Dr. Shingo’s Last Visit

[The following post is actually the third and final episode of Dr. Shingo’s last visit to America.  The first two episodes can be found on the Shingo Prize website.  O.L.D]

In April 1989, the first Shingo Prize for Manufacturing Excellence had just been awarded at Utah State University.  Dr. Shigeo Shingo was on hand at this auspicious event to receive an honorary doctoral degree from the university and also to bestow his name on the Prize.  I had the honor of meeting and speaking with Dr. Shingo on this occasion, and invited him to visit my company, United Electric, if he ever was in Massachusetts.  I really had no expectation that this would ever occur. To my amazement however, Dr. Shingo did happen to be ‘be in the area’ shortly after the Utah conference, visiting his publisher, and took this opportunity to pay a short visit.  The story of his visit has been told in three parts of which this is Part 3.    In some ways this post is like a three-act play, the first two acts dealing with UE employees’ momentous reception for Shingo, and the second describing his observations on the factory floor.  [Readers who have not read the previous two entries might want to peruse these installments first to develop context.]  The final “act”, which takes place in a Boston-area restaurant that had been researched by his sponsors from Productivity Press to offer the most authentic Japanese cuisine in the area, provides a vignette of Dr. Shingo himself and his reflections on his contribution to manufacturing productivity:

After his trip to Utah State University, Dr. Shingo commented to his sponsors that, while the snow-capped mountains around Logan Utah reminded him of home, he’d not had a home-cooked Japanese meal since he had landed in the US.  Dr. Shingo was longing for a good Japanese meal.  When his gracious visit to our company was concluded, we invited him to dine with us “at a good Japanese restaurant.”   Our party of perhaps 18 persons took the restaurant by storm, other customers sensing the presence of a dignitary.  Dr. Shingo, oblivious to other activity around him, promptly called the waitress to his side and began in Japanese to ask questions about the menu. Unfortunately, this Japanese/American waitress spoke only English.  Apologetically she retreated to find an interpreter.   As it turned out, the only Japanese-speaking employee in the entire restaurant was the cook, who accompanied the waitress to our table.  This suited Dr. Shingo perfectly.  He had found his way to the source – the shop floor — and began a lengthy conversation with the cook.  Not speaking Japanese, I could still glean that the cook and Dr. Shingo had established a connection, and there was as much reminiscing as food-ordering taking place.  With much laughter between the two, the exchange continued for several minutes while the rest of the party sat awkwardly.

His conversation with the cook had put Dr. Shingo in a mood to talk.  First, through his interpreter, Shingo announced that he had already ordered his meal – something special, not on the menu.  And because he believed that this cook was the real deal, Dr. Shingo let us know that he had also ordered an additional meal to-go.  He joked that he had taken these steps to reduce the external set-up.  We all laughed as Shingo continued with his oft-told story of the banana peel (related in at least two of his books): We as customers do not buy the banana for the peel.  Suppliers should always understand value from the customer’s perspective and provide only that.

Next, Dr. Shingo took aim at engineers, one of his popular targets, describing three kinds of engineers that prevent improvement:

  • Table Engineers – those who just sit around a table and talk about problems
  • Catalog Engineers – engineers who think the solution to every problem can be found in a catalog, and
  • Nyet Engineers – engineers who say no to every request.  (Nyet is Russian for “no.”)

I don’t think Dr. Shingo realized that our CEO, Bob Reis, was an engineer by training.  Bob, bristling a bit, responded as Dr. Shingo finished his story, “Well, I’m a Can-do engineer!”  Shingo smiled.  Continuing on, Dr. Shingo mentioned that his name, roughly translated meant “changing red lights to green” and that he had always felt that was his life’s purpose: to change red lights to green on the shop floor.  This brought a tear to my eye as I reflected on how many red lights had turned to green on my shop floor as a result of Shingo’s contributions.

When Dr. Shingo finished his meal he announced that he would take a short nap – and he did.  Table conversation continued as he power-napped (another concept ahead of its time in 1989) for several minutes.  Suddenly, a rejuvenated Dr. Shingo awakened with the announcement that he would sing a Japanese folk song about turning red lights to green.  Not shy, he belted it out as startled patrons turned to observe.  It was a surrealistic moment capping a memorable visit.  I wished I’d understood the lyrics, as this was his grand finale.  He sang with a passion that was the hallmark of his life’s work, and when he finished, he grabbed his boxed meal for take-out and said it was time to go.

O.L.D.

Don’t forget the Northeast Shingo Conference, our best ever, coming up on October5-6 in Springfield, Massachusetts.   My next few posts will contain links to podcasts of conference speakers.  Stay tuned. 

One thought on “Dr. Shingo’s Last Visit

  1. steel65

    Thanks Bruce, I have been fortunate enough to share similar moments of Japanese humour with our founder and chairman Masaaki Imai…One time we were opening a Lean Academy (training centre) at a partner company, they had named it the IMAI ROOM after him.
    As soo as he heard this, immediately quipped…”you know Imai actually means he’s not there in Japanese!” He had everyone in tears…

    There are many stories from the originators of Lean…my wish is to write them down one day, and yours has reminded me of how valuable these moments are!

    Reply

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