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Since the early history of Training Within Industry (TWI) Japanese culture has played a central role in refining and developing its core principles — especially the respect for the worker. TWI Institute is proud that our strong connections to Isao Kato and on-the-ground companies in Japan have helped us to realize a Standardized Work (SW) process that is second to none.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we made regular trips to Japan to continually develop our practices and processes, including Standardized Work. At the end of 2023, we revived that tradition. We wanted to share what we learned, what we saw and what makes this international relationship so special.

A Cross-cultural Tradition

Long before the pandemic, TWI Institute regularly visited Japan to work with Isao Kato in developing the Standardized Work program. Mr. Kato, formerly Toyota’s “Master Trainer” and known as the father of Standardized Work and kaizen courses, entrusted us with his program and asked us if we could please teach this methodology to people outside of Japan. Since then, we’ve been refining the concepts of Standardized Work alongside TWI, kaizen, Kata and other workplace practices to share across six continents and in 18 languages.

Ever since the end of the pandemic lockdown we’ve looked for opportunities to reconnect with Mr. Kato and other leaders in Japan. Earlier in the year, some of our European partners said they had clients who wanted to go to Japan to better understand the Japanese way of working and how Japanese culture influences the concepts of Standardized Work.

This proved to be the perfect opportunity for TWI Institute to return to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Reforging Our Bonds

Master Trainer Fabrizio Paolin initiated the idea for the trip and was joined by TWI Institute owners Scott Curtis and Patrick Graupp. Together we set up a one-week trip of about 20 people, consisting of an international mix of TWI Institute clients and trainers.

Because of our close ties to the region, we were able to provide a unique experience from what other tours offer. There are lots of expensive study tours that stay in fancy hotels and try to make everything feel overly-extravagant. What we and our clients wanted was an authentic, on-the-ground experience. To truly understand the groundwork for Standardized Work — such as the discipline, level of expertise and attention to quality embedded within Japanese culture — we wanted to do more than just tour factories. We committed to a true experience of riding the trains, hitting the pavement, eating at local restaurants and working directly with our Japanese partners.

We flew out in the first week of December 2023. Although Toyota was still not open for tours, we were able to visit several companies in Osaka and a tier-three Toyota vendor in Nagoya. This was especially informative as they’re a direct parts supplier that makes small parts for Toyota, and so receive the same training in Kaizen processes — such as attention to quality, Kata and Just In Time training. That was great to experience because they adhere to all the parameters that Toyota needs from their vendors.

The TWI Institute Japan tour group poses for a picture in the Avex lobby during their tour of the factory building.

Toward the end of the trip, one of our TWI Institute partners in Japan was able to set up a last-minute visit to the Osaka Metropolitan University Hospital — one of the biggest hospitals in Osaka — to see how they’re standardizing work within the Japanese healthcare industry. We were privileged to receive detailed presentations on how they’re working to integrate TWI and the efforts they’re making to bring its benefits to their frontline healthcare workers.

Understanding What Makes Standardized Work

Asked about his experience on the trip, Patrick Graupp detailed that it was inspiring for many to see the Japanese process first-hand, “Every generation goes through different changes and when I left Sanyo 20 years ago, the country was in a slump, the economy was shrinking and many Japanese companies were struggling. But on this trip we were really pleasantly surprised to see lots of young Japanese people who were very focused on Kaizen, standardized work, group activities, working together in teams — all the things that define efficiency in Japanese work culture were on display.”

“Because,” he explained, “one of the big problems they mentioned in Japan — similar to here in the U.S. — is with retaining workers. Which is made even more challenging due to Japan’s shrinking population. It’s very difficult for companies in Japan to get workers now and so many literally take anybody that walks through the door and train them.”

“And that’s where TWI really comes in — where you have a lot of turnover and limited resources. So you need to train the people that you have and take care of them so you can keep them. And that’s not just for Japan, but for the U.S. and for Europe as well.”

He continued, “A big theme of our Standardized Work course is about buy-in, about getting frontline workers to participate in activities. Because they have plenty of options for work these days, we need to establish processes that workers can buy into and become committed and motivated. And that’s part of the secret of what the Japanese have captured and what we’re trying to teach with our Standardized Work course — how to get everybody involved.”

Travelers on the TWI Institute Japan tour sit in a classroom to attend a presentation on Standardized Work.

A Renewal of Faith

When asked what was his biggest takeaway from the trip, Pat explained “Overall it renewed my faith in the Japanese structure and design. What we saw in Japan was young people being involved in Standardized Work. It was so great to see, just like I did 40 years ago when I first went to Japan, the process in action. They’re still doing TWI, still focused on Kaizen and on standardized work. That was very visible to us, when we saw how well the production lines were running and how disciplined everybody was.”

Unfortunately the group was not able to visit Mr. Kato himself during the trip. Pat explained, “We just wanted to really thank him, for helping us and in trusting the TWI Institute to carry on his legacy. But he wasn’t feeling well so we brought our materials and had them delivered to him. Which was important because he’s entrusted us to carry his methodology to people outside of Japan.”

“The material we’re delivering in our courses is all the standard material that the Lean community has been studying for the last 30–40 years. So we’re not reinventing the wheel, but what we are doing is finding the human approach in all of this. That’s what the Toyota people always say — ‘you can study the tools, make the tools and think it’s all about the tools, but it’s not the tools. It’s about the people.’ It’s true that the tools can get you there, but it’s how you involve your people that allows them to participate in continuous improvement.”

Pat concluded, “What the Japanese got right the first time was the human element with TWI. They’re able to continually renew the sense of involvement, empowerment, participation, buy-in — of what really gets people to take ownership of the work they do. The tools are important, but getting back to the basic human elements of what makes this process work, and seeing that on this trip, was invaluable.”

Travelers on the TWI Institute Japan tour pose for a picture in the lobby of the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology

Plans for the Future

Having successfully returned to Japan, we’ve already heard requests from more of our clients to make another trip. What inspired us during our visit is that it was just as much of a cultural learning experience as it was a business trip. In addition to our site visits, we take the time to mix an exploration of the historical areas and important sites of Japan, whether visiting ancient temples or enjoying traditional Japanese food. The centuries old tradition in Japan of attention to quality and excellence was clearly on display for everyone taking the trip.

Travelers on the TWI Institute Japan tour sit together in a traditional Japanese restaurant to sample the taste and presentation of Japanese food.

What’s clear is that it’s important to gain a holistic understanding of the culture that backs up everything that we’re teaching. Our intent isn’t just about visiting factories, but to understand more of the personal interactions, historical background and long-standing traditions that inform our commitment to achieving sustainable results and continuous improvement.


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