Kaizen spirit: the antidote to taylorist bureaucratic thinking


These days, the rage in lean is all about “management system”, “hoshin kanri” or “standard work.” Where is kaizen gone?

In the last conference I attended, three people independently quoted Taiichi Ohno reportedly saying “without standards, there can be no kaizen.” Of all the crazy quotes attributed to Ohno, three speakers randomly choosing that one probably says something.

They did not quote Ohno on:

“Managers and foremen must endeavor to transform a mere motion into work.”

“The foreman or the leader is the one who breaks the standard.”

“There is something called standard work, but standards should be changed constantly. Instead, if you think of the standard as the best you can do, it’s all over. The standard work is only a baseline for doing further kaizen. It is kai-aku [change for the worse] if things get worse than now, and it is kaizen [change for the better] if things get better than now. Standards are set arbitrarily by humans, so how can they not change?”

and, more explicitly:

“Years ago, I made them hang the standard work documents on the shop floor. After a year I said to a team leader, ‘The color of the paper has changed, which means you have been doing it the same way, so you have been a salary thief for the last year.’ I said ‘What do you come to work to do each day? If you are observing every day you ought to be finding things you don’t like, and rewriting the standard immediately. Even if the document hanging there is from last month, this is wrong.’ At Toyota in the beginning we had the team leaders write down the dates on the standard work sheets when they hung them. This gave me a good reason to scold the team leaders, saying ‘Have you been goofing off all month?'”

Capture d’écran 2016-06-13 à 07.19.47

We are heavily conditioned by taylorist bureaucratic thinking. We like to see a neat workplace where:

  1. Instructions from the top are neatly deployed and rolled out to the level of the operator
  2. The best way has been neatly devised by an expert and applied exactly by who does the work
  3. Discipline is seen and felt in both the workplace and the people who work there

This is a recipe for disaster in today’s day and age where external change is always faster than internal change. Rigidifying how we work will simply:

  • Make us less competitive by freezing processes
  • Burden each product or service by the added cost of the bureaucratic systems needed to freeze processes, whether ISO or taylorist lean

Kaizen spirit is the antidote to our deep-down taylorist bureaucratic thinking. Kaizen spirit is the creative chaos that makes everything change every day a little bit (so the change is controlled because we can see the impact and distinguish good change from bad change). Kaizen spirit is not accepting 99.5% efficiency without pulling someone out of the process to do something more useful (the “Oh No! method).

Sure, we need Standard Work as a starting point – it simply means to know how we currently do the work and it can be sketched in a matter of minutes. Back to Ohno himself:

“If it takes one or two months to create these documents, this is nonsense. You should not create these away from the job. See what is happening on the gemba and write it down.”


“You must perform the Standard Work, and as you do, you should find things you don’t like, and you will think of one kaizen idea after another. Then you should implement these ideas right away, and make this the new standard.

Hey, you, corporate guys and consultants, please stop using lean language to kill the lean spirit!

Profitable, sustainable performance is achieved by increasing the flow of ideas to improve the flow of work, which means every day kaizen: every team conducts a Quality Circle, every suggestion is tried out, every person has an idea.

Share this!