Thursday, April 28, 2011


By Al Norval

In the Lean world we hear all kinds of Japanese words. Indeed, it seems like a badge of honour to know obscure Japanese words that baffle your fellow teammates. I’d like to highlight one that isn’t mainstream but is critically important – Yokoten.

Yokoten is a process for sharing learning laterally across an organization. It entails copying and improving on kaizen ideas that work. You can think of yokoten as "horizontal deployment" or "sideways expansion". The corresponding image is one of ideas unfolding across an organization. Yokoten is horizontal and peer-to-peer, with the expectation that people go see for themselves and learn how another area did kaizen and then improve on those kaizen ideas in the application to their local problems.

It's not a vertical, top-down requirement to "copy exactly". Nor is it a “best practices” or “benchmarking” approach nor is it as some organizations refer to a “lift and shift” model. Rather, it is a process where people are encouraged to go see for themselves, and return to their own area to add their own wisdom and ideas to the knowledge they gained.

Simply put, Yokoten equals copy and improve. The role of the senior managers is to make people aware of the existence of these good kaizen examples so that they can go see for themselves, gain the knowledge and improve upon it further. Simply telling subordinates to copy it may be kaizen of a sort but it would not serve the second important aspect of the Toyota Production System, the respect for and development of people.

An effective Yokoten process is a critical step to building capability within the organization and becoming a true learning organization. It truly is one of the capabilities of outstanding organizations.


  1. Wow, very interesting blog topic. Very uselful information.

  2. Knowledge waste in organizations is one of the invisible wastes. Sadly, it is getting worse in this day and age of technological wonders. Why? Because people spend so little time actually talking to one another and having discussion and dialogue on problems.
    Result - less learning in the organization.

  3. It is very true that the spirit of Yokoten is learning. It requires people to talk to each other to learn the "why" behind the things that were done. Many times, what appears to be a simple kaizen will be version 10 in a series of efforts. The amount of learning done by the originators will be lost without employing the art of conversation.

  4. Fine insight, Denis. As you say, the "art of conversation" is at the heart of learning. That plus trying stuff out, slowly, with a sensei to guide you.

    "This is good, that's not good! Let's try the right way again..."

    Underlying these conversations, in my experience, is a sense of caring, commaraderie and good humor, under which the student relaxes...

    Electronic "learning management systems" can support, but in no way replace, the sensei.

  5. Al, great explanation of Yokoten. Best I've seen. It was really hard for me to get started with this concept. It might be for others. One suggestion is, when working with a team facing a problem, once they've grasped the situation; take them on a mini-tour of another area that might have faced a similar challenge. Let them see, talk to those involved, get a sense of why they chose that path. I found it inspires teams and challenges them to "make it even better" than what they saw. It really sparked the concept of Yokoten for me.