Giving Credit To The Precursors Of The Lean Movement

There is a famous saying that there is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. Fittingly, we don’t know who said it first, and Quote Investigator found it attributed in various forms to seven different authors. One of them, Harry Truman, had the idea of helping Europe rebuild after World War II but credited George C. Marshall with the plan, and it helped make it pass through congress. However, others who live by their wits as discoverers, inventors, or authors, cannot be so magnanimous, because their intellectual property is their livelihood.

In a blog post from yesterday, Bob Emiliani said “We owe a debt of gratitude to the MIT researchers who introduced the world to Lean, led in part by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones. Their work changed lives in important ways, ranging from developing a stronger, more insightful intellect, useful in all facets of life, to embarking on challenging new careers and improving processes in a wide range of industries.”

It’s a fact that The Machine That Changed The World introduced the word “Lean,” but not the content it covered. I think we do owe a debt of gratitude to researchers like Robert E. Cole for Work, Mobility, and Participation (1979), Richard Schonberger for Japanese Manufacturing Techniques (1982), Robert Hall for Zero Inventories (1983), Kiyo Suzaki for The New Manufacturing Challenge (1987), and Norman Bodek for organizing the translation of many Japanese classics on the subject during that same period at Productivity Press, particularly from Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo.

When Womack and Jones’s book came out in 1991, efforts to adapt TPS in a variety of countries and industries had been underway for a decade, and  I thought their book was a good overview of the field as a spectator sport. It could raise awareness, but you couldn’t learn how to do anything from it. The book’s most enduring legacy, for better or worse, is the “Lean” label, but the people inspired by it were the second generation  to learn from TPS, not the first.

As explained in this blog’s About the author page, I spent the early 1980s making my bones in Manufacturing and, by 1991, had already been consulting on fixing factories for four years with Kei Abe, in auto parts, surgical implants, detergents, and frozen foods. Over the years, I have met a few Americans and Europeans who have been involved with the subject for as long or longer than I have. In the US, I am thinking of Auburn University Prof. J.T. Black; in Europe, of Institut Lean France founder Gilbert Liégeois and Alois Pöttinger Technical Director Klaus Pöttinger, both of whom were influenced by factory visits in Japan in 1980.

Following is a list of books that, that I studied at the time and that all predate The Machine That Change The World:

General on Lean 

Suzaki’s book, like the other introductory texts, describes the operations of factories practicing JIT/lean production, but not how to convert a traditional plant. It describes the destination but not the way to get there. This is appropriate for readers who are new to the subject, and Suzaki writes well enough to retain a manager’s attention during air travel.

This book covers much of the same ground as Suzaki’s and is a suitable alternative. It does, however, suffer from two drawbacks. First, having been written by a group, it lacks a strong authorial voice. Second, it is a translation, and the English is in places awkward and unclear. As a result, it is both less entertaining and more difficult to understand.

  • Zero Inventories, Robert W. Hall, Dow Jones Irwin, Homewood, IL,
    ISBN 0-870940461-4 (1983)

While the above two books were written by consultants, this one is the work of a professor of Operations Management at Indiana University. Hall’s book is longer, more detailed, and more technical. You would not typically read it cover to cover but rather use it as a reference. The title is a bit misleading: JIT/lean production is done with low inventories, but the level is not zero.

On implementation strategy and tactics

In the 2/92 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Robert Shaffer wrote an article entitled “Successful change programs begin with results.” This title is a thumbnail summary of the author’s philosophy. In the book, he explains the difference between results-driven and activity-centered programs, the role of pilot projects and the means of expanding the scope of change to encompass the entire organization.

The only reason not to give this book the maximum four-wrench rating is that it is not specifically about lean manufacturing. In addition, while his criticism of activity-centered programs is valid, there are parts of lean manufacturing, such as 5S and TPM, that cannot be implemented any other way.

  • Kaizen,
    Masaaki Imai, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY, ISBN 0-07-554332-X,

This book is mostly of historical interest. It introduced the word “kaizen” into the English language, with the meaning of continuous, incremental improvement, but it is otherwise dated both in content and in tone, systematically opposing Japanese to “Westerners,” with the universal conclusion that everything Japanese is better.

On setup time reduction

On organization and people

Although based on research conducted in the 1970’s, this book remains the most valuable reference we have found on personnel practices within the Toyota production system. It contains a detailed analysis of operator evaluation and career pathing at Toyota Auto Body, along with case studies of improvement projects. What keeps you turning the pages in Cole’s book is his sober, critical look at the subject, which is a welcome relief from the cheerleading tone of most business bestsellers.

On 5S, TPM, and Visual Management

  • Training for TPM, Edited by Nachi-Fujikoshi Corporation, Productivity
    Press, Cambridge, MA, ISBN 0-915299-34-8 (1990)

On Quality

“Pokayoke,” or mistake-proofing production processes through small equipment retrofits, is the most innovative concept in quality of the past 20 years. Where, as is the case is most mechanical and electronics assembly operations, most defects are caused by human error, pokayoke can get your reject rate from 0.5% to 20 ppm.
This book contains little theory but 240 actual examples from a variety of Japanese factories. It’s not a book you read cover to cover. You can search is multiple indexes for an example relevant to a problem you are trying to solve, or you pick it up when you have a few minutes of spare time and read through a few examples. Its only limitation is a focus on conventional equipment. There is nothing about mistake-proofing computer-controlled systems.

Shigeo Shingo will be remembered as the inventor both of quick changeover methods (SMED) and mistake-proofing (Poka-Yoke). This book is useful mostly for the examples of Poka-Yoke. It also contains a classification of inspection activities in which the best kind is called “source inspection,” and is synonymous with mistake-proofing. It starts in a more philosophical tone, with comments that are guaranteed to make statistically trained quality professionals bristle.

Shingo clearly thinks that mistake-proofing is superior to statistical methods, but fails to specify the conditions for this to be true. Our view is that the applicable tools for quality improvement depend on what the quality problems are. If they are primarily human error, then mistake-proofing will work. On the other hand, if they are due to insufficient process capabilities, then process characterization through statistical design of experiments will be much more help than mistake-proofing.


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