Where Did Lean Manufacturing Really Begin?

toyota on top of a mountainLean manufacturing is having an identity crisis.

When we trace the history of lean production principles, there are a few tenets that come to mind, such as just-in-time, pull, flow, respect for workers, mistake-proofing, and continuous improvement. These principles result in tangible benefits like decreased waste, greater profitability, increased productivity, and a greater number of on-time deliveries. Distefano’s Rex Woods explains some of these insights into the benefits of lean in a video that we created a while back, found here.

Traditionally, lean manufacturing is associated with Japanese production. According to Lean Manufacturing Tools, though, the principles of reducing waste and continuous flow processing weren’t new by any means: King Henry III watched the hourly production of Galley ships in 1574 through continuous flow processing, and Eli Whitney used ideas of just-in-time to manufacture muskets at the end of the 18th century.

Today, the Toyota Production System is known for its translation of these principles into a simple series of innovations that really transitioned the ways we think about continuity and process flow today. “This system in essence shifted the focus of the manufacturing engineer from individual machines and their utilization, to the flow of the product through the total process. Toyota concluded that by right-sizing machines for the actual volume needed, introducing self-monitoring machines to ensure quality, lining the machines up in process sequence, and having each process notify the current step of its needs for materials, it would be possible to obtain low cost, high variety, high quality, and very rapid throughput times to respond to changing customer desires,” explains the Lean Enterprise Institute.

Finally, in Lean Thinking by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones (1996), these ideas were distilled down to five principles that we at Distefano still operate under today:

  • Specify the value desired by the customer.
  • Identify the value stream for each product, provide the value, and challenge all of the wasted steps (generally nine out of ten) currently necessary to provide it.
  • Make the product flow continuously through the remaining value-added steps.
  • Introduce pull between all steps where continuous flow is possible.
  • Manage toward perfection so that the number of steps and the amount of time and information needed to serve the customer continually falls.

So, there you have it: The “roots” of lean processes. However, a recent re-release of a book on British car manufacturing methods at Morris Motors, one of the largest British automobile companies in the 1920s and 1930s, says that England’s position in the evolution of lean is highly underrated. According to Lean Six Sigma Training Ltd., the original 1954 book by Frank G. Woollard called Principles of Mass and Flow Production explores how lean manufacturing was introduced with immediate results at Morris’s Gosford Street factory in Coventry, England, in 1923.

Between 1923 and 1924, production increased from 300 engines per week to 1200 engines per week, while reducing manpower and energy costs by 50%: “Lean production and the associated increase in productivity and quality continued for over a decade until the start of World War 2 when the ‘lean culture’ was halted for the ‘mass-production’ methods required by the government for military planes and tanks. After the war a change in British culture and decades of socialist-leaning governments favouring strong Labour Unions put an end to this Golden-Age of British car manufacturing. It has taken British manufacturing over 60 years to recover back to its Lean roots of 1935!”

It’s really quite a fascinating tale. Whether or not you care if lean manufacturing came from England or Japan, the moral of the story is that these principles have been working as long as factories have, increasing production while reducing cost and manpower. It’s not just a fad, but truly a way to think about production that is good for both the customer and for the manufacturer.

For more blog posts on lean, check out 3 ways to go lean in your own business or 5 great resources for lean manufacturing!

photo credit: Joe’s luxoclimber and Joe’s scowl via photopin (license)

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