Shigeo Shingo and the Art of Self Promotion

Shigeo ShingoShigeo Shingo is a name that everyone in the United States lean community knows. He is considered “the world’s leading expert on manufacturing practices and the Toyota Production System,” an “engineering genius,” and the foremost guru of lean production. Some sources even claim he invented the Toyota Production System and taught Taiichi Ohni. Unfortunately, his achievements were much less stellar than this, but he was very skilled in the art of self-promotion.

The Beginnings

Born in Saga City, Japan, in 1909, he graduated from Yamanashi Technical College with a degree in mechanical engineering. Afterward, he worked as a railway technician in Taipei during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan during World War II. As the war ended,  so did his Job in Taiwan. Shingo then became a consultant at the Japan Management Association (JMA) at age 34. In this position, he gathered experience at Mazda and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Shingo and Toyota

In 1950, he was contracted by Toyota to update their Training within Industry (TWI) courses. TWI was a US program for training workers and improving quality. Highly successful, it was all but forgotten in the US after the war ended, but it made a successful revival in Japan. Shingo was contracted to update the “Job Methods” section of TWI (afterward called P-Course). He also taught classes on time motion, a well-known method originating with Taylor and Gilbreth in the US.

Between 1950 and 1970, Toyota developed a method to reduce changeover times. Many different employees at Toyota, including Taiichi Ohno, were involved in this. Shingo was not. Not until the very end, around 1970, was he contracted to do a class on quick changeover methods. This class helped improve the changeover of one of the last machines that were not yet improved. To repeat, he participated in only one quick changeover workshop at Toyota!

It was at this time that Shingo became more interested in the Toyota Production System. He learned what he could about it and constantly tried to schedule meetings with a more and more reluctant Taiichi Ohno. From Ohno’s point of view, Shingo wanted to have academic discussions, whereas Ohno was only interested in practical applications.

In 1980, Shingo published a book on the Toyota Production System. This publication was without consent of Toyota, and he no longer did any trainings there afterwards. He did visit Toyota plants, and also worked for other companies in the Toyota group, but overall the relationships turned sour.

Shingo, the “Inventor” of the Toyota Production System

Afterward, Shingo moved to the United States. In 1980, the West was just starting to realize the power of the Japanese automotive industry, as it outperformed the US industry in both quality and price. There was much demand to understand what enabled this Japanese superior performance. Unfortunately, due to the language barrier there was little information about the secrets of the Toyota production System.

Shingo was one of the few sources in the United States–if not the only one–who knew about the Toyota methods. As such, he had a very fast rise to industry stardom. Shingo fueled this by an exceptional trip of self-promotion.

For example, he had his book translated into English. The Japanese title was “The Toyota Production System.” The English title, however, changed to “The Shingo  System.” He wrote many more books, always giving himself a prominent position in the development of the Toyota Production System. For example, in one book he included a timeline of industry events. He placed himself on this timeline a whopping eleven times, claiming to have developed the theory of flow layout, introduced scientific thinking, developed quick changeover, introduced pre-automation, and invented poka yoke and the non-stock production system, to name just a few.

His fourteen books are still bestsellers in America, commanding staggering prices. A one-hundred-page pamphlet goes for $30, whereas a three-hundred-page medium-sized book costs a whopping $100. If you can read Japanese, the original Japanese books are much cheaper or even out of print due to low demand. Japanese lean experts who read his books considered them very low quality when compared to the literature available in Japanese and overall very poorly written. Wisely, Shingo did not claim that he invented the Toyota Production System in his Japanese books.

Outside these books, he claimed that he invented numerous things related to lean manufacturing as well as the Toyota Production System. This claim is based on a minor presentation for the Japanese Management Association in 1946. This presentation, conveniently , is now lost in history, and its content can no longer be verified.

During a project at Matsushita Electric, he installed conveyor belts for the transport of parts. He re-coined this as a new invention, the Mikuni Method. In reality, there was not much new about conveyor belts, and the method is now all but forgotten. Even most lean experts have never heard of the Mikuni Method.

The Legacy of Shigeo Shingo

Shigeo Shingo did not invent the Toyota Production System. He also did not invent the method of SMED. What he did was bring its knowledge to the United States and popularize it there. He provided first experiences in the Toyota Production System (he is less known in Europe). Thousands of people learned about Lean Manufacturing from him. He coined key terms used in lean manufacturing (for example, SMED for quick changeovers or Poka Yoke for mistake proofing). The Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing is one of the most prestigious awards in the industry, considered the Nobel Prize of manufacturing. For these achievements he is rightfully praised. However, he also seems to have claimed many more contributions to Lean than what he really did. For me this is unfortunate, since in my opinion there would have been no need for such additional self promotion. Being the first to bring the knowledge to the US would have been more than enough for his rise to stardom. In any case, the methods he taught are good, so please go out and use them to improve your industry.


The question of Shigeo Shingo’s contribution to TPS is a hot topic for discussion. Many US lean experts rush to defend the honor of Mr. Shingo. But also other US experts question his contributions. My main but not my only outside source is Art Smalley:

  • Smalley, Art. “A Brief Investigation into the Origins of the Toyota Production System.” Art of Lean, July 2006.
  • Smalley, Art. “A Brief History of Set-Up Reduction: How the Work of Many People Improved Modern Manufacturing.” Art of Lean, 2010.
  • Isao, Kato. Shigeo Shingo’s influence on TPS – An Interview with Mr. Isao Kato. Interview by Art Smalley, April 2006.

Please be aware that some of them have gone off-line since, but googling may provide copies in some odd corners of the web. In any case, Smalley’s findings are consistent with my own experience in Japan and Europe, and also with my discussions with Toyota employees. There are some good overview discussions about the resulting conflict between supporters and critics:

Addendum 2

Since I wrote this post I have uncovered a few more bits of information. It seems that the main driver behind Shingo’s rise to stardom was Norman Bodek. When re-publishing Shingo’s book through Bodek’s publishing house Productivity Inc. the title changed from the (Japanese) Toyota Production System to the (English) Shingo System. Bodek also (in his own words) “started the Shingo prize and got him an honorary doctorate degree from Utah State University“.

Since then Bodek praised Shingo at every opportunity, calling him “absolutely brilliant, probably the greatest  manufacturing genius of our time, able to solve every manufacturing problem presented to him“. It seems that mainly through this successful promotion Shingo got the (in my view incorrect) reputation as the primary inventor of the Toyota production system.

Faster, Better, Cheaper CoverPS: If you would like to read more about history of manufacturing, then check out my book:

Roser, Christoph, 2016. Faster, Better, Cheaper” in the History of Manufacturing: From the Stone Age to Lean Manufacturing and Beyond, 439 pages, 1st ed. Productivity Press.

3 thoughts on “Shigeo Shingo and the Art of Self Promotion

  1. Thanks for your post. Very few outside of Toyota are actually aware of the information you provide here. Isn’t it just like Toyota to not get itself involved with trying to set the record straight on this subject? Humility allows them to ignore a need for self promotion. In fact, we seldom celebrate successes and focus very strictly on the next problem.

  2. Many thanks, Tony. The issue seems to be a hot topic for some. A while back I went on a lean group at LinkedIn and asked innocently what Shingo really contributed to lean – and walked into a shit storm. Apparently, this is for some a touchy subject with rather rigid opinions. If Toyota would push the issue, it would risk alienating parts of the US lean community. I also did not push the issue on the group any further, since it is otherwise a pretty good group.

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