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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Importance of Hansei

Hindsight is 20/20. The term “hindsight is 20/20” is often used to describe the phenomenon of being able to see things more clearly after they have happened. This phrase is derived from the idea that our vision is usually better when looking backward than forwards.

Despite many believing we should always look forward instead of reminiscing about our past, if done right, it can become less of a downer and more of a positive. If we only look back to highlight the success, rather than the mistakes, then that reflection loses its value. Whilst it’s important to celebrate the positives, you can only learn so much from them. If you want to continuously improve then you need to take into account, the negatives too. That’s where the real value lies.

For the past twenty-five years, I’ve helped to develop methods for implementing lean practices in factories and across supply chains. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that self-reflection is as relevant to lean practices as continuous improvement. In fact, it’s an integral and essential part of it.

John Dewey, the American philosopher and psychologist, said “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

To develop, we need to build on our experience. Whether it’s to improve our skills and abilities, become more competent, increase our performance or open ourselves to new ideas. But as Dewey observed, we do this through reflection, either on our own or with others.

In Japan, when someone makes a mistake, they will profusely apologize, take responsibility, and propose a solution for how they can prevent the same mistake from happening in the future. This process is referred to as 反省 – or Hansei. Hansei is a core concept of Japanese culture. It’s not about shame or guilt. Rather, it’s about admitting there is room for improvement – and committing to that improvement.

To paraphrase my friend, Jon Miller: “Han” means to change, turn over, turn upside down. “Sei” is the simplified form of a character meaning to look back upon, review, examine oneself. As a native speaker of Japanese “hansei” strikes me as both an intellectual and emotional exercise. With hansei there is a sense of shame, if that is not too hard of a word. This may come from having been asked to do a lot of hansei as a child, being told “hanse shinasai!” which in English might be “Learn to behave!”

The point is, when you do hansei it is almost never because you are “considering past experience” as if they were happy memories. You are confronting brutal facts about your actions and the impact they had, in hopes that you can learn from this and change your behavior in the future.

Toyota is known as a learning organization, and this is one of the reasons why Toyota has become so successful. Hansei has a strong role in being a learning organization. In Toyota, hansei is often viewed as a precursor to kaizen, and a pre-requisite to being a learning organization. This is best explained as below (taken from Toyota-Global website);

Hansei is both an intellectual and emotional introspection. The individual must recognize the gap between the current situation and the ideal, take responsibility for finding solutions, and commit to a course of action. The examination involves a review of successes and failures, to determine what works and what needs to be improved. Hansei leads to ideas for kaizen and yokoten, the sharing of best practices from one location to another.

At each key milestone in a project, and at completion, the people involved meet to reflect on their experience of what happened. However, successes aren’t celebrated. In true Japanese fashion, they are treated with humility and modesty. Instead, the focus is on the failures and what could have been better.

It goes without saying, but to perform hansei correctly you need to make sure you’re examining the past and what exactly went wrong. Then you must think about the situation and how it could have been improved or averted in the future. Ensure that someone else is responsible for hansei, and it should always form part of your performance management process, whether it’s on completion of the project or at specific review intervals.

The following structure can be valuable for following hansei:

  1. Pinpoint the problem – There’s no such thing as being flawless, so identify what the main issue is.
  2. Accept accountability – Make sure the individual holds themselves liable for what went wrong. From this, they can work on areas for improvement.
  3. Reflect on root causes – There could be more to the problem than meets the eye, so dig deep and reveal any belief systems, habits or assumptions that may be preventing success.
  4. Build an improvement plan – Action all the learnings, then you can stop the same problem from happening again. 

This isn’t about pointing fingers, issuing blame or scoring points. It helps to identify when things need to improve and prevent any of the errors that were made. Above all, it helps to instill the belief that there’s always room and always need for further improvement.

Hansei is one of the keys to kaizen, as the concept itself focuses on improvement as opposed to punishment. When we fail, we realize that we have done something wrong. So, it is important that we will learn lessons from it, and find methods to prevent its recurrence.  It is most important to consider also how bad we feel when we hurt others in the team by not performing to their expectations.

Why not take this opportunity to practice some self-reflection? In what areas do you need to improve? How can you take ownership of that need to improve? What can you do differently?

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