Hansei: Responsibility, Self-Reflection, and Organizational Learning

Teamwork never overshadows individual accountability at Toyota. Individual accountability is not about blame and punishment, but about learning and growing. A key to learning and growing, not only within Toyota but in Japanese culture, is hansei, which roughly means “reflection.” Hansei is a bit of Japanese culture that Toyota recently has been working to teach to its overseas managers. It is one of the most difficult things they have ever had to teach, but it is an integral ingredient in Toyota’s organizational learning.

For many years after setting up shop in the U.S., the Japanese leadership intentionally did not introduce hansei. They realized it was a distinctly Japanese concept and too alien to the American culture. George Yamashina, who runs the Toyota Technical Center, explained it as something like the American “time-out” for children, though in Japan hansei has a broader meaning.

In Japan, sometimes the mother and the father say to the children, “Please do the Hansei.” Some child did a bad thing. It means he or she must be sorry and improve his or her attitude—everything is included, spirit and attitude. So once the child is told, “Please do the Hansei,” he understands almost everything about what the mother and the father want him to do.

Translated as reflection, Toyota finally introduced hansei to its U.S. managers in 1994. According to Yamashina, it had to be introduced at some point:

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. Hansei is a mindset, an attitude. Hansei and kaizen go hand in hand.

Mike Masaki, president of the Toyota Technical Center from 1995 to 2000, found it very challenging to get Americans to understand the value of reflection—they take the implied criticism personally and negatively. In 1997 he lamented:

Wherever Mr. (Akihiro) Wada (then executive VP of global R&D) goes, he critiques. I do the same thing at TTC. For example, I recently reviewed a prototype of the next-generation Avalon body. I pointed out that these parts are very bad and the Americans had an uncomfortable reaction. 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. In Japan we would not point out the good things, but would focus on the negative.

At Toyota, even if you do a good job successfully, there is a hansei-kai (reflection meeting). Bruce Brownlee, General Manager at the Toyota Technical Center, helped clarify this, drawing on his experience as an American who grew up in Japan:

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. But it does not end there. How do you change to overcome those weaknesses? That is at the root of the very notion of kaizen. If you do not understand hansei, than kaizen is just continuous improvement. Hansei is the incubator for change—that whole process. We want to overcome areas of weakness. It also explains why we (Toyota) spend little time talking about successes. We spend more time talking about our weaknesses. If anything, perhaps a weakness for Toyota is that we do not celebrate our successes enough.

Toyota is continually “reflecting” on hansei as well. By implanting hansei into an alien culture, at first in the U.S., Toyota has an opportunity to watch it germinate and develop in a new way. The Americans have embraced hansei to a degree, but there are certain traditional elements they have rejected and new elements they are adding. Andy Lund, a program manager for the Toyota Sienna, also grew up in Japan as a missionary’s child. He explained how hansei is being adapted to the American culture:

The hansei view of feeling deeply sorry and admitting shame is a traditional Japanese view, but I did not experience it when I was growing up in Japan. Here at TTC we are using a more gentle version. If individuals do commit a mistake, they will learn from the mistake and from having to report to Yamashina-san. It may be difficult for them. When you have to prepare an A3 report for the president, you learn so much more. He will be looking not only at the error you made but how you reflect on it.... You will of course get advice, but the preparation for the meeting is when the team member will learn so much. Part of on-the-job training is to provide opportunities for your team associates to present to the president. We try to give all team associates a chance to present to the president what they have learned, and they will get feedback from the president about dotting every “i” and crossing every “t,” but to bring shame is not the goal.

When I first started doing interviews at the Toyota Technical Center a decade ago, U.S. managers often used the term “the obligatory negative” in discussing their Japanese coordinators. The Americans felt that, whatever work they showed the coordinators, it was obligatory to find a mistake or expose a weakness. Lund believes this is a cross-cultural misunderstanding of hansei:

People who have not been to Japan may not understand that the objective is not to hurt that individual but to help that individual improve—not to hurt the program but to show flaws to improve the next program. If you understand that deeply, you can get through that constructive criticism. No matter how good a program or a presentation someone makes, we believe there is always something that can be improved, so we feel it is our obligation. It is not an “obligatory negative” but an obligatory opportunity to improve—it is the heart of kaizen.

Hansei is not simply a philosophical belief system at Toyota, but a practical tool for improvement. For example, TTC holds formal and scheduled hansei events at key milestones in a vehicle program as well as after it launches the vehicle and the program ends. Like other companies, Toyota conducts design reviews to identify problems with the vehicle. But the hansei is a reflection on the process of developing the vehicle. Hansei is the check stage of PDCA. It is used most often at the end of a vehicle program, but TTC is starting to move it further upstream so there are several hansei events at key junctures in the program.

When Lund led a hansei event after the prototype phase of the 2004 Sienna model, he began by collecting information from a wide range of participants in the vehicle development process. He then was able to consolidate what he learned into four themes. The themes are really root causes. He asked “Why?” five times for many different problems that surfaced during the development of the Sienna and moved upstream in the process. All the process flaws could be explained by these four root causes.

For example, some parts on the prototype vehicle were late and therefore older parts had to be used to build the Sienna prototype. Other parts were not as high-quality as Toyota would have liked. A thorough five-why analysis revealed that, in the quest for introducing the perfect vehicle to market, Toyota had insisted that every part be as perfect as possible at each prototype phase. This insistence resulted in the practice of last-minute revision requests, such that if the design engineers had an improvement on a part just prior to the prototype, they were requested by program management to get the latest revision onto the prototype so they could test the best ideas. The result was that the design engineers did not complete some prototype parts in time. Lund concluded,

We missed a great opportunity to test parts, even if they were not the most up-to-date versions. The reflection was not so much that there were late changes, because if the market changes we always need to change the vehicle. But we learned the value of being able to freeze the part at some point so we can test a complete vehicle and learn as much as possible at that point.

Lund immediately communicated the four root cause problems he observed, along with countermeasures, to other program managers across the company who had not yet reached the prototype stage on their projects. One benefit of having a regular and short product-development cycle is that when you learn something, there are several vehicles coming right behind it, so you have an opportunity to apply immediately what you learned to improve the process and product.