Learning to see – Standing on Ohno’s circle

At LMAC we frequently get to see the inner workings of production facilities, from all sectors, seeing how they operate on a day-to-day basis. As a fresh pair of eyes, we look and see things from a different perspective as we do not work in that particular environment. We observe and look try to understand exactly how much actual Lean thinking is really going on, not judging by just the posters or the charts on the wall.

Depending upon the industry and operation, the look of the process may differ, but one thing that is common among the majority of line leaders is a commitment and dedication to keep the line running at all costs.

But often, these costs are detrimental to the business’ most important resource – its people.

The stress levels that line leaders put themselves under on a daily basis are huge. But why?

Let’s think about it. What is actually the role of a line leader? More importantly, what does the organisation expect of him or her?


The answer is not ground-breaking. To keep their part of the process running smoothly, producing high quality product, on time, at minimum cost. Right?

Yet in nearly all the facilities we visit, this apparently simple task appears to be extraordinarily difficult.  People running around with clip boards, people counting parts or in some cases, just looking for them. Often, team members are waiting for instructions or guidance. We see scrap material hidden under benches or even rusty quarantined material just sitting there waiting for someone to take action. In fact, a whole series of examples of what appears to be a lack of organisation.

Another thing that you can be sure of is that the process was never designed to run like that. So, what’s gone wrong?

The answer is not a lack of organisation, but the fact that the process is not ‘visual’. That is, being able to see what is going on in the production line so you can look for problems earlier and investigate them properly, rather than applying a quick fix.

One of the key tools in business improvement is Abnormality Management. This is a system that involves finding a problem, investigating the issue and fixing it, all in a controlled manner. It’s about leaders being able to identify issues easily then taking action to return the situation back to normal, or the standard.

Sounds simple, but unless you can actually see what is going on, how are you going to find the problem?

The answer to this is really two-fold. Firstly, all the common Lean philosophies need to be put in place. For example, workplace organisation needs to exist at a good level and excess inventory needs to be reduced.
Often this is more difficult that it sounds because in an environment that is not Lean, inventory is a supervisor’s best friend. The buffer it provides allows the process to continue to flow for a period whilst any problem is tackled. On the surface, this may appear to be a good thing, but the reality is, all that the inventory is doing is masking the extent of the problem. This normally means that the root cause of the problem is never really fully understood and therefore, never put to bed properly.

Secondly, a tool is needed to be able to see what is really going on, one of the tools that can used is referred to as Ohno’s Circle.

Taiichi Ohno was the Toyota executive who is credited with much of the thinking behind the system known today as the Toyota Production System and what we today tend to refer to as Lean or business improvement in general.

Ohno was well-known for walking onto the shop floor and drawing a circle on the ground. He would then go and stand in the circle and observe, think and analyse. Learn what was actually going on. From this study he would then have enough knowledge to improve the process.

So, this is what we and LMAC encourage line leaders to do:

If necessary, arrange for some supervisory cover for 30 minutes (so as not to be disturbed). Armed with a pad of paper and pen, go into the work area and stand in one central spot (it is not necessary to mark the floor like Ohno, unless you want others to do the same and compare notes).
Stand in the circle and observe for 15 minutes. Do not move out of the circle, not even to ask a question, just observe.

Write down any problems that are seen and also things that are difficult to understand. At the end of the 15 minutes, step out of the circle and analyse what was seen. Were there parts of the process that were difficult to understand the status of? Were there problems with flow or quality? Consider each thing that was seen. How could the process be made just a little better?
Now in the remaining 15 minutes, fix one problem!

This may seem a little extreme but it works. Encourage line leaders to do this on a daily basis as part of their daily routine. As long as each time one problem is fixed or something is added to the process to make it more visual, very quickly the process will start to come into control. The line leader will start to feel more in control and the firefighting will reduce.

All this will lead to the line leader having time to do what he or she should be doing – leading from the front, not chasing their tail.

So next time you have 30 minutes to spare, think Lean, grab some paper and go and stand in a circle just like Ohno!

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