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Monday, July 28, 2014

Takumi: Striving for Mastery and Lifelong Learning

One of the most important of the five key principles of lean thinking is Continuously Improve and Drive Towards Perfection. This principle of forever raising the bar (or standard) and striving for perfection is clearly illustrated in the celebrated documentary film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, which follows 85 year old sushi master Sukibayashi Jiro and his never ending push to improve even at his age. This story has been ‘doing the rounds’ at LSI, as we have been trying to get as many Lean practitioners as possible to check it out.

Jiro-san is a Takumi – a master at his craft. We recently met another type of takumi on our Japan Lean Tour but this time in the automotive industry. Although they were from an entirely different profession from that of a famous sushi chef, these takumi also embody the key principle of continuous improvement and lifelong learning that Jiro-san lives by.

One of the highlights of LSI’s Lean Japan Tour is a trip to Nissan Yokohama’s engine plant.  The plant tour is always highly rated. It includes a full tour of the working plant featuring many great examples of Lean manufacturing, a guided tour of an engine museum and even a look at the first ever Datsun (the ‘former’ name for Nissan and recently revived sub-brand) vehicle ever produced. 

All this is great, but hands down the most popular part of the tour is the special opportunity to visit the GT-R engine cleanroom, where participants have the rare opportunity to see and often to meet
face- to- face with the Nissan takumi – the Master craftsmen of the GT-R VR-38 engines.
First of all, the car: The GT-R is considered one of the most widely recognized and awarded sports cars of its time, winning such distinctions as Top Gear Supercarof the Year in 2007, Motor Trend car of the year in 2009 as well as being more recently recognized as having one of the best resale values of any sports car.  Each GT-R, capable of 545 horsepower, contains a twin-turbocharged V6 engine, which was hand built by one of the Nissan engine plant takumi.

At last count there were only four certified takumi master craftsmen at the Nissan facility – just four men out of thousands who possess the talent and skill to build these high performance engines by hand. In fact, many of the activities requiring high precision, such as valve clearance are done entirely by feel – a skill that the takumi are able to utilize with their own sense of touch.

Takumi is a word that Lean Sensei also associates with its Lean Blackbelt program, as an invitation to strive for perfection – and the name is not chosen lightly. Those who are set on becoming Lean Blackbelt certified are invited to learn to become lean leaders who can take on cross-corporate challenges. Only through repeated practice and refinement can a Blackbelt aspire to become a true takumi which is finally the attainment of Master Blackbelt status.
nissan_engine plate

To better understand the level of mastery required to become a takumi at Nissan, I recently spoke to the leader of the Nissan GT-R engine takumi, Kurosawa-san, at Nissan’s Yokohama facility when we were lucky enough to meet him during our Japan Lean Tour. Kurosawa-san has the unique distinction of being a takumi with the name “Takumi” which is a different Chinese character, but it is pronounced the same way as the word for Master.  So, we got to meet with Takumi Takumi!
As leader of the Nissan takumi team, Takumi Kurosawa assembles GT-R engines as well as super GT 300 engines for the race circuit. He informed us that the takumi are not only responsible for the assembly, but also for guaranteeing the precision of the engine parts and their quality. 

Kurosawa-san has welcomed many guests who have come from all over the world to view the cleanroom up close, including GT-R owners who want to meet the person who hand-built the engine for their very own car. Past visitors have included Jay Leno and other celebrities, not to mention a lot of Lean Sensei Blackbelt candidates along the way. 

The first thing that struck us when we met Kurosawa-san was his enthusiasm for the work – he is obviously passionate about his craft and enjoys talking about the painstaking work that goes into each engine assembly. Each unit takes approximately 6 hours, involves nearly 400 different parts and is built entirely by one takumi from start to finish.

Even more impressive than his vast knowledge and skill was Kurosawa-san’s modest nature. At one point, one of the Blackbelt candidates asked him how many years of training it took to reach takumi status. “I am always learning, always training” was his response. In other words, although it takes a great deal of skill to reach the level of the takumi, it also takes the right attitude – one of relentlessly pursuing mastery and perfection…while never actually getting there.  Keep on driving towards perfection!

-Coach Jake

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