The Chalk Circle

In “The Toyota Way ” and “The Toyota Way Fieldbook” Jeffry Liker describes “standing in the chalk circle.”

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?”
  • “Why?”
  • “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.

8 Replies to “The Chalk Circle”

  1. Mark – what he was teaching is something few people understand when they are collecting data on work! There is overt and covert behavior and thinking going on in peoples little nut shell- until you understand there whole process you fail to create the complete entire picture of what is going on- there our other elements involved – influences outside the operators control, motivation for doing the job correctly,this is a list of causes I have found over the years – but still the number #1 – lack of feedback – its either to late or not given – so here is what I’m running in my mind when I’m doing analysis involving people:

    POSSIBLE CAUSES for not doing the job correctly

    Doesn’t know WHEN to do task

    FORGOTTEN how to do task

    TOOLS/EQUIPMENT missing, inadequate, or poor


    Physical working CONDITIONS hamper performance

    Method so COMPLEX no one can perform

    EFFORT greater than reward

    Task BORING

    Doesn’t believe in VALUE

    Task socially NEGATIVE

    Doesn’t know WHY task is done (Root Cause(RC) Effects)

    PUNISHED by peers or supervisor (RC Effects)

    CONFLICTING directions (RC Effects)

    I’m also looking at this:

    SPEED:How FAST must action occur?
    ENVIRONMENT:PHYSICAL situation of the task
    FREQUENCY:How OFTEN task occurs
    CONSEQUENCES:PENALTY for error or non-standard performance
    CHANGE:Probability of different methods in near-term
    OTHERS:PSYCHOSOCIAL factors; how quickly information is needed, etc.

    What most people do is focus on the physical part of the job but rarely on the thinking part of the job – IWATA was telling you the pattern of covert thinking going on in the job – for example – What is the tool for? – you would ask the worker – why did you select that tool – find out what going on inside to see if it matches what must go on to meet the outside expectations.

    on a side note – I had lost track of you until John Eisenhart and I teamed up for a project and needed to update our website list – how have you been doing and where are you?

  2. Hi Mark,

    thank you for sharing your thinking.

    I tried the “chalk circle method” with my students while they were “playing” a lean factory game, and asked some of the questions that you posted. My purpose was to help them open their eyes.

    Bad thinking!

    I discovered that you cannot see if you don’t have a kind of comparison scale.

    So if you just step in a chalk circle, you may stay in a life long without noticing anything.

    The TPS house is build on Visual Management, I imagine that this “management” is the comparison scale you need to see effectively.

    But maybe the experienced people you talked with, have different experiences?

    Take care


    1. Bon Jour, Emmanuel –
      I completely agree that a comparison perspective is needed. Otherwise you are just standing there feeling silly.
      Although I did not realize it until later, Iwata-san was continuously comparing what he saw against what would be an “ideal” smooth work flow. The questions he was asking were about the points of departure – things which were less than ideal.

      Another post, “How the Sensei Sees” goes a little more into that.

      Thank you for reading commenting. I always like to hear from my readers.

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