This, of course, is a reference to a legendary exercise where Taiichi Ohno would stand a manager in a chalk circle drawn on the shop floor. His direction would be simple: “Watch.”
Several hours later, Ohno would return and ask “What do you see?”
Usually Ohno had spotted something earlier, and wanted the manager to learn to see it. So if the reply to “What do you see?” was something other than what Ohno had already seen, his response would be “Watch some more.”
This would continue until the manager saw the same problem Ohno had seen.
Over the years I have talked to a number of ex-Toyota managers who worked for Ohno, and they all relate this story from personal experience, sometimes standing in the circle for a complete shift or even longer. I also heard from another Toyota manager, an American who was involved in the start-up in Georgetown, Kentucky. He told me what occurred when he decided, after 90 minutes, he had seen everything, and left the circle. His coordinator was not happy. But I digress.
My own story is a little different.
I was a new kaizen workshop leader and was involved in an event at a major supplier. Late deliveries from this supplier had shut down production several times. We were looking to reduce the changeover times on their (old!) milling machines so we could keep parts moving through the process.
The current state of the changeover was that it could easily take three or four shifts. We were going through the classic SMED sequence, and starting to study exactly what happened during a changeover.
My pager went off. (Yes, this was a long time ago, remember those little things that only displayed a phone number?)
To cut to the point, on Wednesday I would be joined by the Division Vice President; Mr. Iwata, the Chairman of Shingijutsu; and an entourage to “help” with my workshop.
Iwata-sensei was an imposing character. During the next two days he and I would stand and just watch the Team Member going through the changeover. Iwata would constantly fire questions:
- “Why is he doing that?”
- “What is that for?”
- “Where is he going?”
- “What is he doing now?”
- “What is that tool for?”
- “What is he waiting on?”
Of course, we would work hard to get him the answers.
And each time he would listen to the answer and, with a dramatic wave of his arm and a hiss through his teeth, we would be dismissed.
Yet the questions continued.
At the end of this week, I never saw a factory the same way. I would get a feeling, almost a gut instinct, of what was happening, where the problems were, what to watch to verify. This skill has proven very useful over the years. Yet it was really not until nearly a year after Iwata’s death that I finally got it and understood what he was teaching.
He didn’t care about the answers. He was teaching me the questions.
I believe I was hearing a stream of consciousness of the questions he was asking himself as he watched. He was giving me a great gift of how to “stand in the chalk circle.” He was passing on some small bit of his decades of experience.
A great teacher continues to teach even after his death.