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Ford and Toyota Celebrate Historic Milestones Assembly Magazine (blog) However, the just-in-time concept was not fully realized at Toyota until 1954, when the supermarket supply method—the idea of having subsequent processes take what they need…

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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.

How well do we know the history of Lean?

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the hero’s nemesis is an academic  who constantly lectures on historical details that he often gets wrong. Introductions to Lean, nowadays, often include a section on history, but no source is quoted, there are many inconsistencies with otherwise known facts, and some of the interpretations are confusing.

Manufacturing practices are like life forms. Some appear and go extinct, while others endure forever. Some 2-billion-year old fossils on the shore of Lake Superior match living organisms in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef today. Likewise, some of the oldest ideas on making things are still practiced today. Knowing who developed what techniques when and why is not just about giving credit. Not only does it occasionally make us rediscover a lost art, like TWI, but it also helps us understand its current relevance.

Getting the timeline right matters because of causality; causality, because it explains motivation; motivation, because it determines current relevance. People invent solutions because they have problems. If we are still facing the same problems, we can adopt or adapt their solutions. The people of Toyota found solutions to overcome crises throughout the life of the company, which eventually coalesced into a system, as explained by Takahiro Fujimoto. Their techniques are easiest to understand within their historical context.

The history of manufacturing is poorly documented. We know the exact wording of speeches made by Cicero in the Roman senate in 63 BCE, but we don’t know how the Romans made standard swords, spears,  helmets, and other weapons to sustain hundreds of thousands of legionnaires in the field (See Figure 1). Documenting how things were made has never been a priority of historians, and they rarely have the technical knowledge needed.

Figure 1. Cicero and a Roman soldier

Official histories are not to be trusted. School children throughout the world sit through classes where they hear an official account of history intended to create shared narratives. With titles like “Call to freedom,” the manuals make no pretense at objectivity (See Figure 2). In business, it is even worse: official histories are spun by the Public Relations departments of the companies that became dominant in their markets.

Figure 2. Cover of an 8th grade history textbook from the US

The real stories are found in the products, facilities, and documents left over from operations. Jim Womack can still visit today the hall where Venetians assembled galleys 500 years ago.  Examining  sewing machines at the Smithsonian, David Hounshell noticed that  Singer stopped engraving machine serial numbers on parts around 1880, from which he deduces that they mastered interchangeable parts at that time. From memoirs, memos, drawings, specs, photographs and movies we can also infer the methods that were used and the conflicts that took place.

Most of us cannot do this research; we rely on professional historians. They quote their  sources, infer cautiously from the facts, and don’t attempt to answer all questions. By contrast, white belts at history produce glib narratives, make up dialogs among historical figures, and presume to know their inner thoughts. As readers, we should tell the difference.

Did Sakichi Toyoda visit Ford in 1911? Several of the historical notes on Lean claim that he did, but there is no mention of such a visit in  Mass and Robertson’s essay on the life of Sakichi Toyoda. According to their account, Sakichi Toyoda did visit the US and the UK in 1910, to see textile plants and apply for patents, and was back in Japan by January, 1911. Even if he did come in 1911, we may wonder what he might have been impressed with, considering that the first assembly line didn’t start until two years later.

Some of these accounts also state that Sakichi Toyoda invented an automatic loom in 1902. According to other accounts, his work at that time was on narrow steam-powered looms, and his first successful automatic loom  was the Type G in 1924, which included a shuttle-change system developed by his son Kiichiro, who later founded the Toyota car company with the proceeds from the sale of the Type G patent in the UK.

Did Henry Ford invent Lean? Many accounts claim he did. This is puzzling because the term Mass Production was coined specifically to describe the Ford system. If Ford invented Lean, then Lean Manufacturing and Mass Production are the same, and we are wasting our time explaining  how they differ. If Henry Ford invented Lean, then Issac Newton came up with relativity.