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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

Learning Comes First

Most companies focus heavily on leadership, but few focus on learnership

Published: Monday, May 6, 2013 - 08:59


One of my favorite insights comes from Harvard’s David Garvin: “Learning will always remain something of an art, but even the best artists can improve their technique.” I like it because it quite subtly highlights two different yet intertwined activities, learning and training.

Most companies engage in training. Few engage in real learning. Most companies focus heavily on leadership. Few focus on learnership. One path to leadership is innovation. And here’s the thing: Learning and innovation go hand in hand, but learning comes first. The difference between learning and training is often subtle, but worth exploring. The challenge is, where to start?

The Ohno Circle

Learning precedes innovation. Innovation is about problem solving. Problem solving requires thinking. Thinking is the softest skill known, so how do you train it?

Enter the infamous Ohno Circle, named for legendary Toyota production engineer, Taiichi Ohno. Although I never met him (he passed away just under a decade before I began working with big T), I became a student of his methods, one of which is highly relevant to this discussion.

Taiichi Ohno was all about pursuing the right questions rather than securing the right answers. What drove his approach was not a need to know. It was a need to inquire. To understand. That’s a fundamental departure from how most people—and companies—define learning. He did not confuse training with learning.

But he masterfully wove them together. He knew that the ability to think critically is probably best handed down from mentor to disciple because it’s something so difficult to make explicit in a traditional classroom.

Many people have heard the legend of the Ohno Circle but misunderstand the lesson to be about the power of observation. While observation is undoubtedly invaluable, the message runs much deeper.

The story is best told through the words of someone who knew the man. In a message to the World Class Manufacturing Forum in May, 2002, Toyota Senior Managing Director Teriyuki Minoura spoke of his experience with Ohno and the Ohno Circle: “When I reflect on what Mr. Ohno taught us, one thing that stands out to me is that he taught us how to think. He taught us to think deeply. When I think about this, I think that perhaps the ‘T’ in TPS should stand not only for Toyota, but also for Thinking. The ‘Thinking Production System.’

“Now I would like to relate a story of Mr. Ohno’s teaching on thinking. He often would draw a circle on the floor in the middle of a bottleneck area, and he would make us stand in that circle all day long and watch the process. He wanted us to watch and ask, ‘Why?’ over and over. You may have heard about the five why’s in TPS. Mr. Ohno felt that if we stood in that circle, watching and asking why, better ideas would come to us. He realized that new thoughts and new technologies do not come out of the blue; they come from a true understanding of the process.


Taiichi Ohno inspects the assembly line.

“In my case, I thought it was strange when he asked me to go into the circle. But what could I say? I was a freshman, and he was the big boss and a member of the board of directors! So I went into the circle and began to watch the process. During the first hour, I began to understand the process. After two hours, I began to see the problems. After the third and fourth hours, I was starting to ask why. Finally, I found the root cause and started to think about counter-measures.

“With the counter-measures in place, I reported back to Mr. Ohno what I had observed, the problems I saw, and the countermeasures I put in place as well as the reasons for the counter-measures. Mr. Ohno would just say, ‘Is that so?’ and nothing more. He never gave us answers. Most of the time he wouldn’t even tell us if what we did was good or bad.

“Now I realize what Mr. Ohno was trying to do. He was trying to make us think deeply—and think for ourselves.”

The story reminds us of the old Chinese proverb: “What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand.”

The art of learning

The New York Police Department (NYPD) employs a modern-day version of the Ohno Circle, in a training capacity... less about the softer skill of thinking, and more focused on the harder skill of observing... but a worthy effort in the pursuit of learnership.

If you wander into New York’s Frick Collection on East Seventieth Street on a Monday, when the art museum is closed, you may be surprised to find a group of newly minted detectives clustered around a work of art. They’re not there to appreciate the art, and they’re not taking a course on catching art thieves.

In a new-school Ohno Circle sort of way, they’re there to improve their detecting technique by participating in a program developed by a former educational director for the Frick.

The officers are challenged to arrive at the who, what, where, why, and when of the painting before them—the art of Vermeer, or El Greco, or Hogarth—all quite visually ambiguous in form and substance, and extremely difficult to “analyze.” The officers learn to scan and analyze an entire canvas quickly but thoroughly. The process is one first of observation and description, moving from foreground to background, followed by analysis and conclusion.

NYPD believes that expanding the circle of observation this way can help in analyzing a crime scene. For example, in one case a fleeing suspect fell to the pavement while racing across rooftops to avoid capture. Frick training prompted the officer to stop, take in the entire scene, and widen his search perimeter beyond just the site of impact; he located an automobile on which detectives found palm prints that aided in reconstructing and mapping the intended escape route.

The connection between art, learning, training, thinking, and the circle of observation is as apparent to me as the sun in the sky. David Garvin had it right: Learning is indeed an art, but every art requires technique, and every artist seeks to improve his technique.

What will you do today to improve yours?

This article first appeared May 2, 2013 on the Edit Innovation blog.


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About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.

Comments

Learning Comes First

Great topic and article. I was surprised after years in production and industrial engineering, including reading the ILO Geneva Text on 'Work Study', then Allan Mogensen whom Don Dewar of QCI International gave me in Red Bluff CA USA years ago that this; their questioning method was very powerful being asking Why against What, When, Where, Who and How. Lean (Krafnik, Sloan and MIT) and Six Sigma Programs (Motorola Trade and Service Mark registered name) have sub-optimised Ohno's Thinking and that Industrial Engineering, Work Simplification and Work Study by only applying the so called '5 Why's to the problem and hardly to the ranked causes in a basic or process Ishikawa Cause and Effect Diagram. The AIAG FMEA Text provides guidance to the Ohno Questioning, Learning and Thinking too in using the Process Flow Chart as the input to the PFMEA. Inherent in that text flowchart tool is the 5 W's and 1 H which Rudyard Kipling reminded us '"I have 6 honest serving men - who, what, when, where, why and how". If applied as the Text suggest, one can be prompted in a small way to the possible risks in the process. The article reminded my Allan Mogensen referencing Charles F Kettering VP R&D GM, where he talked bout resistance to change and defining problems - "a problem well defined is 50% solved". Good questions, listening and learning are indeed much better with your 'Learnership'. I guess it builds upon Adult Learning theories of Dr Malcolm Knowles et al. Ohno and Mr Toyoda when visiting Ford Motor Coy and referenced by JP Sullivan and Poulding in their Supplier Q Manual that US Managers are very good Vertically but compared to Japanese managers who are Cross-functionally as they question- I suppose this adds to Womack & Jones' "Learning to See" and in some ways one wonders how Ohno, Deming, Juran would too I guess if they are watching why we have to advise Managers and Leaders to Go to Gemba, do MBWA, and even as you remind us well in your article Matthew.

A Disquieting Question

Because it's not only a question of improving one or more learning - or learnership - techniques: it's much more a question of learning the right things at the right time. I feel I've learned much more reading about Mankind's history than sweating over charts-full abstruse manuals. And I think that Mr. De Bono's "lateral thinking" is still an effective way to problem solving. I don't remember where I read it nor who wrote it, he  might have been a Chinese or a Japanese or a Redskin, I don't care: but the very first step on the road to learning, is to un-learn a lot of trash. Thank you.