/Understand Japan to understand lean thinking

Understand Japan to understand lean thinking

OPINION – Yalçin Ipbuken, President of Lean Institute Turkey, looks back at a recent study mission to Japan and encourages every lean thinker to visit the country.

Words: Yalcin Ipbuken, President, Lean Institute Turkey

To most people, Japan is a land of mystery, a country where millennia-old traditions meet futuristic technology, not to mention a place characterized by a rather odd social etiquette. For us lean people, Japan may retain all of the above features, but it is – fore and foremost – the land where it all began. Yes, to us lean people a trip to Japan can resemble in many ways a pilgrimage.

I recently returned from a Study Mission there, the one that we at Lean Institute Turkey have been organizing every year since 2010. It had been a while since I wanted to join one, and I am really happy I finally did.

It wasn’t my first time in the Land of the Rising Sun. I had been there several times before. Come to think of it, my first visit to the country came fairly late in my professional life, especially considering that I have worked with one of Japan’s greatest exports, an alternative approach to managing people and businesses we call lean, since the 1970s.

Back then I was head of the Human Resources Department of the Tofas Automobile Plant, part of the Fiat/Koç Partnership in Bursa, Turkey. It was in that role that I first encountered lean, when my factory manager personally asked me to study Japanese working methods and transfer that knowledge to the plant.

Those were very difficult years for Turkey and Turkish industry, but they were rich in valuable lessons for us. Political and social unrest raged across the country. In the meantime, at Tofas we were experimenting with our relationship with the workforce, with HR programs that were surprisingly similar to the Japanese approach. That’s what kept us immune to the industrial strife that was sweeping the country, and probably what initially led me towards lean.

In the 1980s I read about Japan’s success in competing with the seemingly unbeatable American automakers, and in the following decade I started to lead the effort to turn the organization and its suppliers into a more competitive network.

There I was, facing my life’s biggest challenge. The task seemed gargantuan, several times bigger than my capabilities and knowledge could support. We began experimenting, and one day – by accident – I encountered The Machine that Changed the World by Jim Womack and Dan Jones and later Lean Thinking.

That’s when I became fully engaged in Toyota’s manufacturing system and approach to people. Strangely, I found many similarities between the company’s ethos and my personal experiments at Fiat Turkey in the 1970s.

I took every opportunity I could to see, touch and understand Japanese working practices and culture. In the 1990s, I even organized Study Mission tours in Japan for industry executives, during which we visited organizations working in the electronics, house appliances and automotive sectors (from Toyota to Panasonic). During that time, we had established good relationships with the people who had been part of the Japanese “industrial miracle” after World War II, like Professor Akao and Professor Kondo.

I quickly learned the importance of understanding Japanese culture. So it should come as no surprise that, upon establishing the Lean Institute Turkey, it became my dream (one shared by everybody working there) to organize study missions to Japan. Even though it took us some time to arrange the first two trips in 2010, we have since then offered the program every year with great success.

This year I had promised to take my wife to Japan – and the timing seemed perfect, because we arrived during sakura, the best time to visit Japan, when the cherry trees across the country blossom to spectacular effect.

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My personal highlights from the tour were the visit to the home of late Konusuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic, in Kyoto (his home and garden would not look out of place in paradise) and the visit to the Nagoya University Hospital, a great example of lean applied to healthcare. We also had a chance to meet with our Japanese partners and discuss future projects with them, which was really stimulating.

The entire structure of the Study Mission is focused on learning, with factory visits (at least five) and workshops every day. There are also a few tourist stops along the way, to allow people to enjoy the country’s mesmerizing beauty and unique culture and way of life.

Our participants told us that seeing Japan brought everything they read or learned during training alive, and found the tour inspiring. Many of them also said that it washed away any doubt they had on lean.

I believe anyone who is on a lean journey should create the opportunity to pay a visit to Japan, to further improve their understanding of the culture from which lean thinking originated. There are so many more things I, for one, would have liked to do, but there wasn’t enough time. There’s my excuse for going back soon, I suppose.


Yalcin Ipbuken is President of the Lean Institute Turkey