This book was a bit of a digression for me. I have read a lot books this year, but very little about management topics. This is a big hole in my software tool kit, so the change up was definitely welcome. Workplace Management is a book about managing the manufacturing process, well, sort of. Workplace Management is the text of a series of recorded interview with Taiichi Ohno about work he did at Toyota over his career.

Despite the fact that this is mostly about manufacturing, there is a lot here that is applicable to the software world. Obviously I’m not the first person to say that. The phrases ‘lean’, ‘stop the line’, and ‘just in time’ are pretty common in most software dev shops now. This book isn’t an introduction to lean, or kanban, or kaizen concepts so if you’re looking for that you may want to start somewhere else.

Here are a few of the big ideas I took from the book:
Do kaizen when times are good
It is so easy to get lazy and mentally slow down when times are good. Life is comfortable and releases are happening consistently, paychecks are on time (start-ups can be tricky) and there is never any after hours work. Taiichi thinks this is the most important time to figure out what you can tighten up and optimize. If you can be lean when times are fat, you should have better prepared to survive and thrive when times are lean. An interesting aside, Ohno also mentioned that you must make people feel the squeeze for them to generate good ideas.

The wise mend their ways
There is a full chapter for this topic. To me this is about honesty, ethics, and virtue. People make mistakes in the best of situations. In the book, Ohno mentions that even smart people with good intentions will be make mistakes and be wrong 3 out of 10 times. The phrase ‘the wise mend their ways’, to me, is about recognizing what isn’t working, being open to being wrong and failing sometimes, and trying something different immediately.

Direct observation rules
Through the book, I don’t recall Ohno emphasizing measurement at all. Maybe he did, I just don’t remember it. He did however tell many stories about being on the gemba (where the work happens), with customers, and with other companies in similar lines of business. He emphasized being there with the workers to observe, learn, and lead. The software world is mostly obsessed with measuring everything, so this was a refreshing point of view for me. My main concern here is about convincing people at higher pay grades that observation is a useful alternative, or at least supplement, to measurement.

Jido is a Japanese word (concept?) meaning automation with a human element. I recently wrote about this very topic for stickyminds, so seeing that this idea has a word in another language was interesting. In the Toyota system, this was embodied by having people watching auotmatic looms. If some problem was to occur, the person would press a button that would shut the machine off to prevent defective products from being made.

Mess with your employees a little bit
This part bugged me a little bit, I just chalk it up to cultural differences. There is a segment in the book telling a story about Taiichi calling a floor supervisor into his office. Once the supervisor made it to his office, Ohno scolded him for coming so quickly and telling him that if he were able to do that, then his employees must not need him. I think this sort of behavior is disingenuous, but again…culture differences.