Standing in the Ohno circle. And then?

Ohno circle is also known as “Taiichi Ohno’s Chalk Circle”, a circle drawn on the shop floor to materialize the observation point from where to learn to observe, see, analyze and understand.

The original method puts (commits?) the “disciple” in such a circle for extended time with instruction to watch and not leave the circle. After the time the master judged sufficient, he (would a lady-master do this to others?) will ask the disciple to tell what he/she have seen, of course expecting to feedback on something the master’s attention got caught.

I would probably never had impressed Ohno that way, nor would I have appreciated this kind of treatment. With such a vague assignment and a “creative brain”, my observation would probably have turned into a virtual mind stroll.

Getting a scolding afterwards for not having experienced an epiphany (e.i. the great revelation) while dreaming in my circle or for having dared stepping out of it would not have pleased me, at all.

As I never was never told to do it and never have done it this way, the reservations and benefits I express in this article are merely assumptions.

My reservations about the chalk circle

Holding a static position for observing and understand when there is no other reasons than the master’s saying so does not make sense.

Observation and understanding is certainly easier and more effective when observers can change point of view and ask questions.

Executing a task without knowing the purpose is not very motivating and just been told to “watch” without moving from the spot is not very respectful.

Hence my question: Couldn’t it be nothing else than a manager-humiliating exercise disguised as a master’s skill?

Being told to watch may lead to have too much to look at, especially when not familiar with the environment. Chalk circle promoters will answer that this is precisely what the exercise is meant for: get and overall impression then gradually become aware of things in foreground/background, what is normal and what is abnormal and eventually focus.

So far so good, but does a manager need such a constraint method and spend several hours to get a fair level of understanding? In the era of high speed and volatility, the understanding-to-time ratio does not make the chalk circle a method with reasonable ROI.

Lean Management has long promoted Gemba Walks, not Gemba Stands, where the motto is go see, ask why and show respect.

This way is probably far more effective than standing hours in a circle.

If it wasn’t the case, Lean gurus and the Lean community would have made it clear, long time ago.

Being convinced to have observations and analyzing skills and voluntarily spend time watching from a static standpoint may lead to erroneous conclusions, a risk easily mitigated when changing the vantage point and interacting with subject matter experts.

To me the chalk circle method looks outdated and rooted in asian master-to-disciple apprenticeship, no more fit for purpose in current times.

Benefits (Devil’s advocate)

Over the years and with more experience and wisdom, I’ve somewhat softened my first impression and could see some benefits about observing while “standing in a circle”.

There are some situations in which walking around freely to observe a situation and asking people questions is simply not possible.

In such cases, having developed ability to watch, analyze and understand is indeed a great asset. Think about my trade as a consultant during diagnostics or a buyer during a supplier’s assessment.

Organized factory tours are other instances with limited possibilities to move freely or get good answers to questions. Here again, the individual ability to observe and understand is a great asset as it will yield more information than the host is willing to share.

In some cases, the knowledge about something isn’t existing and there is noone to ask for explanations. I experienced this in a factory, facing a machine with unstable performances, in a noisy and space-limited location. Spending several hours in several sessions, taking data and observing the machine’s cycles helped me understand the kinematic and some of the malfunctions.

What to look for?

Alright, I have shared my cons and pros, now what can I recommend to look for when observing, in a circle or not?

  • Look for the sequence. In industrial production, in logistics or in services, what you’re looking at may be in some degree a repeatable process. What is the sequence? In what order are things done or do things happen?
  • Look for harmony. Mastered motions are seamless. Controlled processes are operating smoothly.
  • Count. Count the resources involved, the physical units moved, produced or consumed. Count the steps walked, the number of times one person have to stoop, to pick up the phone or turn to someone.
  • Estimate. If counting is not easy or impossible: estimate. Get a sense of duration, of time elapsed between two events.
  • Look for consistency. Do your counts or estimates repeat themselves sequence after sequence or do you see variations?
  • Look for disturbances. What/who is disrupting the flow? How frequent and how long is it?
  • Look for the bottleneck. Is some spot the accumulation point where flow is significantly slowed down? Why? Is it managed?
  • Search for the muri, mura and muda, the 3 evil doers from a Lean point of view. Muri and mura are lesser mentioned, so try to spot them first. Chances are muri and mura, if they exist, will induce some muda.

These are a few hints. The question list could go on endlessly. But if your observation exercise ends up with answers to most of these questions, it may have been worth the time spent.

Feel free to share your comments and experience.


View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

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4 thoughts on “Standing in the Ohno circle. And then?

  1. Hi Chris,

    Not surprisingly, given the seemingly unusual nature of the practice (i.e., standing in an Ohno circle), I’ve seen this issue arise on multiple occasions over the years. And interestingly, the favorable and unfavorable responses to the practice are typically CONTEXT specific. So, when it comes to figuring out “where’s the value” in utilizing and experiencing the Ohno Circle, one likely needs to start with the CONTEXT underlying its use. That being the case, it would be reasonable – based on an accumulation of knowledge and insight into Ohno’s way of THINKING AND BEHAVING – that his intent was to stimulate/catalyze learning as a self-initiated process; one that begins with the act of observing.

    I say this based on my own experiences as a former Corporate Industrial Hygienist working in a wide variety of manufacturing environments. [Note: For anyone not familiar with the discipline of Industrial Hygiene, in its best and most effective form, it involves the application of a broad/diverse body of knowledge focused on the early/timely recognition, evaluation, and control of existing and/or potential hazards in the work environment. In this regard, there’s really only one way to apply the body of knowledge and that’s to spend time – often lots of time – out walking, observing and understanding the workings of the gemba.] And when it comes to becoming familiar with a new – heretofore unseen/unfamiliar – operation, it’s often NOT possible to observe and comprehend all of the intricacies and nuances that it entails on the first pass. Very often, developing a comprehensive understanding of all that’s going on requires making detailed observations from multiple vantage points. Quite often, in the early stages of building one’s mental model of an operation, picking a single vantage point – and sticking with it for an extended period of time (i.e., multiple cycles of activity) – is necessary simply because there’s too much going on – along multiple dimensions – to be observed and mentally registered while on the move.

    Why might that be the case, you wonder? Well, it’s because finding and sticking with that single vantage point represents the “best” (i.e., safest, least disturbing, most accessible, most broadly insightful) place to be/stand when attempting to build a fundamental and fairly comprehensive and cogent understanding of how things (i.e., processes/operations/equipment/people) work. In actuality, what most often arises from these earliest observational excursions is NOT so much a comprehensive picture or mental model, but – more importantly – a list of questions; of the sort that merit closer observation and investigation. [Note: This is where that saying about what the “best” consultants are know for… “It’s not the answers that they provide, but rather the questions that they ask!” derives it’s most germane meaning and significance.]

    With these thoughts in mind, the issue of whether Ohno’s circle is a beneficial practice – in terms of helping to elevate the level of understanding and comprehension of a person – or a detrimental one – in terms of being demeaning/humiliating to a person – is really a matter of how and why (aka the CONTEXT for which) it’s being utilized. In this regard, it’s like any other method/tool/technique that exists in any CI/OpEx toolbox, when it comes to its ability to add value. More specifically, such methods/tools/techniques are best utilized in a “VALUE-ADDING” CONTEXT by individuals who are fully committed to pursuing and realizing the highest-order value possible (i.e., value that’s EQUALLY shared and experienced by the CUSTOMERS, the EMPLOYEES, members of the MANAGEMENT STAFF, and the SHAREHOLDERS).

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  2. When asked if to stand or whether to go I would go for “stand” :). Since there are so many distortions to Gemba Walks we need to try out something really, really simple and standing is such a thing. Aware leaders will treat it as an opportunity and not a humiliation at all. Immature units, well, they won’t read this post most probably so we don’t have to spend much of time on them. Ohno’s Circle is an act of respect for the unknown – for people (RESPECT for PEOPLE), for their environment (RESPECT for CULTURE) and an act of humility. Walking, tress-passing, bye-passing, stepping over, watching for your safety while moving, being occupied in the conversation – it’s all disturbing and disabling mind flows and focus. In VUCA we’re so much in full swing with no even idea to slow down, step back and re-think it all over for a sec even. And that’s all very, very bad because what drove us here won’t drive us for future success. Good read, Chris. Thanks.

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