Three words you need to know
Brad Cairns

Brad Cairns is a partner at Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. 

Here are three words you probably haven’t heard before but are critical to your lean journey. 


Like many lean terms we commonly use, they originate in Japan, and we continue to use the Japanese term here. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure why, but it does make it a little more interesting and fun.

You don’t have to be doing lean for very long before you start hearing Japanese words to describe things. No doubt you will come across kanban (signboard), muda (waste), and kaizen (continuous improvement) almost immediately. Depending how far you take your learning, there are many more terms that are widely used in the lean community. This article if focusing on three words you probably haven’t come across yet. But they are absolute superpowers to have in your arsenal when going to war with waste. 

Let’s dive in. 

The first word is yokoten. This means “horizontal information.” Why is this so important, and how do we do it? 

Yokoten is the practice of sharing information across the organization. Generally, information flows up and down, to and from managers. We often forget that departments laterally can benefit from our lessons learned as well. The most glaring example of this in the way we teach lean is improvement videos. During the morning meeting if you are sharing your videos, the office people see shop improvements, the gemba (where the work is done) people see office improvements. The finishing department can learn from the breakout department. It’s viewed as critical for all departments to share information to spark more ideas and learn from each other.

If you can’t get everyone together at the same time to practice yokoten at your morning meeting, devise a way for all departments to share their innovations and lessons learned. 

The next word is heijunka. By definition this means “level your schedule.” One mistake I see all the time is people get ahold of lean concepts and take them to the extent of what they mean, without realizing they are guiding principles to help with decisions. An example is single-piece flow. We hear that and think we need to start building everything one at a time. Don’t do this. The result will be very bad. Another one is that lean companies deliver fast. Yes, I would tend to agree that lean companies generally have better delivery performance than most, but delivering next day can be detrimental to your factory. 

When you practice heijunka, you collect orders for a period of time, then build a level schedule from that. It might look something like this with each letter representing a different product. 

Monday orders in: A - B - C - B - B - C - A
Tuesday orders in: B - B - C - A - A - C - B
Wednesday orders in: A - C - B - A - B - C - A
Thursday orders in:.A - B - D - A - C - A - B
Friday orders in: C - B - A - D - B - C - A 

If you were to build in that order you would be swinging your factory wildly from product to product, with lots of set up and tear down. That likely results in a huge lead time. But if you collected those orders for one week, then released them to the plant, the orders in would be all over the map, but the plant would see this schedule:

Monday production: A - A - A - A - A - A - A
Tuesday production: A - A - A - A - A - B - B
Wednesday production: B - B - B - B - B - B - B
Thursday production: B - B - B - C - C - C - C
Fridays production: C - C - C - C - C - D - D

Even just looking at those two comparisons one calms the mind. But remember: The goal is to get better, so as you’re improving, maybe you can reduce that to four days, then three, then two, and maybe eventually to one day, so you can achieve next day delivery. But in the beginning, don’t get too lean too fast. Level that schedule as much as possible without upsetting your customers. 

The last word is hensai. This is a very deeply ingrained practice in the Japanese culture that we could all benefit from. It means “to reflect with regret,” or I prefer to say deep reflection. This is the art of being able to reflect on your own actions and use the reflection to improve for next time. 

It could be to take five minutes after hosting a morning meeting and writing down all the things that didn’t go as you planned. Keep those notes handy, use them when planning your next meeting. Lynn Thomson, my business partner at Quantum Lean, and I often have the pleasure of speaking at the popular wood shows. Admittedly, at first, I think we were average at best. But then we started to do the hensai. Right after each keynote, we immediately went to a quiet place with a pen and paper and wrote down all the things that went wrong. It went something like this.

Slide 98 didn’t play
When we said “X” we could see people didn’t respond.
Audio connection was a struggle in the beginning.
Noticed people on their phones during “X” part of the presentation, must have been boring.
Internet was lagging while playing videos.

This list started out as a page or more long. Within a few more speaking opportunities we were able to iron out a lot of the defects, and one year we even won the best presentation award at the Vegas wood show. I didn’t need any more proof than that for the power of hensai. 

What would happen if you could get people in your organization doing hensai at the end of each day for 10 minutes? Reflect on what could have gone better and how. Then try again tomorrow. As we dig deeper into our learning from Japan, we start to see how a country with some of the most expensive labor in the world can compete with China right next door who has some of the cheapest labor.

For me personally, the lesson always remains just how sloppy we are here in North America. I mean that in the nicest possible way, with a hint of tough love. 

If you love these articles and listen to the Woodworking Network Podcast, and you want to further your lean learning, consider following our new Quantum Lean podcast “On the Shop Floor.” Find it on YouTube and Spotify. 

And if you want to learn more about the Japanese principles we learned today and more about lean, just text the word “YOKOTEN” to (226) 971-2144 and someone will contact you shortly.  


Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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About the author
Brad Cairns | President/Owner/C-Level

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He also owns Best Damn Doors, a cabinet door manufacturing business in St. Thomas, Ontario. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].