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“Ba” in Japanese management

From traditional “Ba” thinking, the Japanese management discovered “Ba” in business. Hiroyuki Itami, Ikujiro Nonaka, and Taiichi Ohno discussed “Ba” in their topics.

I compare this “Ba” thinking with Ohno’s three genba: imagination, convergence, and decision.

I start with Itami’s work on “Ba” because his explanation of “Ba” was universal.

Itami wrote a book called “management of “Ba (1990).” Itami defined “Ba” as a “framework of a condition, where people join, mutually consciously and unconsciously observe, conduct communication, comprehend each other, work on, and share experience.” He also described it as a “container of information interaction among people.” We humans are “high-spec information outgoing and reception devices,” in which communication is not limited to words or documentation. Creating such “Ba” increases mutual understanding and psychological resonance among people.

Itami states that management is about the bundle of these “Ba.” Itami sees action, learning, decision, and psychological energy. He points out that management can only directly work on decisions and psychological energy. Traditional management tried to impact the action through strict command and surveillance, but these ended up with pretending or superficial measures. He states that employees are half autonomous and half controlled.

Itami describes the essential elements of “Ba” as agenda, interpretation codes, information carriers, and desire to bond. The agenda is about what information interaction is. Interpretation codes are how to understand the signals inside such “Ba.” Information carriers are words, graphs, presence, or activities. Because of these carriers, physical space is also an important carrier. The desire to bond is fundamental to human nature to connect socially.

Itami’s work on “Ba” provides significant information to understand TPS.

Ikujiro Nonaka mentioned the “Ba” in his book, “Knowledge Management (1995).” While he laments that this knowledge management became very IT-oriented, he focuses on the importance of the “Ba.”

Nonaka defined “Ba” as the place where knowledge is created and shared. He also states that “the power to create does not come from inside an individual. It comes from a relationship between individuals or an individual and the environment, which both are the “Ba.” “Knowledge accumulates inside an individual. That knowledge will be shared with others and justified and corrected. This shared context-in-motion is “Ba.”

In “Methodology of Knowledge Creation,” Nonaka defined four types of “Ba.”

  • Originating Ba

  • Dialoging Ba

  • Systemizing Ba

  • Exercising Ba

He states that the leader is responsible for creating and activating these “Ba.”

Ohno mentioned in an interview with Setsuo Mito (1986) about the three genba. “Genba of imagination,” “Genba of convergence,” and “Genba of decision.” It is interesting to compare these three with the above two thinking.

“Genba of imagination” is very similar to the above two thinkers. Ohno mentioned that visiting the genba is about comparing wisdom with his subordinates. He admits he makes mistakes as a boss, but recognizing them is essential. This wisdom competition is his method of “Ba.” Also, he seems to be “communicating” not only with people but also with machines, materials, and methods. Or maybe I should say that the way machines, materials, and methods represent some philosophies and that he is in constant communication with the perspectives to improve. For example, he tries to add human wisdom to machines (Jidou-ka). Such anthropomorphism is his thinking of “Ba.” (Of course, he won’t be talking to a machine. He will go straight to the guy who designed the machine and complain.)

“Genba of convergence” is interesting, and I believe this came out of his practicality.

We created a “Ba,” and information and knowledge are increasing. That’s great. But that is not practical. We see a thick binder of standards. It is excellent, but nobody will memorize all. The one-point lesson is fantastic. But by the time these lessons are piled up, they become useless. Toyota tries to simplify these standards and one-point lessons into a work standard.

Another example is the strategy. Instead of making thick, lengthy presentations, we summarize them into an A3. We will use all kinds of techniques to “fit.” But then, the bosses are not necessarily looking for paper with tiny fonts. They are looking for the essence. A3 is an excellent training to understand the essence.

After all, genba is the only place if all information and knowledge have converged or not. If not, those contradictions will be seen as Muri, Mura, or Muda. It doesn’t matter how it looks on paper or meeting rooms. From the TPS point of view, Nonaka’s four “Ba” need to converge into genba. Of course, it is reasonable to think about the four “Ba” and the appropriate types of “Ba” depending on strategy. The bottom line is that all four “Ba” are at genba.

“Genba of decision” is the last genba that Ohno mentioned. When I read about “Ba,” this thinking is often compared to the traditional hierarchy organization. “Ba” thinking has some aspects of not following traditional hierarchy. Yet, it is not entirely ignored. When we read Ohno’s words, it is full of hierarchy. But I think his point is that by understanding the complexity of “Ba,” it is better to make a decision close to the genba. The closer you are to the genba, the more likely you will make a good decision. He is saying that the managers must go to the genba.

“Ba” is a critical element in understanding the Japanese management system. It is universal. Understanding “Ba” helps us understand what Ohno was trying to say.

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