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.