Obviously Japan is the first country you think of when asked where did lean thinking originate (even if Deming himself was actually American). And one of the most delightful things about Japan is that you can see examples of lean thinking applied everywhere, not just in manufacturing.

One of the best examples useful for explaining lean thinking concepts to new students is the application of lean to the design of ticket barrier systems in Japan’s railway stations especially in Tokyo and in use on its chikatetsu urban railways.

In most countries, railway barriers do not open until you present a valid ticket. Therefore for every single passenger the motors operating the barrier doors must open and close at least once, and they must do so quickly to cope with the flow of passengers when it is busy. This is highly inefficient as it means the motors are straining to change direction and constantly opening and closing, so they wear out quickly and need replacing or maintenance frequently – which of course costs money. Enter a busy station in London at rush hour and the noise of the gates alone tells you how much energy is being wasted through such an inefficient design.

It also means in a fire or other emergency someone needs to open the gates and they need a backup power supply.

But in Japan, the gates only close if the sensors detect someone passing through without simultaneously presenting a paper or digital ticket. To faciliate this they are also a bit longer than you might find in other cities, taking 2 or 3 steps to pass through. Otherwise you might get whacked in the knees!

This is much more efficient – the gates use less power, the motors are rarely activated and therefore the machines need much less frequent maintenance and replacement. Instead of a gate opening and closing thousands of times in a day, it might only open and close once!

And in case of an emergency, such as an earthquake (common of course in Japan) it means people can get through who might otherwise be trapped because of power failures Рsensors in the ticket machines themselves can detect an earthquake and enter an emergency state without activation being needed by the station attendant.

You could also argue that this only works in Japan because people are well behaved and conscientious, while in other countries at least one segment of the population would probably just try to run through all the time to save money. But then, you’d be looking for excuses not to try to change for the better.