OpEx Solutions

'There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently
that which should not be done at all'.

—Peter F. Drucker.





Operational Excellence Using Japanese Tools

by Ken McClymonds, OpEx Solutions

 “The pioneers of industrial engineering may be rolling in their graves as their creations resurface with foreign names.”
— a statement made by the guest speaker at a university referring to the tools invented by industrial engineering pioneers like Fredrick Taylor, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, HB Maynard, Richard Muther and others


I waited until the end of the session and told the guest speaker that not all of the pioneers were rolling in their graves, since Richard Muther was 95 years old and still alive at the time.

After speaking to a colleague, we both decided to research the genesis of the so-called “Japanese” tools that were being used and propagated as the latest and greatest tools — kaizen, gemba, shikumi diagrams, yamazumi charts. We quickly realized that most of these were tools that were originally developed in the USA and Europe. 

In the early stages of our research, we noticed confusing and mixed signals. Leaders driving company transformation had strong conviction that they needed these totally new-sounding tools to drive a culture change. On the flip side, there was strong resentment from the doers and practitioners to the tools with unintelligible foreign names and they had no way to relate these “new tools” to the tools and techniques they already knew.

We had a chat with Richard “Dick” Muther, one of the pioneers of industrial engineering prior to his death in October 2014 — just a few weeks short of his 100th birthday. Dick was not troubled that the tool he created in the early 1940’s was being introduced as a “shikumi “diagram. He stated that people will rebrand with new names and we cannot stop that. Dick related an event time that made him chuckle: he was invited by the Chinese government to deliver training. The following year, they invited the Japanese to do the same. The Japanese used Muther’s text and methodology to teach the same subject!

We discovered over twenty existing tools that came back to the USA under the umbrella of “Lean” with new names. For example, the relationship diagram, developed by Muther in the 1940s to enable systematic analysis and design of layouts to minimize movement, was renamed “shikumi diagram” by the Japanese. In fairness to the Japanese, they renamed it so that their people could understand the concept. This tool was brought back to the USA with two names: shikumi diagram and spaghetti diagram.

Next we tried to assess the impact of introducing these rebranded tools — did they succeed in a sustained transformed culture?   Feedback from most of our clients, sessions in professional groups, and articles in professional publications indicate that success has been very limited despite the tools being the same. Instead, we realized that the unsuccessful programs have done significant damage —

  • Cost and time of the program — it takes time to teach Japanese to English speakers
  • Lost opportunities during an expensive deployment program
  • Competitive disadvantage — allows focused competitors to move ahead faster
  • Process experts are replaced by people that can only teach simplified tools with little understanding of how that impacts the business
  • Delays the start of an effective program

In order to overcome this damage, we started offering the seminar Back to Basics of Operational Excellence, based on sound industrial engineering principles. During sessions, we often hear company leaders saying: 

  • We drove change without the buy-in from the doers.
  • We drove constant change rather than continuously improving.
  • We need to start focusing on our business problems rather than on tools.
  • We see the need to use the language our people speak.


Back to Basics of Operational Excellence

The title Back to Basics of Operational Excellence is a bit misleading. Many would think this is a seminar for beginners who need to get a general idea of operational excellence tools and methods; however, the information contained in the two-day seminar is geared to both leaders and practitioners.


Back to Basics of Operational Excellence was hosted by Entegris in Round Rock, TX (Austin area) September 2-3, 2015. Participants from five companies attended — ranging from operations leaders to supervisors.  Some of the comments included: "I knew many of these things — just was not applying them correctly.'' or "I thought using this method would be so much more complicated — didn't know I could use this so simply!" or "I wasn't sure what I should be stressing the most in 5S — most of the time I was going after a 'look'."
One of the most well-received parts of the seminar was the fact that English-language terms were used, demystifying an often confusing jargon of foreign terms. Some of the topics covered in the two days included: 5S Workplace Organization, Standard Work, Daily Visual Management, Problem Solving, and Rapid and Continuous Improvement. Participants worked exercises to help them identify areas in their specific organizations that might be prime candidates for utilizing some of the basic operational excellence tools and methods for rapid, sustainable improvement.



OpEx Solutions is an organization that helps identify strategic areas for improvement and provides effective high-value, low-cost solutions, training, and project management to drive significant productivity improvement through the use of operational excellence tools and systems in most manufacturing and service industries.

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