Huntsman Alumni Magazine

Fall 2009

Ritsuo Shingo steals show at Shingo Conference

Ritsuo Shingo


Ritsuo Shingo


Ritsuo Shingo


Ritsuo Shingo

(Photos by Steve Eaton)

It wasn’t long after Ritsuo Shingo began teaching at the 21st Annual Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence Conference, that he had his bright students all thinking about the most effective way to burglarize a house.

Shingo drew on an easel pad a simple picture of a chest of drawers and asked the crowd if they were burglars with a limited amount of time, what would be the most efficient way for them to go through a dresser? Should they take out the top drawers first, the middle drawers or the bottom drawers?

After a brief pause, someone from the floor answered that one should start at the bottom because then he or she could rapidly go through each drawer, leave it open and there would be no need to close a drawer to see what’s in the next drawer.

“Very excellent,” Shingo said. “He is a professor.”

Shingo might have expected the right answer from those attending the Shingo Prize Conference in Nashville, Tenn. It’s not that any of the nearly 500 attendees were crooks, it’s just that most of them already spend most of their waking hours looking for more efficient ways to do things.

The dresser example was one Shingo learned from his father Shigeo Shingo, the industrial engineer and consultant whose teachings led to the founding of the Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence.

Ritsuo, the former president of Toyota China, appeared a little uncomfortable at first as he talked about how he gained valuable experience working his way up within the Toyota organization. However, once he began teaching and interacting with his audience, he seemed to be in “the zone.” He would ask basic and thought-provoking questions, such as, “What is a problem?” and then field a wide variety of answers, drawing laughter as he bantered with the audience.

“Good try,” he said after one woman offered her answer, “effort is very important.”

He eventually said his personal definition of a problem is that it is a “deviation from a standard.”

“Without a standard, no one knows what is the problem,” he said. “The first thing we should do is set up a standard.”

It soon became clear Ritsuo’s presentation was going to be a deviation from the standard keynote address. When given the one-minute warning, he joked, “One minute? Sorry but I’m staying. I have 40 years experience. How can I summarize it in one hour? Impossible.”

The next time he was told his time was up someone shouted, “We don’t need the break, just keep talking.”

Bob Miller, executive director of the Shingo Prize, had a solution to the “problem” of a keynote speaker who was proving too interesting that he offered at the eventual conclusion of Ritsuo’s address.

“Mr. Shingo, next time we’ll give you two-and-a-half-hours in one of our breakout sessions,” Miller said.