Practicing Souji- Establishing a Daily Cleaning Ritual Inspired by Japanese Schools

Four weeks ago, a few days after we went into COVID-19 “shelter in place” here in Northern California, I looked around my house – that hadn’t been cleaned in two weeks – and realized that we were going to have to do something different. Then I remembered something that I had learned in Japan from visiting Japanese schools!

Every day, after lunch, school children across Japan all take part in “souji” (cleaning) of their schools. Japanese schools do not have cleaning staff – it is the collective responsibility of the children and teachers to keep the school clean. And I don’t mean just tidying up. The children get rags, brooms, and mops to clean their classroom, hallways, and other public areas.

I made this video yesterday to share our family’s souji journey and to help inspire you too.

Creating a habit of souji over the past month

I sat my two boys down at our counter and showed them videos (this is the best one I’ve found, and this music video one is pretty fun). Having lived in Tokyo for 18 months, my kids still love everything about Japan.

Framing a “daily cleaning” as a way to be just like Japanese kids has made it much more fun.

So now, for 15 minutes each day, my kids and whichever adult is on duty clean up! Mopping, vacuuming, wiping, putting out the trash, and more! It’s a great way not to batch cleaning, but chip away at it every day. And it’s been a good way to teach respect for environment and responsibility to my kids.

My 6 year old is a bit more enthusiastic – as you’ll see in the video – but we all take part and it’s become a family habit.

Learning about souji and respect for community in Japan

One of the highlights of the Japan Study Trips that I lead is the opportunity to visit a Japanese elementary school to interact with the children and teachers and to watch their process of serving meals, cleaning up, and doing the souji (cleaning) of the schools.

I’ve had a chance to visit this school four times over the past three years – once at the middle school and three times at thee elementary school. It’s inspirational to see how the concepts of community, environment, and “motainai” – regret for waste – are taught at a young age.

On the Japan Study Trips, we often talk about “why can’t we do that in our own countries?” Last year, one participant suggested that it came down to leadership. We could do it if we set it as the challenge and expectation, and then followed up to make sure it was taught and embedded as a standard. Lean thinking and management in action.

Recommendation on managing to adapt in a time of crisis

Elisabeth Swan of GoLeanSixSigma.Com – and a Japan Study Trip participant from May 2019 – asked me to write about how I’ve been managing to adapt during the Coronavirus.

Here are the the topics that I wrote in that post – check out my recommendations and other insights from lean thinkers in the article.

How to Manage Yourself With the New Normal

In what seems to be the blink of an eye, our world has forever changed and the future we anticipated is not what will be. I’ve been thinking about a few concepts to help me—and you—adjust to our new reality. Here are 5 things you can do right now.

1. Be kind to yourself, and others.

2. Take time to stabilize and adjust to today’s reality.

3. Once stabilized, then we can start to create.

4. Focus on the next step, not the end.

5. The practice of setting an intention, reflecting, and expressing gratitude can be incredibly powerful.

Setting up a routine like souji has been instrumental to me for (2):

Since California’s shelter-in-home order, I’ve found it helpful to set some new structure and routines for my elementary-aged kids as well as for my husband and myself. One routine that has been particularly—and surprisingly—adopted by my kids is the concept of cleaning the house at lunchtime. This is something I learned in Japan, how Japanese students clean their schools each day.

Japanese culture and Lean culture are not necessarily the same

Now, as I’ve written about many times, Japanese culture and “Lean” are not the same, but there are certainly many positive elements of Japanese culture that are the foundation of what Toyota first created as the Toyota Production System, and which we have translated to “Lean” outside of Japan.

As I wrote in a post for the Lean Enterprise Institute’s “Lean Post”:

“It’s not easy for the Japanese, just as it isn’t easy in other cultures…. In many ways, some aspects we consider foundational to lean thinking (developing people as problem solvers, leader-as teacher) are counter to traditional Japanese business practices. Toyota and other lean thinking companies are unique in Japan, as are organizations in the West who practice deep lean thinking.

At the same time, there are deep-rooted Japanese qualities that make “Lean” easier to practice and that are demonstrated throughout everyday life such as adherence to rule (or standard work), following kata (or routines), a cultural appreciation of cleanliness, and a deep respect for treating others well.”

Here are some other past posts that you might find interesting related to this topic:

Life in Japan: Where clean is beautiful, but 5S is still hard

What does “Lean” mean in Japan? Are Japanese hospitals practicing “Lean”?

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

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