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An Interview with Norman Bodek
Publisher of KAIZEN and The Art of Creative Thinking,
Bill Kluck, President, NWLEAN, Inc.
January 2008

Over the past 4 decades, Norman Bodek has been spreading the word about lean production techniques. Early in his career, he was fortunate enough to become acquainted with and publish in English some of our professions founders, including Mr. Taiichi Ohno, and Dr. Shigeo Shingo. Norman has translated and published several of Dr. Shingo's books, which are still very relevant to this day. On the occasion of his latest published work, "Kaizen and the Art of Creative Thinking", Norman has graciously agreed to allow NWLEAN to interview him about his life, and some of the major milestones in his career.

Download a chapter of the book!
Excerpt from KAIZEN and The Art of Creative Thinking

Norman Bodek
PCS Press

BK: Norman, thank you for agreeing to share your time to discuss your latest publication. Before we discuss this exciting new book, I want to take some time to reflect on what has to have been a wonderful ride. Can you tell our readers how you got started in this exciting field?

NB: Bill, I do thank you for this interview. I do hope your readers will enjoy it.

A phoenix is a mythical bird with beautiful gold and red plumage. At the end of its life-cycle the phoenix builds itself a nest of cinnamon twigs that it then ignites; both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes. From these ashes grows a new bird, a new life.

I got started with a new life in 1979. I was president of a data processing company. We were very successful; my earnings were 7% of the sales, and after signing a large new contract, the owner turned to me and said, "I don't need you anymore." A little shocked, but most fortunately, two months later I read in the New York Times that productivity had drastically declined in America. I didn't fully understand what productivity really meant but I became fascinated with the subject and immediately started a new company and called it Productivity Inc. My first product was a monthly newsletter. From being fired (the ashes), I was able to start a new company on my own (being reborn.)

BK: What was your motivation for making your first visits to Japan, and what did you take away from that experience?

NB: From my research of the word "productivity" at the Greenwich Library, I found that Japan was the world's leader in productivity growth. (Productivity is a wonderful word reflecting the success of a society or a company. It simply means, "The more you produce with the same or less resources, the more you have to share with others.) Noting that Japan was leading the world in productivity growth I decided to go there to find out "why." It came from an Industry Week conference in New York City in 1980, when Joji Arai, manager with The Japan Productivity Center in Washington, DC spoke about bringing Japanese to America to study our manufacturing practices. I asked him to the do the reverse and help me bring a group of American managers to study Japanese management practices.

In February 1981, I led 19 senior executives on a study mission to Japan and in two weeks we visited 16 companies. I found a gold mine of untapped wealth. We were one of the first Americans to learn about The Toyota Production System (Lean manufacturing), 5S, Kanban, Jidoka, cell-design, TQM (TQC in Japan), etc. On that first trip, I was especially fascinated by a talk given to us by Dr. Ryuji Fukuda on "On-error training." He said, "The best time to study a problem is exactly when it occurs. When a worker detects a problem, he/she stops working, calls over the supervisor and their associates to get to the root cause so that it doesn't happen again. Dr. Fukuda told me about a book he wrote and I immediately asked to publish the book in English. This launched me into another career as a book publisher.

BK: When you started arranging for American business leaders to study Japanese companies, were they ready to see and understand the different philosophies? Were they able to act on what they saw?

NB: Wonderful question Bill, some did, most did not. It is just very hard to change old patterns. On my second study mission to Japan six months later, I found Dr. Shigeo Shingo's green book, The Study of the Toyota Production System from an Engineering Viewpoint. I ordered only two copies, one for Jack Warne, the vice-president of Omark Industries, and one for me. Over a dozen other travelers were just not interested. On the trip back from Japan both Jack and I read the book and independently did the same thing; we bought 500 copies of the book - Jack gave it out to every manager and engineer to use in study groups and I sold them to my newsletter subscribers. Omark engineers and managers read a few chapters at a time, asked each other, "How can we apply the knowledge here at Omark," and went out and did it. Within one year Omark became the best JIT company in America.

BK: Who were those first companies you worked with, and have they lived up to the challenge?

NB: I remember on the early trips were executives from Motorola and they used the information found to start their TQM program which developed into Six Sigma. Over the years we led 50 study missions to Japan, close to 1000 executives came with us and vast changes did take place in American manufacturing.

BK: What advice do you have for companies just getting started on their lean journey?

NB: First, plan carefully and learn what Lean is all about. Go after the Shingo Prize as a vehicle to get everyone in the company excited about learning and change. Set up a mechanism to identify and eliminate relentlessly, every single day, the non-value adding wastes. And secondly, and probably the most important thing is to start to invest in developing all of your employees as problem solvers.

Come with me on my next study to Japan from April 17th to 27th. We will visit Toyota and their subsidiaries.

BK: When did you first meet Dr. Shigeo Shingo? How did you come to know the man we've all know from your books?

NB: After I found Dr. Shingo's green book, I learned that he was speaking at a conference in Tokyo. I flew to Japan to meet him and invited him to come to America to speak at one of my conferences. He came and we became very good friends. On each of my trips to Japan, I would go to his house in Fujisawa. Dr. Shingo died 17 years ago but I still visit frequently his wife. She was the one that urged me to publish Kaizen and the Art of Creative Thinking.

BK: Did you know when you first met him that you had 'lightning in a bottle, or did it take you awhile to see what he was showing you?

NB: Even though it was initially difficult to read the green book, I knew that Dr. Shingo was a great manufacturing genius. (I subsequently invested and had the green book retranslated and edited.) Dr. Shingo was able to describe a whole new way how to manufacture products with a minimum of waste. I knew it was my job to promote his work throughout the world. I was most blessed because I did not have a manufacturing background. I had to learn like a new born baby this most challenging subject.

BK: Which was the first book of Dr. Shingo's that you published? What were the circumstances that brought you to publish?

NB: One day in Japan, after distributing his green book, Dr. Shingo asked me to publish in English a new book of his, A Revolution in Manufacturing: The SMED System. He received a review of the green book which said the information was great but the translation was in "Jangalese." He asked me to publish his books rather then a Japanese publisher to make sure the book was in correct English. I was very new to the publishing game and made lots of mistakes. This book cost me close to $100,000 to publish. But, miraculously we sold over 100,000 copies at a sales price of $60.00 per book.

BK: In all, how many of his books did you publish?

NB: Dr. Shingo’s earlier books were: A Revolution in Manufacturing: The SMED System; Study of the Toyota Production System: From an Industrial Engineering Viewpoint; Zero Quality Control: Source Inspection and the Poka-Yoke System; The Sayings of Shigeo Shingo: Key Strategies for Plant Improvement; The Shingo Production Management System: Improving Process Functions; and, Non-stock Production: The Shingo System of Continuous Improvement.

BK: Over the years, you became friends with Dr. Shingo. Is it true that you had a hand in his receiving his doctorate, as well as in establishing the Shingo Prize?

NB: Even though much of the Toyota Production System came from Mr. Taiichi Ohno, I knew that Dr. Shingo was the real genius behind it for he clearly made the distinction between process and operation. This awareness helped us shift from maximizing each machine center to maximizing the entire process. I wanted him to be recognized for this and tried to get him a Nobel Prize. I couldn't get them to understand that Dr. Shingo's work was bringing enormous new wealth to the world. I then met Dr. Vern Beuhler, a professor at Utah State University, who wanted Dr. Shingo to speak at his conference. The two of us developed the prize and the university honored him with a doctorate degree. It was Dr. Shingo's proudest moment in his life when he walked up to the podium to receive his degree.

BK: Dr. Shingo passed back in 1990. You've maintained a friendship with his widow since then. What can you tell us of her?

NB: I try to see Mrs. Shingo at least once every other year. I will see her again this March. She will be 94 and is still filled with amazing energy. On each visit she insists on taking me to lunch, does the ordering and it is always too much to eat. On my last visit she gave me in Japanese my newest book Kaizen and the Art of Creative Thinking. Dr. Shingo wrote this over 50 years ago but it is brilliant and another wonderful gift to the world.

BK: What are the circumstances that brought you to this current Shingo work? When do you plan to publish the next 2 manuscripts?

NB: Dr. Shingo was not only a great consultant but also could write clearly so that others could follow and apply his knowledge in their factories and now into hospitals. I am just committed to bringing all of his past works to the Western world. We, ENNA Corporation and myself, are working now on the next book and hope to have it out within six months. It is a real challenge for it is precise and explains in great detail how to improve almost every aspect of manufacturing. I will need the help of a group of engineering professors.

BK: I've read Dr. Shingo's new book, Kaizen and the Art of Creative Thinking, and I think it is just wonderful. From your perspective, what is the most important concept that readers should take from it?

NB: Like Dr. Shingo's other tools, SMED, and Poka-yoke, this new book gives us a distinct process of how to teach and practice identifying and solving problems. It is easy to read, filled with wonderful stories, and gives you the methodology to follow. Buy hundreds of books; put people into study groups, like Omark did, and have your associates apply the knowledge on the factory floor or in the hospital.

BK: Now for my most important question: Norman, would you consider leading a study of this book on the NWLEANstudy forum?

NB: I would love to lead a study group with you. It will give me another opportunity to internalize this great book.


The Secrets of Toyota's Success Revealed in a "New" Book by Dr. Shigeo Shingo

Once again Dr. Shigeo Shingo will amaze you. Along with Taiichi Ohno, Dr. Shingo co-developed TPS (LEAN) with his deep understanding of how to improve the overall process of production. Dr. Shingo reveals how he taught Toyota and other Japanese companies the art of identifying and solving problems. Many companies in the West are trying to emulate Lean but few can do it. Why not? Possibly, because we in the West do not recognize, develop and support the creative potential of every worker in solving problems. Toyota makes all employees problem solvers. Dr. Shingo gives you the tools to do it.

Dr. Shingo was a master of Kaizen, he had the scientific training and innovative genius to deeply understand processes and the humility to realize that he needed the operators to take ownership. We are fortunate to have this new opportunity to gaze deeply into the thinking of one of the true geniuses behind TPS. --Dr. Shigeo Shingo.

Many companies in the West are trying to emulate Lean but few can do it. Why not? Possibly, because we in the West do not recognize, develop and support the creative potential of every worker in solving problems. Toyota makes all employees problem solvers. Shingo gives you the tools to do it.

Dr. Shingo presents six unique models, the sum of which he calls the Scientific Thinking Mechanism. These frameworks allow groups to deconstruct problems and rebuild them into powerful improvement ideas. This concept is central to TPS and provides the necessary foundation for any Lean Initiative to be built upon.

Download a chapter of the book from: Excerpt from KAIZEN and The Art of Creative Thinking

Here is what they are saying about this new book:

"Dr. Shingo was a master of Kaizen, he had the scientific training and innovative genius to deeply understand processes and the humility to realize that he needed the operators to take ownership. We are fortunate to have this new opportunity to gaze deeply into the thinking of one of the true geniuses behind TPS. --Dr. Shigeo Shingo." - From the foreword by Jeffrey K. Liker, Ph. D., New York Times best-selling author of The Toyota Way

"This book contains a myriad of case studies taken from of?ce examples as well as shop ?oors. It is a gold mine of improvement ideas that cumulatively must have saved millions, and could still do so today!" Don Dewar, President & Founder Quality Digest Magazine

"Kaizen and the Art of Creative Thinking is a revealing book and is the genesis manuscript to the Lean Manufacturing mindset. It captures the fundamental thought process to structure problem solving activities and is the foundation to all essential aspects of the Kaizen philosophy. Truly a wealth of knowledge, wisdom and frameworks to embolden you to change existing practices!" - Michel Mestre, Ph.D. Professor, School of Business Northwest University

"For those of us who have revered the work of Dr. Shingo, this is an exciting work. More so than any other of his books - Bill Kluck, President Northwest Lean Networks

"Practicing Kaizen (the habit of making small improvements) eludes many people. Dr. Shingo's Scienti?c Thinking Mechanism replaces the hope of the ?ash of creativity with a reliable and learnable habit-building approach. Thanks for making this Rosetta Stone for Kaizen available to the world." - Hal Macomber, Principal Lean Project Consulting, Inc.

"This book teaches managers to be problem solvers instead of problem chasers." - Collin McLoughlin, co-publisher

Norman Bodek in 1979 started Productivity Inc.- Press and published hundreds of books on Toyota and Japanese management. Contact: 360-737-1883

The book retails for $59.40 and is available at

no_photo.gif"KAIZEN and The Art of Creative Thinking is quite simply the best lean primer available today. I plan to recommend it to every management team I work with." - Bill Kluck, NWLEAN Inc.

NWLEAN is currently running an online 'book study' of this text. To obtain information on how to join this study, visit

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