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Lessons from Japan – Stand for Action

Note: Links to all of four Japan factory tour posts and the various lessons from those tours can be found here.

I recently returned from a week in Japan, where I toured four world-class companies as part of Gemba's Japan Kaikaku Experience.  The company tour reports are here: Toyota, Saishunkan, TOTO, and an electronics company.  Although each company was radically different, there were also some commonalities that can provide important lessons.  Some are perhaps a little superficial, but still powerful, and others reach to the heart of lean.  As part of my attempt to process and record what I've seen, and to create some plans for future action, I thought I'd try to write about some of the common themes.

Todays subject: standing up.
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At every company we visited the associates in each work cell worked standing up.  This was deemed very important for a number of reasons.  First, from an ergonomic standpoint, standing up is safer on the back when there are twisting motions.  An operator that needs to turn to grab another part or perform an operation is in more danger if sitting than if he or she can step into the turn while standing.  Operators that stand also tend to be more productive and energetic, and that increased movement and balance activity also promotes better health.

But many companies already use stand up cells.  Where the standing philosophy became really interesting was in
the office.  In virtually every company the managers, engineers, office personnel, and even executives also stood at their desks.  Here's a photo of just one such executive office for a $100 million company.  I'll touch on the lack of walls in a future post.  But I do need to point out that the person in the back is the president, with his directors on the right.
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The companies cited several reasons for standing at desks, including the same health and ergonomic improvements mentioned above.  But they also mentioned one other critical attribute of people that stand: it takes less energy for them to go walking, to the gemba for example.  These people would immediately go and see what was going on, address problems faster, and be more efficient.  There was less day-dreaming, thereby increasing productivity, and stand up desks were generally far neater and therefore required only half the space.

Was it a tough change?  Yes.  The first month, or even two, is apparently quite difficult as the body adjusts.  But then you begin to feel healthier, perhaps lose a few pounds due to the activity resulting from constant balancing, and you realize you are more productive.  The company in the photo above provided bar stools to ease the transition, but they are no longer used.

I was very intrigued with this concept and started to do some research, and soon realized it is not a new idea at all.  In fact, standing desks have been used by many famous people including Winston Churchill and the recognizable fellow on the right, Don Rumsfield.

Men's Health magazine recently did an article on stand up desks, documenting the various health benefits.  Tech-related blogs such as LifeHacker, Lifehack, Isaac, and Merge have discussed their benefits for technology workers.  Schools, even at the elementary level, are trying the idea on students.Picture 1

So where can you get one?  Many people receommend IKEA for the simple versions.  And those of us in the lean world have a natural affinity for simplicity.  But for a more classic look, there is Standupdesks.com.  If you really want to go all out, you can get a version from Relax the Back that is motorized and adjustable from a seating to standing position.  Too expensive for my taste, plus I'd prefer to have wheels (another commonality by the way).  How tall should it be?  Take a look at this nifty online calculator.

I'm going to give it a try.  Anyone with me?  Or is that the sound of deafening silence I hear?

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11 Responses to "Lessons from Japan – Stand for Action"

  • Johannes Brodwall
    3 November 2008 - 3:49 am

    Sounds intriguing. I’m not quite with you yet, but I’m looking forward to hearing your experience with standing up in a few months.

  • martinb
    3 November 2008 - 9:44 am

    I spend hours a day at the computer. I have used a kneeler chair for more than ten years and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

  • Mark Graban
    3 November 2008 - 7:08 pm

    Many hospital labs are converting to “Lean” cellular layouts where staff members stand and move a bit instead of being parked at a chair (where batches accumulate) or constantly getting up and down (which isn’t good ergonomically, either).

    It’s often a fight for people to accept the standing… as much a change management issue as it is a perceived physiological issue.

  • Lood Krynauw
    3 November 2008 - 8:18 pm

    A point not mentioned anywhere, what happens if you have a ‘bad’ back?
    If I stand for more than 15 minutes I suffer for two days with intense pain.
    Obviously there must be an alternative?
    In the mean time I do make a point to ger up as often as necessary because I am still OK walking and I do want to see what is happening.

  • Ron Pereira
    4 November 2008 - 6:22 am

    Hi Lood, I asked this same company Kevin is speaking about the same question… and they explained that in these cases they do provide chairs for their workers. I also saw bar stool looking chairs in some places for people to ‘take a load off’ from time to time.

  • Edward Price
    10 November 2008 - 10:43 am

    I read the article on 37signals and have been standing for over 6 months. Its been good. A coworker saw me doing it, and started doing it as well. Everything is going well.

  • William Pietri
    11 November 2008 - 11:25 am

    Another interesting option is the walking desk. I got curious and bought a cheap used treadmill on Craigslist and then built a simple laptop stand for it. First thing in the morning, I would set the treadmill at about 2 mph and do a couple miles of email.

    I definitely enjoyed the experience. When I needed to concentrate completely, as when coding, I would usually stop the belt. But for lighter tasks, it was very pleasant. I suspect it also affected the way I worked positively, but that’s a little hard to judge.

    Unfortunately, the treadmill I selected was relatively noisy, in a way that I eventually found grating for long periods. I eventually stopped using it. But I still think the idea is a workable one, and I encourage your experiments with the standing desk.

  • Aniruddha Kaushik
    11 November 2008 - 9:19 pm

    Gr8, Loved the Idea. In fact this I have seen in assembly line of no. of Organisations in India too. Of course they have seen the same in Japan. Yes, office i have not seen any where. Would like to no more on this.

  • David Griffiths
    24 March 2009 - 12:43 pm

    I thought Churchill for saying “Never stand up if you can sit down; never sit down if you can lie down.” He used to work primarily in bed and in the bath.

  • Robberto Bos
    10 October 2009 - 1:09 pm

    In Switzerland they have special standing desks with special unstable mats that help you to keep moving while standing… They even use them in school classes. Quite expensive, but an interesting concept. See http://www.kybun.com