and learning

The practice of formal apologies is deeply engrained in Japanese culture, as you can learn about here.

Friends and colleagues in Japan have told me stories of having to go through elaborate apology rituals for varying levels of business mistakes or social errors of propriety that occurred.

In all of the examples cited by the WSJ of these egregious errors by Japanese companies, you could search online and find pictures of the executives going through the formal apology kata (or ritual) of bowing and offering deep apologies.

Toyota’s deep practice of reflection

Since that initial conversation about the Toyota scandals and issues, Mr. Yoshino and I have discussed the qualities that he believes what sets Toyota apart from most Japanese companies – the humility and deep reflection and learning that is ingrained in the culture.

During those conversations, Mr. Yoshino expressed confidence that through hansei (reflection) practices that Toyota would uncover the root causes of their outcomes and course correct to ensure that they are not moving too far away their core belief in kaizen and the Toyota Way.

It’s not kaizen or PDCA without the “Check-Adjust”

Isao Yoshino and Katie Anderson in Nagoya (January 2018)

The improvement model of Plan-Do-Check-Act that Deming introduced to the Japanese is not complete without deep reflection that is required in the “check” phase, which leads to learning and adjustment.

For companies that attempt to emulate Toyota, the artifacts and production principles are easier to see and copy, but the deeper and essential practices respect for people and learning are the principles that are less visible and much more challenging to develop.

A question for these other “Japanese manufacturing companies” to understand their depth of “lean” thinking and practice is how much actual reflection and learning have happened as a result of these issues? How are they learning? How are they improving?

At the end of the day, its the people and the learning that is the most important!

More reflections and insights to come

In future posts, I’ll share more insights from this recent trip to Japan and other reflections on leadership, coaching and Lean practices.

Also if you haven’t already seen it, you can  click here to get a PDF of the top 10 Toyota leadership lessons that Mr. Yoshino shared me in 2015 & 2016. 

Thank you for reading and, as always, I welcome your thoughts and comments below.

Gemba Academy podcast highlights

Also, if you missed it, I’m honored to have been included in Gemba Academy’s 200th podcast episode as a highlighted guest!.

GA 200 | What We’ve Learned from 200 Episodes with Ron Pereira and Past Guests

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Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 128 Articles

Lean thinker and coach. Passionate about developing people. Healthcare change agent. Living in California again after 18 months in Tokyo. Writing about lean and leadership.

  • John Mortimer

    How many times do you and others have to say what the TPS is really about? It was the ’70’s when the ‘West’ took notice of TPS and then they called it Lean. And Lean was described to be mainly a series of tools.

    Not all of us can afford to go to Japan, and youre priviledged to be able to do that. All it needs is to go back to the books from Toyota and Taichi Ono and read.

    And that article about ‘Companies everywhere copied Japanese Manufacturing…’ simply shows the ignorance of the authors. Its frankly embarrassing.

    Point 1 – Toyota actually started many times – dont copy this, it wont work.

    Point 2 – Look at the principles behind the TPS, not in what you see on the shop floor.

    Point 3 – I dont think the authors know much about their subject. Anyone in Japan could tell you anytime that they TPS is not Lean, and that the TPS is not implemented across Japan.

    I think this points to us learning about how we think about and operate as managers and what we need to do to put some real understanding in decision-making.

  • David Rasmusson

    Is much of Toyota’s culture reflected in Deming’s philosophy? (I remember Mr. Toyoda crying at the news of Dr. Deming’s death.)

  • Yes, Dr. Deming was instrumental in shaping Toyota’s approach to management and problem solving. In fact, they had concerns about 40 years ago that the fundamentals of Deming’s philosophy were not as widely practiced anymore in the organization. The initiated the “Kan-Pro” program as a countermeasure to teach and develop the mindset of manager’s based on Deming’s philosophy. Mr. Yoshino shared some stories about this with me, which I wrote about in these two posts:



  • John, I agree that one does not have to go to Japan to understand the principles of TPS, although there is always value in going to gemba (wherever it may be) to learn. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity my family had to move to Japan, and they learning experiences that I have gained from it. My intention with my blog is to share with others what I’m learning and to have engaging dialogue that helps us all advance our thinking and practice about how to make our organizations (and ourselves) better.

  • John Mortimer

    Katie, your blog has helped me, and I hope it helps others to see beyond boundaries that we all have in our minds.
    I also enjoyed reading your account, you have a very good writing style.