Taiichi Ohno Quotes: Teach Others to Think for Themselves

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This post continues my summary of Yoshihito Wakamatsu’s book The Toyota Mindset. So far, we’ve covered Taiichi Ohno’s belief that Wastes Hide, Disclose all Mistakes and Discover the Truth Beyond Understanding. Today, we’ll discuss Chapter 3, where the main theme is Teachers other to Think.

To read my reviews of Wakamatsu’s book on Taiichi Ohno, please visit the links below.

Give Everyone a Hard Time

Wakamatsu shared the following story of Taiichi Ohno in 1965 regarding the Toyota Corolla:

“Produce 5000 engines with less than 100 workers, ” Ohno ordered.

The production manager reported back to Ohno a few months later and said, “We are now able to produce 5000 engines with only 80 workers.

But the sale of the Corolla continued to rise requiring production to be increased. To this fact, Taiichi Ohno asked a question:

How many workers are needed to produce 10,000 engines?

wakamatsu, toyota mindset, taiichi ohno

The production manager responded quickly and said:

160 workers would be sufficient.

Wakamatsu then shared this response from Taiichi Ohno:

This answer infuriated Taiichi Ohno. “I learned how to figure out 8 x 2 = 16 in elementary school. I had never thought I would learn that again from you when I am this old. Do not treat me like a fool”

Ohno then added,

You are so accustomed to a notion that any form of increase in sales, labor, and equipment is considered favorable. But, how do you ensure that our profit keeps on increasing? That is the most critical factor.

According to Wakamatsu, Taiichi Ohno called the above logic “Management by Ninja Art“, in other words, even though demand increases, use your creativity to do more with much less and not rely on basic management arithmetic to solve the problem.

Impossibility Leads to New Ideas

Wakamatsu provides some background before he shares what he remembers of Taiichi Ohno.

SMED and Changeover

Back in the 1960’s, Toyota performed two types of changeovers:

  1. Internal Changeover: Machinery must be stopped to perform a changeover.
  2. External Changeover: A changeover can be performed while the machinery is running or after the process is complete.

In 1965, Toyota would spend 2-4 hours performing a single changeover per 1,000 ton press machine. When a changeover took place, the entire line stops, leading to lower production. At the time, Volkswagon was performing their changeovers in less than 2 hours, so Toyota made the goal of doing the same. With the help of Shigeo Shingo, they were able to reduce changeover time from 4 hours to 1 hour.

Despite this incredible improvement in changeover time, Taiichi Ohno said the following:

“Now reduce the changeover time to less than 10 minutes!”

Shigeo Shingo and the team thought that challenge was impossible, but since they were all sufficiently scared of Taiichi Ohno, they went about trying to meet the challenge.

As it turns out, the seemingly impossible leads to new ideas. One idea was to transition all Internal Changeovers into External Changeovers, leading to several innovations. After some trials, experimentation, and testing, the team was able to reduce the changeover time to 7 minutes, then from 7 minutes to 3 minutes.

According to Wakamatsu, this challenge and the team’s response led to two critical aspects of the Toyota Production System:

  1. Single Minute Exchange of Die (SMED)
  2. Once Piece Flow

Regarding One Piece Flow, it turns out that the accumulation of many, many small improvements led to the massive reduction of changeover time from 4 hours to 1 hour to 7 minutes to 3 minutes.

When One is in Despair, Surprising Ideas Come About

Taiichi Ohno once visited a factory and observed an operation to which he ordered the manager “Get rid of that automatic delivery machine.” The manager thought to himself:

If we remove the machine, how are we going to transport heavy items? We would need more workers and time. It would be extremely hard to perform the same job.

But, the manager decided to obey Taiichi Ohno and then figure out a solution. He figured that Taiichi Ohno had a good reason for his request, but wanted to manager and his team to figure it out for themselves.

The manager brainstormed with his team and immediately put up a few constraints: no additional labor or labor hours.

Given the challenge and the self-imposed constraints, the team came up with

a simple holding jig by which heavy items were lifted up and pushed onto the destination. A pulley was also used to move items while being lifted up.

After a few weeks, the manager reported back to Taiichi Ohno and said:

We figured out through trial and error that the best way was to make use of a special jig and pulley. This new method allows us to reduce the time required for transportation.

Uncharacteristically, Taiichi Ohno congratulated the manager and his team for figuring it out for themselves.

Stop Mothering Your Workers

Wakamatsu recalls a time when Taiichi Ohno would challenge his workers to remove waste from a certain process, but did not tell them what or how to do so. Wakamatsu explains that Ohno’s approach was very time consuming and required much patience from management, but ultimately led to management and workers learning to think on their own. To one manager that often gave out answers easily to his workers, Ohno said this as he scolded him:

You are simply acting like a mom for your workers. That’s the main reason why they take a long time to grow . . . Continuous Improvement is all about the fine balance between craftiness and money. Advancement can be achieved by simply spending more money, however continuous improvement requires intelligence and craftiness. If too much money is spent on a project, we will cease to apply our craftiness to formulate a solution.

Wakamatsu explains the logic behind this thinking:

  1. Instead of saying “Purchasing more machines will fix the problem”, say “How can we do fix the problem with the same number of machines?”
  2. Instead of saying “If I had a bigger budget we could grow at x%”, say “With the same amount of budget, how can we grow at x%?”

Living and working within constraints leads to innovation and breakthroughs. That point is what Taiichi Ohno tried to teach as he went about teaching others and helping others to grow – albeit painfully.

wakamatsu, toyota mindset, taiichi ohno


  1. Dan Markovitz says


    I love this book summary. Please keep it coming.

    I will say, however, that Ohno’s communication style just doesn’t translate well to the US. I lived in Japan for four years, and I understand the cultural roots of his (frankly) abusive treatment of the Toyota staff. I’m sure that they hated his verbal abuse just as much as an American might, but they were more conditioned to accept it. From where I sit, there’s no reason that setting high expectations requires that kind of language — and in fact, I’d argue that the fierce loyalty Ohno engendered came in spite of his treatment of the staff, not because of it.

  2. Chuk says

    The methods used by Ohno in Japan do work in the US. The key is to create trust on the front side by explaining to the staff how you are going to behave and why. Bottom line is without the severe challenge the staus quo will snuff out the amazing results that can be acheived.

  3. Dan Markovitz says


    Not sure that I agree with you — but then, I might be guilty of projecting my communication likes/dislikes on the general public. I do agree with you completely that without trust, you’ve got nothing.

  4. Chuk says


    I am biased as a 23 year Toyota member I am sure.

    I must also apologize for not understanding that your critique was aimed at how the concepts were being communnicated and not the concepts themselves (am I correct?).

    My philosophy is that the need, and subsequent methods, to eliminate waste is universal; and that U.S. Industry should not resist these methods because Japan has seemingly, at least during the 80’s and 90’s, leveraged said methods more effectively.

    Thanks for the reply. Chuk.

  5. Dan Markovitz says


    You’re correct: I’m criticizing the delivery method, not the concepts. I just don’t believe in browbeating, embarrassing, and making people feel stupid.

  6. Chuk says

    I agree. Setting challenging targets, and never being satisfied, both can be handled in a respectful manner.

    Thanks for the dialogue. Chuk.

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