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Shigeo Shingo

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Shigeo Shingo is perhaps a lesser known Quality Guru in the West, although his impact on Japanese industry, and less directly on Western industry, has been very large. To quote Norman Bodek, President of Productivity Inc.:

"If I could give a Nobel prize for exceptional contributions to world economy, prosperity, and productivity, I wouldn't have much difficulty selecting a winner - Shigeo Shingo's life work has contributed to the well-being of everyone in the world. Along with Taiichi Ohno, former vice president of Toyota Motors, Mr Shingo has helped revolutionise the way we manufacture goods. His improvement principles vastly reduce the cost of manufacturing - which means more products to more people; they make the manufacturing process more responsive while opening the way to new and innovative products, substantially reduce defects and improve quality, and give us a strategy for continuous improvement through the creative involvement of all employees."(4)


Shingo's approach emphasizes production rather than primarily management. His motto (actually one of very many) is that 'Those who are not dissatisfied will never make any progress'. He believed that progress is achieved by careful thought, pursuit of goals, planning and implementation of solutions. Shingo died in November 1990 at the age of 81.

Rise to Fame

Shingo was born in Saga City, Japan in 1909, and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Yamanashi Technical College in 1930, whereupon he was employed by the Taipei Railway Factory in Taiwan. There he introduced scientific management.

Subsequently he became a professional management consultant in 1945 with the Japan Management Association. He later became manager of the Education Department, of the Computing Department, and the Fukioko Office. It was in his role as Head of the Education Department that in 1951 he first heard of, and applied, statistical quality control. By 1954 he had investigated 300 companies. In 1955 he took charge of industrial engineering and factory improvement training at the Toyota Motor Co for both its employees and parts suppliers (100 companies).

During the period 1956-58 at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Nagasaki, Shigeo Shingo was responsible for reducing the time for hull assembly of 65,000 tons super-tanker from 4 months to 2 months. This established a new world record in shipbuilding, and the system spread to every shipyard in Japan.

In 1959 he left the Japan Management Association and established the Institute of Management Improvement, with himself as President. In 1962 he started industrial engineering and plant-improvement training at Matsushita Electric Industrial Company. As previously, training was done on a large scale, with some 7,000 persons trained.

It was in the period 1961-1964 that Shigeo Shingo extended the ideas of quality control to develop the Poka-Yoke, mistake-proofing or 'Defects = 0' concept. Subsequently the approach was successfully applied at various plants with records of over two years totally defect-free operation being established.

In 1968 at the Sata Ironworks he originated the Pre-Automation system which later spread throughout Japan. He was awarded a Yellow Ribbon Decoration for his distinguished services in improving production in 1970. Also in that year he originated the SMED System at Toyota (Single Minute Exchange of Die) which is part of the Just in Time system.

Shigeo Shingo's first overseas study tour was in 1971. He visited Europe in 1973 at the invitation of Diecasting Associations in West Germany and Switzerland. He conducted practical training at Daimler Benz and Thurner in West Germany, and H-Weidman Ltd, Bucher-Guyer AG and Gebr Buhler Ltd in Switzerland. He visited Livernos Automation in the USA in 1974, and from 1975 to 1979 he conducted training for the American Company Federal Mogul on SMED and Non-stock Production. His first consultancy for an overseas firm was for Citroen in France in 1981.

Other companies where he advised include many parts of Daihatsu, Yamaha, Mazda, Sharp, Fuji, Nippon, Hitachi, Sony and Olympus in Japan, and Peugeot in France. The use of his methods within the US company Omark Industries led to such increased productivity, defect and stock reductions that the company instigated the annual Shingo award to the facility which, out of the seventeen World-wide, demonstrated the best overall improvement.

Shingo wrote more than 14 major books. Several have been translated into English and other European languages, especially his book on the Toyota Production System.

Shingo's Message

In terms of quality, Shingo's paramount contribution was his development in the 1960s of poka-yoke and source inspection systems. These developed gradually as he realised that statistical quality control methods would not, in themselves, reduce defects to zero.

The basic idea is to stop the process whenever a defect occurs, define the cause and prevent the recurring source of the defect. No statistical sampling is therefore necessary. A key part of this procedure is that source inspection is employed as an active part of production to identify errors before they become defects. Error detection either stops production until the error is corrected, or it carries adjustment to prevent the error from becoming a defect. This occurs at every stage of the process by monitoring potential error sources. Thus defects are detected and corrected at source, rather than at a later stage. Typically, this process is made possible by instrumenting machines with immediate feedback; reliance on the fallible judgment of personnel is minimised. They are essential, however, to establish the potential error sources.

Following a visit to Yamada Electric in 1961, he started to introduce simple, mechanical or physical devices into assembly operations, which prevented parts being assembled incorrectly and immediately signalled when a worker had forgotten one of the parts. These mistake-proofing or 'poka-yoke' devices had the effects of reducing defects to zero.

In 1967 Shingo further refined his work by introducing source inspections and improved poka-yoke systems which actually prevented the worker from making errors so that defects could not occur. Associated advantages were that statistical sampling was no longer necessary, and that workers were freer to concentrate on more valuable activities such as identifying potential error sources.

Having learned about and made considerable use of statistical quality control in his 40s, it was some 20 years later in 1977 that Shingo was 'finally released from the spell of statistical quality control methods' when he saw how the Shizuoko plant of Matsushita's Washing Machine Division had succeeded continuously for one month with zero defects on a drain pipe assembly line involving 23 workers. This was achieved principally through the installation of poka-yoke devices to correct defects and source inspection to prevent defects occurring. Together these techniques constitute Zero Quality Control, which, Shingo argues, can achieve what may have been impossible using statistical quality control methods.

Shingo emphasised the practical achievement of zero defects by good engineering and process investigation, rather than an exhortation/slogan emphasis that has been associated with the quality campaigns of many American and Western companies. Shingo himself, like Deming and Juran, showed concern at such American approaches, arguing that posting defect statistics is misguided, and that instead the defectives should be hunted down.

The SMED system was born out of necessity, in order to achieve Just-In-Time production, one of Toyota's manufacturing corner-stones. This system was developed to cut set-up times, enabling smaller batch sizes to be produced. The set-up procedures were simplified by using common or similar set-up elements whenever possible. This approach was in complete contrast with traditional manufacturing procedures, as Shingo pointed out: "It is generally and erroneously believed that the most effective policies for dealing with set-ups address the problem in terms of skill. Although many companies have set up policies designed to raise the skill level of the workers, few have implemented strategies that lower the skill level required by the set-up itself."(5)

The success of this system was illustrated in 1982 at Toyota, when the die punch set up time in cold-forging process was reduced over a three-month period from one hour and forty minutes to three minutes.

4) Foreword to The Sayings of Shigeo Shingo, English translation by Andrew P. Dillon, Productivity Press 1987

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