What is Yokoten?

What is Yokoten

ROUNDUP – Knowledge sharing is a powerful enabler of lean change. In this roundup, our editor discusses the benefits of yokoten and shares a few examples.

Words: Roberto Priolo, Managing Editor, Planet Lean

As we go about our lives at work, we learn new things about our jobs and processes, and it is only natural that we should share that newly acquired information with our colleagues. Knowledge sharing just makes good business sense, after all. Mistakes and problems that are flagged up today are less likely to reoccur tomorrow, as the rest of the organization is alerted to the risk. In the same way, when someone discovers a good way of performing a certain task and shares that with their colleagues, we can expect a ripple effect that will be felt across the business.

Lean thinkers have a name for the sharing of knowledge, learnings, and good practices with others: yokoten. The term is an abbreviation of the Japanese word yokotenkai, which (somewhat loosely, as it is often the case with Japanese) translates into “horizontal deployment”.

Yokoten kanji

In some ways, Toyota itself taught us that improvements that are not shared are not really improvements. Think about it: when we are asked to record our changes and tested improvements on a Job Instructions sheet, isn’t that done with the idea of sharing the good practice with others? Isn’t the purpose of a standard to make knowledge accessible to other people who might have to perform the same task? Come to think of it, by definition, there can’t even be a standard if knowledge is not shared among people!

Speaking of Toyota, yokoten was key to its successful transformation into a global player. As the company expanded, it had to find ways to effectively translate its culture (yokoten doesn’t mean to copy, but to interiorize and adjust to one’s own circumstances) to several different environments around the world, from Kentucky to Europe. For an interesting look into what made this possible, read Nate Furuta’s book Welcome Problems, Find SuccessThis interview is a good way to start.

Inter-departmental yokoten is, of course, not just a prerogative of Toyota. We see it acting as a powerful enabler of continuous improvement in countless lean transformations. An example I like to mention is the Dreamplace chain of hotels, in Spain’s Canary Islands. In this interview, three hotel directors explain how yokoten works in their organization and how, for instance, people are regularly moved from one hotel to another to “spread the good work” and teach others. Highlighting one of the benefits of yokoten, one of the interviewees said: “I remember how useful it was (and still is) for me to see the A3s people [in other hotels] were working on. I was able to apply some of the ideas in my own hotel, and their great work analyzing the problem saved us a lot of time. I also think it’s always great to look at problems from different points of view.”


By now, you’ll have understood that yokoten comes in many shapes and forms. It can happen between individuals and teams, branch offices and departments. Even between organizations, when open-minded leaders understand the importance of opening the doors of their businesses to others, giving them a unique chance to observe their processes and learn from them.

Yokoten isn’t performed for altruistic reasons (although turning your company into a “case study” or successful example goes a long way towards recognizing people’s efforts vis-a-vis the lean transformation). There is a lot of value in getting an outside view of our work, and this is indeed what convinces many organizations to open their gemba to the outside world. Here, you can get a sense of the benefits that people get from mingling with and learning from fellow practitioners from different industries.

Over time, this can create superb opportunities for mutual learning and kickstart “lean revolutions” that can transform a whole sector. We have seen this in Catalonian healthcare, where the efforts of a pioneering hospital over the past decade or so have inspired countless more organizations to embrace Lean Thinking. Recently, we saw how the regional healthcare authority itself has begun a project to improve the work of all primary care units – an effort made possible by the early experimentation with hoshin kanri that took place in one hospital. We recently observed a similar dynamic in Brazil, where the trailblazing efforts of Istituto de Oncologia do Vale are inspiring a whole city-wide initiative to improve patient outcomes.

In another example I have come across, the whole city of Grand Rapids, Michigan acts as something of a lean lab where lean practitioners from different departments can count on one another for support and inspiration. Here’s what the Deputy Chief of Support Services at the city’s Fire Department, Brad Brown, said: “Within the city, lean practitioners have access to any department. We can call people up at any time and go see. Every few weeks, we have a different group of people coming to our gemba. Lean is very widespread in Grand Rapids, even outside city government: it’s not uncommon for me to walk down to the hospital once a month to see some lean friends over there, or swing by a manufacturing plant. It is fantastic, and we are very fortunate to have so many lean practitioners in West Michigan.”

A few years back, in nearby Indiana, Ben Hartman established a lean farm. The lessons he learned there, which got a lot of attention in the lean world, inspired efforts halfway across the world, in Nigeria, where Ben has supported a USAID project to improve the lives of Nigerian farmers. More here. Ben knows all about the power of yokoten, because that’s how he himself discovered lean, as Jim Womack explains in this column.

Despite being one of the greatest enablers of improvement, as far as practices go, yokoten is often overlooked. I hope this short article has helped you to understand why this is a missed opportunity.


Roberto Priolo photo

Roberto Priolo is Managing Editor of Planet Lean.