Finding local roots for Lean – Everywhere

Lean is from Japan, and even more specifically from one Japanese company. Outside of Japan, however,  the foreign origin of the concepts impedes their acceptance. In every country where I’ve been active, I have found the ability to link Lean to local founders a critical advantage. The people whose support you need would like to think that Lean was essentially “invented here,” and that foreigners at best added minor details. Identifying local ancestors in a country’s intellectual tradition takes some research, and then you may need to err on the side of giving more credit than is due.

Feeder line at Ford

In the US, using the word “Lean” rather than TPS is already a means of making it less foreign, and it is not difficult to paint Lean as a continuation of US developments from the 19th and 20th century, ranging from interchangeable parts technology to TWI. Ford’s system is a direct ancestor to Lean, as acknowledged by Toyota. On this basis, the American literature on Lean has gradually been drifting towards attributing Lean to Henry Ford. Fact checkers disagree, but it makes many Americans feel better.

Elsewhere, it is not as obvious to find a filiation. Following are a few examples of what I found:

  • Russia has Alexei Gastev, who started an industrial engineering institute in Moscow in 1920, was shot by Stalin in 1939 and largely forgotten afterwards, but our OrgProm colleagues have now named a prize after him, that is given to Russian companies for excellence in manufacturing. It was awarded for the first time in 2011. Here are, from 1924, Gastev’s 9 steps to automate a riveting operation:

Gastev’s 9 steps to automated riveting

  • Poland has Karol Adamiecki, whose “harmonogram” is the same as a Gantt chart, and was invented independently and a few years earlier. If you google “harmonogram,” you get pictures of Gantt charts. I am sure there must be some differences between the two, however minor, but I can’t tell what they are.
  • Italians can connect Lean to the shipyard in which Venetians assembled galleys in the Renaissance. Jim Womack identified it as a early flow line. As he wrote in Walking Through Lean History:

“…  Dan Jones visited the Arsenal in Venice, established in 1104 to build war ships for the Venetian Navy. Over time the Venetians adopted a standardized design for the hundreds of galleys built each year to campaign in the Mediterranean and also pioneered the use of interchangeable parts. This made it possible to assemble galleys along a narrow channel running through the Arsenal. The hull was completed first and then flowed past the assembly point for each item needed to complete the ship. By 1574 the Arsenal’s practices were so advanced that King Henry III of France was invited to watch the construction of a complete galley in continuous flow, going from start to finish in less than an hour.”

Galley assembly hall in Venice

Britain, as the Olympic opening ceremonies reminded us, was home to the industrial revolution. In terms of worldwide share of market for manufactured goods, however, Britain peaked about 1870, and the thinkers that come to mind about British manufacturing are economists like Adam Smith or David Ricardo, whose theories were based on observations of early manufacturing practices, but whose contributions were not on the specifics of plant design or operations. They are too remote to be linked in any way to Lean.

For France, I have asked everybody I know there for nominations but have yet to receive any. The French have invented many products and processes, but I have not been able to identify French pioneers in production systems who could provide a link to Lean. And there are many other countries where the search may be fruitless.

Even though people in China and India have been making things for thousands of years,I don’t know any names of local forerunners of Lean in these countries. China has only emerged as a world-class manufacturing power in the last few decades and I have, unfortunately, never been to India. There are many other countries on which I don’t have this kind of information, and nominations are welcome.

6 comments on “Finding local roots for Lean – Everywhere

  1. Comment in the TPS Only discussion group on LinkedIn:

    “Arsenale Militare Marittimo di Venezia” and mass production in ancient China


    Please refer to Thomas Spornberger’s post in TPS+1 discussion 27 days ago about the root of 4S from ship building in Venice.

    You may find some good reference in Wikipedia about “Mass Production”, there was a reference about cross bow making in China in 400BC “Crossbows made of bronze were mass produced in China during the Warring States Period. The Qin Emperor unified China at least in part by equipping large armies with these weapons, which were equipped with a sophisticated trigger mechanism made of interchangeable parts.”

    And also the mass production of porcelain wares in a town in China, Jingdezhen since 100AC, the earliest mass manufactured commodities that found in many shipwrecks sites.

    But, what is the qualification to be considered Lean?


    • As I hope I made it clear in my post, my point is not to establish historical accuracy but to help manufacturing professionals worldwide accept Lean by connecting it with ideas developed earlier in their own countries.

      I think the Wikipedia article confuses Mass Production with high-volume production and it should be corrected. Mass Production is a term that was specifically invented to describe the Ford production system. Millions of Singer sewing machines made in the 19th century and that is high volume, but it wasn’t mass production because Ford’s methods hadn’t been invented yet.

      The problems with really old examples like Chinese crossbows in 400BC, the weapons of the Roman legions, or even Venetian galleys are (1) that we know so little about them, and (2) that you really can/t invoke them to help implement Lean. I don’t know how far you would get if you told managers in an auto parts plant near Shanghai today that you were proposing to apply methods from 2,400 years ago.

      The ceramics of Jingdezhen are different in that, I believe, they are still being made today. What I heard about them in Japan is that the extraordinary longevity of the industry at that location is due to its supply chain structure, with different businesses for each stage of ceramics production being able to independently expand and contract with changes in the economy, and therefore endure where a vertically integrated company would have, as some point, failed. I thought it a fascinating business case study but I would also find it difficult to bring up as a relevant example in an auto parts plant.

  2. Comment in the TPS Only discussion group on LinkedIn:

    as I understood, reading materials of Gastev and of TWI as well as Deming’s TPS is a combination of good practices collected all over the world and built in Toyota’s culture. That is why there is no one company which have the same Production System. I’m not sure that Toyota’s management used Gastev’s knowledge but I found all key concepts and principles of TPS in Gastev’s books. And, as you know, Gastev’s methods showed much more better results rather than Taylor’s ones in bricklaying. So, for me Russian and American roots of TPS are obvious.

    • As you pointed out, the case of Gastev is different. He lived just a few decades ago, and we have detailed documentation about his ideas in his own writings. I don’t believe they have ever been translated into Japanese, and I don’t think the Toyota people knew about him but invoking his name in a Russian plant today as a Russian precursor of Lean is effective.

  3. Pingback: Finding local roots for #Lean – Everywhere (@mbaudin reblog): What about here and there too? #solutionfocus | Appreciating Systems

  4. Pingback: Lean is from Toyota, not Ford, and not 15th-century Venice boat builders | Michel Baudin's Blog

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