Improving Improvement

By: Ken Snyder

In the Lean world, we have a tendency to hearken back to the senseis of yesterday – Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Dr. Joseph M. Juran, Kaoru Ishikawa, Taiichi Ohno, and, of course in our case, Dr. Shigeo Shingo. The list could be much longer.

I never met Shigeo Shingo. But in my role, I think I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. I spend several weeks each year with his son who tells me stories about his father, clients his father consulted with, his books, and so on. I meet a few times each year with Toyota “OBs”  hearing stories about Shingo’s training classes at Toyota. And I’ve spent time with Drew Dillon, who traveled with Dr. Shingo extensively as both his translator and apprentice. And I’ve read many (not all yet!) of Shingo’s 17 books.

As I’ve come to understand Shingo better, I have to wonder if he would be happy with our focus on the past. Why do I say that? Shingo was all about kaizen.  Shingo strikes me as someone who was not afraid to discard the past if he thought of, or discovered, a better way. His mind was never stagnant. His books display a clear evolution of thought as he discovered better and better ways.

Yet, I think Shingo would look at the Lean community today and think it is too stagnant. We have not been as good as we should have been at improving the process of improvement. As an example, at the Shingo Institute, we have awarded the Shingo “Research” Award since 1989. Many excellent books and articles have received recognition. Yet, almost all of the writings are about the practical application of the tools, systems, and principles taught by the senseis of yesterday.

In order to correct this lack of progress, and propel us forward faster, at the Shingo Institute, we have recommitted to conducting “cutting-edge research.”  Two years ago we hired a Director of Research, Dr. Rick Edgeman. Along with a broad range of academic partners, we have helped resurrect the Lean Education Academic Network (L.E.A.N.). We are trying to reinvigorate academic research into Lean.

There is a wonderful kaizen aspect to research and the scientific method. As we conduct research, it is important to discover new knowledge, or reimagine what we think we already know, in ways that advance the practice of Lean. Academics are uniquely qualified to contribute to this discovery of new knowledge

 At our recent Shingo conference in Copenhagen, we initiated a research track. It was a wonderful event with many inspiring presentations. I learned many new things. Yes, you can teach an old dog like me new tricks! I will share some of these new insights in future blogs. We will continue this effort at the Shingo International conference in Atlanta this April. If you are interested in joining the process of improving the improvement process, we invite you to join us at the conference.

1 “OBs” is the term used by retired Toyota employees, and is an abbreviation of the English term, “old boys.” It specifically refers to those who experienced the transformation enacted through the development of the Toyota Production System.

Kaizen is a Japanese term usually translated as “continuous improvement.” I prefer the broader definition suggested by Masaaki Imai of improvement that happens “every where,” involves “every body,” and takes place all the time (“every time”).

3 From the mission statement of the Shingo Institute. See 

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