Taiichi Ohno

Co-Founder of TPS 

Norman Bodek Interview

Strategos: What was Ohno like?

Bodek: Well, Ohno had a reputation of creating fear in others.  He was often called "ruthless" in his desire to drive out waste from the Toyota system. 

One day Ohno walked into one of the large warehouses at Toyota Gosei and said to the staff of managers around him, "Get rid of this warehouse and in one year I will come back and look!   I want to see this warehouse made into a machine shop and I want to see everyone trained as machinists." And sure enough, one year later that building became a machine shop and everyone had been retrained.

Ohno did not tell then how to do it.  He just demanded that they do it. Ohno knew the economic benefits to Lean, knew it wasn't easy to bring change, and was forceful in bringing it forward. 

Another time I was standing inside a factory near Tokyo, in front of a newly purchased automated delivery system. The system allowed an operator to pick out the necessary parts to be delivered to the assembly line.  It was impressive to see the operator and her proficiency using the automated system fulfilling orders.  

A former assistant to Mr. Ohno was standing with a group of the company's managers and he said to me, "Norman, what would Ohno have said about this automated warehouse?"  I said, without thinking, Ohno would have said, "Get rid of it." All the managers looked shocked.  I am sure their minds were buzzing, ?How can we get rid of it?"

Strategos: Ohno seems demanding, arbitrary and difficult. Yet, employee participation is a major source of Toyota's strength. How do you explain the apparent paradox?

Bodek: From what I was told, Ohno was both ruthless and relentless. Toyota needed that kind of energy to go from producing junky cars in 1960 to world's richest automotive company. Toyota was rough on all employees and on all of their suppliers but an employee has never been laid off (no downsizing), a supplier has never gone bankrupt (in fact, each supplier is a leader in their field), and Toyota is able to open new plants in America while we go to China.

Toyota also invests in their employees. They want each one to learn and grow.

Taiichi Ohno Career Highlights

Taiichi OhnoTaiichi Ohno was born in Manchuria, China in 1912 and graduated from Nagoya Institute of Technology. He joined Toyota in 1932 and for about twenty years worked his way up in the firm.

In the 1940's and early 1950's, Ohno was the assembly manager for Toyota and developed many improvements that eventually became the Toyota Production System. Toyota was verging on bankruptcy during much of this period and could not afford major investments in new equipment or massive inventories.

The 1950's also saw the beginning of a long collaboration with Shigeo Shingo and the refinement of their earlier efforts into an integrated Manufacturing Strategy.

Ohno's career accelerated as a result of his success as Assembly Shop Manager and he became an executive Vice President in 1975.

In the early 1980's, Ohno retired from Toyota and was president of Toyota Gosei, a Toyota subsidiary and supplier.

Taiicho Ohno died in Toyota City in 1990.

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