Sensei Nakao Visits Seattle: “Thinking about it won’t make it happen”

“The current state is the worst. It is no good at all,” says Sensei Chihiro Nakao. “We should have the spirit and the hope that there is something better.”

If you’re looking for a reserved wise man whispering koan, Sensei Nakao is not the wise man for you. Nakao, founder of the Shingijutsu company and a member of the team that created the Toyota Production System, wants to jolt those he meets out of the comfort zone of the current state into wanting whatever improvements future state might have.

“He is not there to reinforce what people already know,” says Andrew Takamiya of Group Health Cooperative, who has worked with Sensei Nakao for 22 years. “He is trying to get people to get out of what they are thinking and to do things—because they will learn more that way.”

Sensei Nakao engaged at Vehicle Maintenance

Sensei Nakao doesn’t show up expecting people to listen as a matter of course. He wins engagement with the people doing the work like a street performer winning an audience. He’s willing to be a little bit silly or a little bit over the top in order to get his point across and make it memorable.

Here he’s returning some money he took from Ryerson swing shift Chief Joe Luxem in order to illustrate his message about inventory flow and ordering.

Nakao’s playful, engaging interactions with the folks at Ryerson Base and elsewhere communicated his message much more effectively than just saying, “Do; don’t think.” The man himself is more show than tell.

Takamiya and others at Group Health facilitated a week of learning and teaching with Sensei Nakao in early October, during which Nakao visited several leading kaizen-focused organizations in the Puget Sound area, including Boeing, Microsoft, and Genie.

King County was proud and fortunate (and more than a bit jolted) that three of Sensei Nakao’s “shop-floor” action-learning sessions were with teams at Finance and Business Operations Division, Vehicle Maintenance, and Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention/Jail Health Services.

Moonshine Kaizen

One of Nakao’s claims to fame is that he originated moonshine kaizen: fast, inexpensive do-it-yourself prototyping to develop and test concepts without big investments (or prior to them at any rate). The approach emphasizes hands-on creativity rather than throwing money at the problem or waiting to think out the perfect solution. Nakao urges doing rather than thinking.

In that vein, he encouraged JHS/DAJD staff to “try-storm” not “brain storm.” He suggested that the Ryerson team put all of the parts shelves and bins on wheels—the better to stimulate and sustain continuous changeability on the parts room floor. And he commended FBOD’s Accounts Payable team for their kaizen ethos—not just the individual improvements they’ve made, but the deeper culture of continuous improvement the team is creating—as a rarity in government.

“There is no magic,” he told the team at Vehicle Maintenance. There are no shortcuts past the hard work of constant change and self-examination. “If you have the capability to do it, you will change a lot,” he exhorted them. “Keep challenging yourself.”

At the end-of-week report out, just in case anyone missed the message, he iterated: “Thinking about it won’t make it happen.”

Sensei Nakao at the report out

Sensei Nakao with many people who attended the report out at the end of his week-long visit.

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