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.