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Shu - Ha - Ri 【守破離】

規矩作法 守り尽くして破るとも離るるとても本を忘るな.

“Standards (Regulations) and manners. You follow them【守】, break them【破】, and depart【離】 from them, but never forget the essential spirits【本】.”

- Sen no Rikyū

Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyū left an interesting quote about training and learning.

This philosophy represents critical Japanese thinking in training.

Shu 【守】= To follow its master’s teachings.

Ha 【破】= To break or improve from its master’s teachings.

Ri 【離】= To create an original style.

Hon 【本】= The essential spirits

We can see the influence of this thinking on Taiichi Ohno’s development of the Toyota Production System.

Sen no Rikyū, the pioneer of the Japanese tea ceremony, has left an interesting quote on his training and development philosophy.

“Standards (Regulations) and manners. You follow them【守】, break them【破】, and depart【離】 from them, but never forget the essential spirits【本】.”

  • Sen no Rikyū

Shu 【守】means to follow its master’s teachings. It is very heteronomous training. Although Rikyū fully respects this stage of training, he doesn’t think of this stage as the goal. He criticizes some teachers who focus only on “Shu.” But, it is very important to understand the tacit know-how behind the master’s explicit knowledge.

Ha 【破】 is to break or improve from its master’s teachings. Here, Rikyū is talking about autonomic training. The trainee understands the teacher's lessons and improves to a higher level. This does not mean forgetting the core principles. This stage is about finding a better way while respecting the foundational rules.

Ri 【離】is about creating an original style. Rikyū mentions that a trainee should reach this level unconsciously by repeating “Shu” and “Ha.” And even if someone did reach this level, the trainee should not forget the Hon 【本】, the essential spirit of its master.

Sen no Rikyū has trained many students. Many of them created their own style. There are many Japanese Tea ceremony styles today, but we can say that the origin is Sen.

This philosophy has transferred to many areas in Japan, such as arts, martial arts, and chefs. For example, in Sushi, they said, “It takes three years to cook the rice and eight years to mold sushi.” The number of years is probably a guideline. But to master a skill, they believed it takes some years of practice. It is not just the skill but the philosophy around it. For example, one city outside Japan banned sushi chefs from using bare hands. But that’s because the city had so many sushi places without training, especially on sanitation and cleaning. Maybe they learned that sanitation is vital in one one-hour class. But living with that philosophy takes years of practice and coaching. Until sanitation is a habit, the student repeats the lessons.

Since this thinking is so popular, Shu-Ha-Ri is a word in Japanese.

To understand the Toyota Production System, understanding this Japanese philosophy helps.

Many visited Toyota and copied the tools such as Kanban. But if I understood the history of Ohno’s work, this is when he entered the “Ri” stage. Before entering such a stage, which was initially called the “Ohno method,” he had spent more than ten years of “Shu” and “Ha” of “Standard Work.” The version of “Standard Work” he tried to follow was Ueno, Inoue, and Araki's work, which is already a “Ri” from the originals. Ohno’s “Shu” and “Ha” stages were about “Standard Work.” Or transitioning into the “Standardized Work.” Before implementing many famous Toyota Production System tools, he (and Toyota) focused on standards.

Will it be possible to understand the “Ri” without understanding the “Shu”? Or what are the “essential spirits”? Many might start the Standardized work training by explaining the three elements: takt time, sequence, and standard in-process stock. But in reality, they face the question, "Do we need to follow this?” Or, just like all other standards, it becomes unfollowable, and nobody is responsible for fixing it. Many TPS tools are built on solid foundations of respecting repeatable standards. Since most processes follow standards, they can focus on highlighting the problems and Kaizen.

To some degree, Toyota’s current people development also follows this principle. First, we learn to respect and follow the standards (“Shu”). Then we learn to improve the standard (“Ha”). Then, we are challenged to create something new (“Ri”). Of course, the time to enter the “Ha” stage is much faster than any traditional Japanese arts or martial activities. The stages are repeated long enough that we learn the “essential spirits” before we think about the “Ri.” However, the general steps of development follow the “Shu-Ha-Ri” principles.

Following the standards might sound insignificant to some. But it can’t be that 100% of all standards seem useless. If so, focus on areas you think are wrong and develop a better approach. That might be the entry point of “Ha” or “Ri,” where you can call it Kaizen.

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