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Taiichi Ohno

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Taiichi Ohno is credited with creating the just-in-time production system. He still feels today that the goal of Toyota is to shorten the time line, from the moment the customer places an order to the point where the cash is collected. He wants to further reduce that time line by removing non-value-added wastes.

Career Highlights

Taiichi 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.


Taiichi Ohno (1912-1990) is not so much a guru but more a symbol of Japan's manufacturing resurgence after the second world war. Born in Dalian, in eastern China, he joined Toyota Automatic Loom Works between the wars. This was the first business of the Toyoda family until it was sold to a British company, Platt Brothers, and the family decided to invest the money that it had gained from the sale in manufacturing motor cars.

Ohno switched to work as a production engineer for Toyota, a car company, towards the end of the second world war, at a time when its productivity was way below that of America's mighty Detroit industry. Toyota's boss decreed that it "must catch up with America within three years". Or else.

Ohno decided there was no reason other than inefficiency and wastefulness why Toyota's productivity should be any lower than that of Detroit. Hence he set out to eradicate inefficiency and eliminate waste in the part of the production process that he was responsible for. This became the core of the so-called Toyota Production System (TPS) that he and others subsequently developed between the mid-1940s and the mid-1970s. Several elements of this system have become familiar in the West: for example, muda (the elimination of waste), jidoka (the injection of quality) and kanban (the tags used as part of a system of just-in-time stock control).

But it was not a smooth path. Ohno met regular resistance when he first set out to persuade the company to radically change its manufacturing processes. A big part of his story is about the power of Japanese persistence, of how he kept asking repeatedly why the company needed to (expensively) stockpile vast quantities of components for its production line—until eventually was born the just-in-time (JIT) method of stock control.

Ohno often described the TPS as being rather like a supermarket, which he had first seen (and been impressed by) on his trips to America to look at car production systems. In the TPS, each production process sets out its wares for the next process to choose from, just as a supermarket does. Thus production is "pulled" by the demand down the line rather than, as in previous assembly-line systems, being "pushed" by the production rate higher up the line.

The success of the TPS was helped to some extent by the fact that Toyota's main factory in Japan is situated in Toyoda City, near Nagoya, where there is a classic "cluster" of car-industry suppliers and manufacturers. With its main suppliers never more than a few miles away, it was easy for Toyota to choose parts on demand and ensure that they arrived at its doors precisely as and when it needed them. With more far-flung manufacturing networks, it is obviously harder to apply JIT.

Ohno's fame was spread to some extent by the telling of his story in books and articles translated into English. For example, in "The Mind of the Strategist", an influential and early insight into Japanese strategic thinking written by Kenichi Ohmae, Ohno is cited as a great example of his country's perseverance. "If instead of accepting the first answer, one ... persists [like Ohno] in asking 'Why?' four or five times in succession," wrote Ohmae, "one will certainly get to the guts of the issue, where fundamental bottlenecks and problems lie."

Notable publications

"Workplace Management", Productivity Press, 1982

With Mito, S., "Just in Time for Today and Tomorrow", Productivity Press, 1988

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