Hansei 101

We are reminded time and time again (and rightfully so), Lean is about culture. It is a crucial part and in most cases, the backbone of any Lean organization. A culture that believes in continuous improvement and practices what they preach day in and day out, is the key to sustaining Lean. What’s less talked about, is what goes into a culture that allows it to gain the strength needed to sustain an organization’s Lean processes. Enter hansei.

What is Hansei?

The Japanese term “hansei,” can simply be translated into English as “reflection,” but in the Lean community and especially Toyota, it has a much bigger meaning.

Hansei is really much deeper than reflection. It is really being honest about your own weaknesses. If you are talking about only your strengths, you are bragging. If you are recognizing your weaknesses with sincerity, it is a high level of strength.

-Jeffery Liker, The Toyota Way

Hansei is a method of reflectionOne of the keys to Toyota’s success throughout the years and what many of us are still trying to wrap our heads around, is the art of hansei. All to often, we overlook our weaknesses and attempt to cover them up with our strengths, as if they will eventually conquer our flaws in the end. But in reality, this is about as counterintuitive as you could be when promoting a continuous improvement philosophy.

An individual must accept the fact that they have flaws and weaknesses, Otherwise their ability to continuously improve and have a positive impact on the culture that surrounds them, is at a significant disadvantage.

The key elements to hansei:

  • Helps the individual recognize a problem.
  • Allows individual to accept responsibility of a problem with a high level of emotion.
  • Pushes the individual towards a plan of action to improve.

Everyone’s Reflection is Different

Hansei can be one of the most powerful concepts in your organization, if it’s accepted. Critical self analysis is always a tough pill to swallow in the American culture. Mike Masaki, president of the Toyota Technical Center from 1995-2000, found this out first hand.

Upon a visit to an American facility, Masaki pointed out some “very bad” parts to the American designers. This criticism was met with an uncomfortable reaction by most, which was unusual to Masaki, who spent a lot of time critiquing different elements of Toyota at the time.

In Japan the reaction is I should have designed this better I made a mistake! The U.S. designer’s expectation is that I did a good job so I should be rewarded. This is a big cultural difference.

-Mike Masaki, former president of Toyota Technical Center

It is well known and even self-criticized that Toyota spends little, if any, time celebrating success. Instead, they spend more time overcoming and more importantly, accepting weakness.

Man reflecting (hansei)No one expects (at least not overnight), a complete culture shift in the American workforce. It’s what makes us unique and allows us to create our own identity. However, when you’re able to least consider the fact that you have weaknesses and are willing to work on what it’s going to take to improve upon them, the possibilities are endless.

The problem is, it is a lot more work to find what you’re bad at, then it is to point out your strengths. It is all in the mindset though. I don’t necessarily feel you should completely take praise and recognition out all together like some suggest, but I do feel that a different mindset is needed to effectively use the hansei concept. Which is, no matter the success one has, there is always room for improvement.

This is not to say that what you did was wrong, but rather an opportunity to do something better. However the only way to present yourself with this valuable opportunity, is through the hansei process. When done immediately upon completion of a project or job, the possibility for value adding improvement is at it’s highest point. Some even have a regular hansei-kai (reflection meeting) to reflect on current events, progress, and even personnel issues.

When you are able to truly grasp the concept and intent of hansei, there really is no downside. If you are honest with yourself and are able to accept criticism as an opportunity, rather than a negative, your ability to lead a culture of continuous improvement will strengthen beyond imagine.

Without hansei it is impossible to have kaizen. In Japanese hansei, when you do something wrong, at first you must feel really, really sad. Then you must create a future plan to solve that problem and you must sincerely believe you will never make this type of mistake again.

-Jeffery Liker, The Toyota Way

Additional Resources