One of the best things about teaching in Japan was that most of my students were quite young. Most of them hadn’t developed the reserve that Japanese people are known for, and once they got to know you they were often curious about the strange foreigner who looked and acted so differently. It was also amazing what you could learn from them, if you were paying attention: Honoka had beautiful manners, Rikuto taught me some useful phrases, and Koki-kun showed how to stand up for what was right. Nanami, on the other hand, taught me how to trouble-shoot procedures in business.
One morning, Nanami brought a book up to where I was sitting. Instead of reading, however, she stared at me for a moment and then exclaimed: “John-sensei! You have blue eyes!”. I was forced to admit that it was indeed so. “Why blue eyes?” This required more explanation: I simplified Mendelian inheritance down to “Everyone in my family has blue eyes.”
At this Nanami became deeply sceptical, and decided to probe the matter further.
“John’s father blue eyes?” Yes.
“John’s mother blue eyes?” Yes, Nanami, that’s right.
“John’s brother blue eyes?” More of a grey-green most of the time, but yes.
“John’s sister blue eyes?” Yes.
Nanami thought about this for a moment, her face screwed up in four-year-old concentration, before returning to what she saw as the main point: “But John-sensei… why blue eyes?”
In the end I wasn’t able to present Nanami with an answer that she considered satisfactory, and I still feel bad about failing in my role as a teacher at that point. It wasn’t until after I left Japan, however, that I realised what she had been teaching me. See, my current job requires me to spend a lot of time dealing with business concepts. I was researching ways to improve efficiency in business and came across the concept of Kaizen. At this point I remembered the conversation I had had with a Japanese pre-schooler, and a light went on in my head.
Kaizen, at least at least outside Japan, is seen as following the methods developed by the Toyota Motor Corporation. One important part of it is known as the ‘five whys’, and it is this which Nanami had introduced me to.
The ‘five whys’ is actually surprisingly simple to use. Each time you encounter a problem, ask why the problem occurred. Then ask why that problem occurred, and so on and so on. You can keep this up as long as you like, but five times is probably enough to get to the cause. The key to all this is that you’re looking for a process or behaviour that has broken down or doesn’t exist: this isn’t a blamestorming exercise, so it’s not enough to find a person or thing that broke and then shrug your shoulders and leave it at that. Let’s try an example.
High speed rail would be a great way of moving people and goods, but it’s not practical in the United States. High speed rails have to be wide apart, and standard US railways are only 1.435 metres wide. (the problem)
- Why? – Because the people who set the standard came from Europe, and that’s how wide the railways are in Europe.
- Why? – Because the people who built railway wagons in Europe used the same tools as for road wagons, and that’s the spacing they used.
- Why? – If they tried to use any other spacing, their wheels wouldn’t fit into the old rutted roads.
- Why? – The roads were originally built by the Romans to move their legions along, so they had to be that width.
- Why? – Their chariots were all built to a standard size and pulled by two horses, so the road had to be wide enough for two horses side by side. (root cause identified)
Bonus: The space shuttle had two big, solid-rocket boosters attached to the side of its external fuel tank. These boosters had to be transported by train, and the tunnels were only wide enough for standard railway wagons. In other words, an important design feature of one of the world’s most advanced transport systems was decided on by the Romans, all because of how big a horse’s behind is.
I’m not suggesting that Nanami was deliberately trying to teach me about this, although I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up with a bright future at Toyota. But it does go to show that you can get insight from all sorts of unlikely places, if you’re paying attention.
Question of the post: Have you ever had an insight caused by an unlikely source? What happened?