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Observations on Lean in Action in Japan

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This spring, a group of software agilists, led by Mary and Tom Poppendieck, visited Japan to see first-hand how Lean principles are applied in some of the places they have been used the longest. Such "Lean Japan Tours" have been made by managers and educators since the 1990's, applying the lean aphorism: "Go to the Gemba" (go to where the work is being done). This tour, however, focused primarily on software development, considered by some Agilists to be quite different from the manufacturing processes in which Lean first developed. Among those on the Tour were Henrik Kniberg of, Sune Gynthersen and Jesper Thaning from and Gabrielle Benefield of Since the purpose of "going to the gemba" is observation and learning, the tour included a daily review of what was seen and learned. Participants blogged some of their findings - the following is a roundup of interesting observations from bloggers and newsgroup writers among the participants.

Dubbed the "Roots of Lean Study Tour" the tour included a visit to a Toyota plant and meetings with

  • the manager for Toyota automotive (embedded) software
  • the CEO of Fujitsu Applications Ltd
  • representatives from the Agile community in Japan
  • Agile pioneers such as Eiwa and Azzuri
  • chief engineer of Lexus and Supra program, Katyama-san
  • the former IT manager of Toyota, Kuriowa-san
  • 2009 Agile Alliance "Gordon Pask" award winner, Kenji Hiranabe and his co-workers.

At the Toyota automotive plant, the visitors observed first-hand some practices and mechanisms often held up as examples when discussing agility and Lean software: kanban cards, visual status boards, poke-yoke (mistake proofing) and "stop the line" mechanisms. Gabrielle Benefield commented, after the plant visit:

I had some romantic notions that were dispelled during the tour. It was hard to figure out how Kaizen (continual improvement) really worked in practice as we saw orange and red lights go off but it wasn't some dramatic swarming event. They seemed to fix stuff as it all kept moving while we were there. Production was at 450 cars per day. It has been lowered due to the economy. Apparently they use some of the slack time to make improvements, though we did hear that it was up to the workers to make improvements on their own time which was a little at odds with the other statement.

Here are some other interesting observations from those who attended:

I found another metaphor: Software is a factory. ... If software is a factory, it takes information as input, performs an operation producing information as output. ... In this view we as software developers, in a broad sense, are factory builders. We supply our customer with an information factory that can process information. So, software architecture is an act of planning factories. I want to explore this metaphor and find out more about which methods are used to build factories ...
-- Jesper Thaning (Day 2)
At the factory tour of DaiNippon we saw how millions of Japanese anime cartoons were printed, but most remarkably we saw how widespread the culture of using visual management in factories are. We had barely entered the factory, when I counted 13 * 3 meters of visuals on a wall. ... After visiting DaiNippon we went to Azzuri to see how they were doing agile development. They were using the term Work Cell (from Lean Manufactoring) for organizing developers in small teams. ... The desks that were used had been handpicked to facilitate pair programming - How? The table legs were positioned so workers could move easily to the nearby workstations!
-- Sune Gynthersen (Day 4)
We were all invited to a meeting with the Agile Japan group - where we participated in a panel discussion focusing on how we viewed agile software development... One of the things I noticed was how fixed scope software contracts seemed alarmingly common - and not only in Japan.
-- Sune Gynthersen (Day 4)
The interesting thing is that they were lean in parts, but not Agile, at least by most people's definition of it. ...they showed a transition from "people" to "process". This is an ongoing debate in the lean community and a slightly muddy area, does a good process help mediocre people, or do good people with a broken process make headway? Interesting that they were approaching it as a system problem.
-- Gabrielle Benefield (Day 1)
... companies doing agile development are very much are an exception here in Japan. It is also interesting that they both [Agile and traditional shops] deliver software under fixed price contracts.
-- Mary Poppendieck (Day 4)

Mattias Skarin found Toyota's response to the current crises is totally different from what he'd expect western companies to do. He further elaborated in an email:

It was refreshing to hear a problem solving approach to  increase bottom line. Here are some notes I took from the Chief Engineer's talk:
  • instead of driving in a cost-cutting goal across middle management, Toyota made their financial department walk out to the departments, to work with the project managers to help them find improvement areas. For example, by identify cost drivers in car building. They also tracked overtime for projects.
  • they also made clear which the front runner projects were (clear priorities,focus) aka, not "every project is important"
  • rejection of managers stating "do your best, I did it 10 years ago" <- those managers don't know current situation

For those who appreciate a more visual approach, Henrik Kniberg recently posted a set of mind maps from his own notes.

It was interesting to see how the Lean Way has grown out of Japan's culture (or is this is the inverse - evidence of Lean seeping out into general culture?)

The participants have been talking about their experiences at various conferences already. If the topic interests you, watch for a chance to hear these participants speak at upcoming Lean and Agile software conferences, including Agile2009 in Chicago, this August.

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