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“Lean Production” Turns 25

Chet Marchwinski
11/5/2013

 “Lean Production” Turns 25

Reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the term “lean production” being coined, Jim Womack, founder of the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute, sees the lean movement’s initial emphasis on kaizen events and tools giving way to a focus on strategy deployment.

“That’s what I find exciting about what’s going on now,” said Womack, who just published an expanded second edition to his most recent book Gemba Walks. “There are a lot of people who have really gotten serious in recent times about rigorous strategy deployment.”

That’s significant because strategy deployment “has to start at the top about what the purpose of the organization is and then it’s cascaded down throughout the organization.” Strategy deployment, sometimes called policy deployment or hoshin kanri in Japanese, aligns an organization’s functions and activities vertically and horizontally with its strategic objectives.

Womack, commenting on the Michigan Business Network’s The Leaning Edge program, also discussed the evolution of lean thinking and practice. And he proposed a way to revive the abandoned Highland Park, MI, plant where Henry Ford created the first moving assembly line and the concepts of “flow production” that paved the way for lean business systems.

A New Management System Is Named

Womack also noted that 25 years ago this fall (2013), a team of MIT researchers published an article in Sloan Management Review that first used the term “lean production” to describe groundbreaking findings about business management.

In the fall of 1988, the team, led by Womack, was getting ready to publish an article, authored by researcher John Krafcik, that would describe for the first time the new management system it had observed at Toyota during a global study of auto companies. The team needed a label. During a discussion in Womack’s office, Krafcik suggested “lean” to describe Toyota’s management system.

In a new essay for the just-published second edition of Gemba Walks, Womack and Krafcik, now president and CEO of Hyundai Motors America, describe what they got right and what they got wrong.

“If we got ‘lean’ right, we got ‘production’ wrong,” they write. “When we said production system in 1988, the world heard “factories.” From the start, the researchers knew that lean production was a business system that included product development, supplier management, customer support, and general management of the enterprise as well as manufacturing.

The Krafcik-Womack essay, “Twenty-Five Years of Lean,” and 11 other new ones by Womack are in the expanded second edition of Gemba Walks.

Second Life for the “Temple of Flow”?

In a new essay about Ford’s factory at Highland Park, near Detroit, Womack proposes that it could be refurbished to produce niche vehicles that are cost effective at 50,000 units annually. The 1914 plant doesn’t have the capacity to support modern global auto platforms requiring a million or more vehicles annually.

“I find it interesting that there are a lot of niche type products using new technologies that actually would make a lot of sense in a lower volume smaller site,” Womack told The Leaning Edge.

He called Highland Park “the most important industrial site in the history of the world and it’s been widely ignored.”

Converting the largely empty facility to a working factory would not only restore Henry Ford’s “Temple of Flow” but help one of the poorest areas in the U.S. “It would be a great thing for Detroit, a great thing for American history, and a great thing for the future,” Womack said.

Get thought-leading articles …

Womack has a lot more to say about the state of lean, gemba walks, the real work of management, “lean-shoring,” lean in healthcare, the lean start-up movement, and other important topics. Download sample essays now from the second edition of Gemba Walks.