Simplifying the Complex: That’s the Secret to Real Lean – Part 1: What Ohno Said

Simplifying the Complex: That’s the Secret to Real Lean – Part 1: What Ohno Said

Some people love to make things complicated. The key is to make things simple.

Taiichi Ohno

(As recounted by Michikazu Tanaka in The Birth of Lean)


When you come right down to the core of it, I think the above quote by Ohno takes us directly to the heart and soul of TPS and the often-disputed philosophy it represents. If we want to really understand “Why” Lean works (the subtitle of this website), then we need to understand “simple”.

When I read Ohno, I get the distinct impression that he was a very practical man, but also a very deep thinker as to what “practical” really means. One dictionary definition of “practical” says:

“Of or concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas

Another definition, which may describe Ohno even better is:

Of, relating to, governed by, or acquired through practice or action,  rather than theory or speculation

In his book, Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management, Ohno readily admits that TPS was developed over many decades, not through applying theories, but through “trial and error”:

Standardized work at Toyota is a framework for kaizen improvements. We start by adopting some kind – any kind – of work standards for a job. Then we tackle one improvement after another, trial and error.” [Emphasis mine]

A very practical approach! But, contrary to the thinking of many of us, “trial and error” did not mean “hit or miss” to Ohno and his compatriots. No, these guys listened to Deming. PDCA (plan, do check, act) was the underlying foundation of their concept of “trial and error”. “Trial” meant “PD” and “error” constituted “CA”. This multi-decadal effort was one gigantic, very structured, learning experience for all those involved. In other words ——- “Kaizen”.

But Ohno also emphasized that this trial and error approach did have a very definitive direction and goal behind it:

When something has been completely rationalized it should be in a simple condition, but everyone makes rationalization too complicated and this is no good. It is odd to say “reduce inventory and work in process” in the name of rationalization. If you rationalize there should be no work in process. If you only need one and you have two, this is not rational.” [Emphasis mine]

There is that word “simple” again.

[For Ohno, “Rationalization” meant “streamlining” or becoming more fit through kaizen activity. The dictionary defines “rationalization” as “the action of reorganizing a process or system so as to make it more logical and consistent”. Close enough. And “completely rationalized” means – you guessed it – as simple as you can get]

But Ohno did not take the concept of “simple” very lightly:

Producing ‘the things we can sell, in the amount we can sell’ is a very simple idea, but there is nothing so difficult as actually doing it.”

It takes a lot of work to bring simplicity into a complex system. And I don’t mean just physical work, it requires a lot of mental work. But this learning was not done by sitting back, with your eyes closed, and theorizing. No, this learning was acquired, with eyes wide open, by doing via trial and error. That is how Ohno and his compatriots developed such innovative concepts as Just-in-time, Kanban, Jidoka, Heijunka, Kaizen, 5S, Material and Information Flow Diagrams, Visual Management, Teamwork, Respect for People, etc., etc., etc. And every one of these concepts/tools/techniques have at least one thing in common – they helped simplify a complex system.

If that last statement is not intuitively obvious to you right now – don’t worry about it. It wasn’t obvious to me either for a very long time. I actually stumbled on this insight while pursuing research in totally unrelated fields. But in doing so, I began to gain a better understanding of “why” TPS/Lean works.

Interested? —-Then read on.

I ran across “complexity theory” while performing independent research in atmospheric thermodynamics and then again when studying “production theory” as outlined by the Austrian School of Economics (concerning the latter, see my post Time: The Lost Factor of Production).

While the global climate is an example of a “complex system”, the study of economics goes one step further. Economics entails some understanding of “complex adaptive systems” (CAS). Here is Wikipedia’s definition:

A complex adaptive system is a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey a perfect understanding of the whole system’s behavior”.

The system “adapts” to a changing environment in hard to predict ways. The most common examples of complex “adaptive” systems are those systems involving living organisms. Yes, people make things even more complex than they normally would be. Anyone surprised by that? I thought not.

You may rightly ask why I am using a “theory” to explain what a man (Ohno), who did not believe in theories, discovered and developed. Well, complexity theory helps explain “why” Ohno’s trial and error methodology works. Complexity theory explains why an organization cannot be run as a “machine” and expect to prosper over time. Complexity theory also explains why an organization cannot survive and grow over the long haul just by “planning” its future one step at a time. Complexity theory states that an organization must be allowed to “emerge” through constant learning and interaction between discrete, interdependent, organizational agents (people). And learning comes from failures as well as successes – in fact we probably learn more from the failures than we do from the successes. That sounds a lot like “trial and error” to me.

Before we jump into complexity theory with both feet, you may want to read my post Who Does the Thinking Around Here Anyway? It covers some basic ideas behind “systems thinking” and how that is crucial to understanding TPS/Lean and the underlying importance of Toyota’s “Respect for People” philosophy.

Ready to jump in?

Then jump over to my next post

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