Act the Fool

Heyokas play an important role in an organization’s survival

by William A. Levinson

A heyoka is a sacred clown or contrarian in the Sioux and Lakota language. Using satire and farce, they ask difficult questions, help others see situations differently and open eyes to things often overlooked.1 Almost every workplace has a few heyokas, and they are vital to the organization’s survival.

In medieval times, a court jester was more than an entertainer or fool. The jester also played an advisory role. He was the one person who could criticize or admonish the king and speak the truth and get away with it. The jester’s words could be disregarded as jokes according to social norms and customs.

The fool in tarot card decks may symbolize a similar role—the ability to challenge existing practices without constraint by calling attention to underlying assumptions and paradigms. This concept appears in a Diesel clothing company advertising campaign, "Be Stupid." The campaign encourages people to take risks, innovate and challenge established paradigms.2

Words of wisdom

Shigeo Shingo often acted as a heyoka. At a metal forming facility he asked, "Why grease scrap metal?"3 Instead of greasing the entire piece of stock, he thought the manufacturer should only grease what came into contact with the press. This would reduce the amount of lubricant the company needed to purchase.

At a fountain pen manufacturing plant, Shingo asked, "If all you need to do is paint the pen caps, why paint the air as well?" He observed at least half of the paint sprayed missed the caps. That company paid for wasted paint twice: first in the cost of its purchase and again when it became an environmental problem.

The phrase, "keep your eye on the doughnut’s hole," means to pay attention to everything that is thrown away (the hole) as well as the product (the doughnut). Phrases like "grease scrap metal" and "paint the air" put processes and waste in a new perspective. When Henry Ford said, "Pedestrianism is not a highly paid line [of work],"4 he was commenting on jobs that required workers to walk to get tools and parts due to poor workspace organization. Ford thought walking was a waste of motion that was built into the job and taken for granted.

An effective heyoka uses questions and observations to challenge procedures, paradigms and organizational culture—not the people who do the jobs. This is consistent with auditing and other quality approaches that place blame on deficiencies in tasks or the work system, not the staff.


  1. Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heyoka.
  2. "Be Stupid," Diesel, www.diesel.com/be-stupid.
  3. Shigeo Shingo, (Andrew Dillon, translator), The Sayings of Shigeo Shingo: Key Strategies for Plant Improvement, Productivity Press, 1987.
  4. Henry Ford and Samuel Crowther, My Life and Work, Doubleday, Page and Company, 1922.

William A. Levinson is principal consultant at Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He has a master’s degree in engineering from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and an MBA from Union College in Schenectady, NY. An ASQ fellow, Levinson is an ASQ-certified quality manager, auditor and engineer, reliability engineer and Six Sigma Black Belt.

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