Read about:

  • Karakuri and how tea relates to lean
  • The idea of deselection
  • Simplicity is the key to lean

As throwaway lines go, this one uttered by Jim Womack to a packed conference room in November 2014 is up there with the best.

“Hoshin is your discipline to deselect.” he stated. Readers with experience of policy deployment will grasp the simple truth in Womack’s statement having, in all probability, lived the common mistake of overcommitting to a lengthy annual wish list. These six words started a train of thought, pondering the relationship between mastery and simplicity, that led to this article and thoughts of a forty year old spoon (but more of that later).

Many of our finest lean thinkers and do-ers have provided classic nuggets which, when explored, yield deep learning. Shingo’s “Time is the shadow of motion” also comes to mind in driving an understanding of waste elimination beyond simply learning to spot the 7 wastes. Similarly it’s possible to forge an excellent career by relentlessly practicing Fujio Cho’s “Go see, Ask why? Show respect” advice.

The LMJ ploughs many furrows in furthering understanding of lean, not least of which is to explore ways to engage people more deeply. Picture our current crop of lean thought leaders like Womack, Jones, Shook, Dennis, Smalley, Ballé amongst others, expressed as a Venn diagram. In terms of engaging employees in kaizen, a clear intersection of the circles would be around the need to keep things simple. Many lean veterans have lived, breathed and driven the ethos “simple is best” and yet, as a lean community, we continue to make things too difficult to grasp, use and maintain for any number of reasons. Read anything penned from any of the names above and you’ll notice, firstly, the simplicity of the language used and, secondly, the text reads like a conversation rather than an academic textbook.

Why waste column inches on such a basic subject? Is talk of simplicity just a plaintive cry from lean purists pining for the good old days of vicious sensei and the earlier days of lean? The answer is a resounding “No”. Our world is one of scarce resources and businesses staffed by multiple nationalities with multiple mother tongues. Solutions to problems, large or small, require simplicity. A simple countermeasure is easily understood by those who have to use it, easier to sell to those involved and easy to maintain and confirm. Easily understood + easily implemented + easily maintained = a stronger chance of sustainability.

This article explores why we make things more complicated than necessary, how we can shake the habit and where to look for those already leading by example.

But first, a couple of caveats about the Womack and Shingo examples above. Simplicity of thought and expression is hard won and emerges from the running of many PDCA style experiments over decades with repeated failing and regular reflection. Thus, one view of mastery is the ability gradually trim away extraneous fat and frills from a subject to leave the lean meat behind. Some day-long Policy Deployment courses would yield less benefit to a business than understanding Womack’s six word “Hoshin is your discipline to deselect”.

Granted, the lengthy path to mastery offers no shortcuts but that’s no excuse not to make a start. Simplicity of thought and action rarely happens as a lightning bolt enlightenment moment, but develops gradually within an individual committed to practicing the scientific method regularly. An individual embracing the idea that whatever their role in an organisation, their job is not to do their job but to improve the way they do their job, to borrow a phrase.

Equally, don’t be fooled into thinking a simple countermeasure is the same as a dumb solution. Simplicity is hardwired into the Toyota production system, a system that can conceive, design and build cars from a BOM running into thousands of individual part numbers. The author remembers squirming uneasily in the driving seat of a car heading out of a Scottish client’s car park (after a moderately successful workshop) as the Japanese TPS sensei in the back seat chirped up “Russell-san, please, how to explain waste to a child?”. Similarly, the job methods part of TWI encourages us to eliminate, combine, rearrange and simplify.

As an example of simplicity not equalling ease, take a look at my Grandfather Albert’s sugar spoon below. Albert, a man bypassed by academic success, was a very smart naturally gifted engineer whose working life was spent toiling in the experimental shops of Ford Motor Company. The spoon below is a prime example of simplicity springing from a deep understanding of a problem.

Albert and my Grandmother Anne drank ludicrous amounts of stewed tea throughout their lives. This particular problem sprung from Anne’s habit of using the spoon to get sugar from the sugar bowl, depositing it in the tea before using the spoon to stir the sugar through the tea. The hot wet spoon would then be deposited back into the bowl to form a crust of sugar on the spoon, requiring some chipping off later. Household disharmony ensued and various nagging related countermeasures failed; a failure arising from problem framing.

The spoon above represents an elegant subset of error-proofing devices that work at source to prevent an error becoming a defect whilst having no moving parts/sensors to break down. The bends in the spoon are intentional to allow it to both sit at balance on the side of the bowl and eliminate the problem at hand. This improved spoon was still used to obtain and deposit sugar into the cup but not to stir, thus it never became wet. Why, because it wouldn’t reach the bottom of the cup to stir the sugar around without burning the bearers fingers. A simple low cost solution. Thinking costs nothing but all of us persist in making things too complicated. Why is this?

  • Humans are pattern recognition creatures; it helps us get through the day without getting bogged down reinventing solutions that already exist. The downside is a tendency to see familiar patterns and jump steps to assuming a root cause is identical to previous instances. This copy-and-paste way of thinking runs the real risk of over-engineering a partially successful solution. Worse still is a tendency to become wedded to early, favoured ideas at the expense of giving consideration to rival solutions. The lean world is full of practitioners locked into thought patterns like a monkey in a South Indian monkey trap grasping a handful of sweet rice.
  • A tendency persists in many corners of the developed world to celebrate the complex as an expression of intelligence. If something is tough to understand it must be clever, right? The focus, subconsciously but quite wrongly, becomes “What is the solution that best expresses my hard earned expertise?” rather than “What exactly is the problem I am trying to solve?”
  • Decades ago, Shingo complained bitterly of “catalogue engineers”, a breed of engineer fond of scouring catalogues to find off-the-shelf solutions rather than using their brains sufficiently. There is a laziness of thinking here possibly driven by increasing workloads.

The three pitfalls above can be mitigated by practicing the discipline to observe, frame and express the problem tightly to always ask “What exactly is the problem I am trying to solve?” The problem isn’t how to remove crusty sugar, the problem is the spoon becoming wet.

Perhaps the biggest barrier is summoning the courage and self-confidence required to stand in front of a simple solution and not flinch at the “Is that it?” snipe.


All is not lost, there are several movements in the world practicing simplicity on a daily basis, offering learning curves for the clouded mind to borrow. A trip through the poorer reaches of South East Asia or the Indian subcontinent reveals many gifted problem solvers reflecting Plato’s age old entreaty “Necessity is the mother of invention”.

  • One such movement is termed “Jugaad”, a slang Hindi/Urdu word, referring to innovative solutions, fixes or work-arounds for a complex problem. Ten minutes on a search engine provides plenty of food for thought for engineers and non-engineers alike. Entire twitter feeds parade innovative low cost solutions from this growing movement.
  • Similarly, a long Japanese history of Karakuri devices stretches back to the tea serving doll. Karakuri devices are clever ways of simplifying operations by using wisdom, not money as a means of low cost automation. Typical examples are part transfer devices (using the weight of the part itself) and box changing mechanisms. They are motor-free devices, are easier to maintain, break-down less frequently and easy to fix.

In a more general sense, seek out and listen to those who express themselves simply but with weight, supported by a history of running experiments (not all of them successful). The toughest task may well be spotting the gems as they tend to be buried in throwaway lines like the initial Womack example. As ever, it’s probably best to pin your ears back and please, please, keep it simple.