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Thoughts on the Birth of Lean

by Jean Cunningham
July 31, 2019

Thoughts on the Birth of Lean

by Jean Cunningham
July 31, 2019 | Comments (5)

Recently John Shook recommended that I read The Birth of Lean, a collection of interviews and annotated talks by Taiichi Ohno, Eiji Toyoda, and other people who helped shape Toyota management. It’s the first and only book written with those who actually developed the Toyota Production System (TPS)—the basis of lean—during the 1940s through the 1970s.

I read it, eager to learn what it has to say about the TPS principles and how it can speak to people who are applying lean “beyond manufacturing,” which has been my career focus for the past 27 years. “Beyond manufacturing” includes all the functions and departments that are not directly part of the production of a product such as engineering, accounting, IT, etc. as well as entire non-manufacturing industries.

In just the initial pages a few items struck me:

  • It turns out that TPS wasn’t some big, well thought out program, but evolved by working and experimenting over decades. As Jim Womack notes in his foreword, “the creators of lean had no grand plan and no company-wide program to install it. Instead, they were an army of line-manager experimenters trying to solve pressing business problems, in particular a lack of financial resources, to grow rapidly without accumulating large inventories.” (That sounds a lot like what we are doing outside manufacturing when trying to figure out how to use lean thinking.  Maybe our experiments and discoveries aren’t that different from the early days.)
  • Early on the founders reocgnized the importance of pull processing (i.e. meeting demand) rather than push processing (i.e. make work to keep equipment and people busy).I’ve found that people naturally work that way in the office because you can’t enter an order unless there is an order to enter. You can’t schedule a patient unless there is a patient to schedule. (So maybe lean will naturally make sense in the office.)
  • That lean thinking and TPS have endured beyond the “fad of the day”. (Well, that is a relief.) Indeed, the book included a two-page chart (pages 126-7) detailing nearly five decades of evolutionary change in the development of the TPS methodology. Indeed, TPS and lean may not merely endure, but prevail: as my colleagues Jeff Liker and Jim Morgan have recently noted, Toyota’s 2015 announcement of TNGA represents what can be seen as a renewal and reinvention of TPS itself. Some are calling this “TPS 2.0,” since it represents Toyota’s continued “relentless focus on delivering ever-greater customer value at lower cost through targeted innovation and enterprise collaboration.”
  • The authors acknowledge that TPS was not just about the factory but really a linkage of the entire throughput system. (I look forward to hearing more about this, as that hasn’t been obvious to me in other aspects of Toyota I’ve run into here and there.)

“Some people love to make things complicated. The key is to make things simple.”This Post shares my insights from reading the book, and are offered through my lens of lean beyond manufacturing, with some examples and stories from my time working in manufacturing and coaching in a variety of industries.

If you want to read along with me, you can order the book here.

Chapter 1: How It All Began: Interview with Taiichi Ohno

This chapter helps one to see how these ideas meld beyond manufacturing. It turns out that everything applies. A few highlights:

  1. Do work right the first time. Don’t pass along defects. Think of the downstream as a customer.
  2. Know the difference between quick fixes versus solutions.
  3. If you cannot stop the “line”, then highlight the problem and promote kaizen.
  4. Multiskilling allows moving people to the work; especially work that has unequal demand. If you consider Ohno’s career, it’s a perfect example of the long-term value in moving people around.
  5. Standardized work is a framework for kaizen improvements. People are not doing their job if they leave standardized work unchanged for a month.

Chapter 2: What I Learned from Taiichi Ohno

This chapter details lessons that executive Michikazu Tanaka learned from working with Taiichi Ohno, and strongly reinforces Ohno-san’s core belief in the value of the worker and the power of the gemba.

There is much to learn and use beyond manufacturing in this chapter: The importance of being able to tell who is ahead or behind schedule. That if people are working hard, but not improving the work, this is wrong. Don’t value sweat over improvements. Regarding automation, improve the work before automating and only automate if it makes additional improvement. Be wary of automation that strips the ability to fluctuate work to demand for work. 

This chapter is also full of wonderful quotes:

“Some people love to make things complicated. The key is to make things simple.”

“If you do things the same way for 20 years it means you are not making progress.”

“Ohno-san never rendered judgment simply on the basis of hearing about something. He always insisted on going to the place in question and having a look.”

Chapter 3: Putting a Pull System in Place at Toyota

This chapter is based on the experiences of Kikuo Suzumura and explores the evolution of production Kanban at Toyota, based on the problems to be solved at the time. The chapter is an “Ohno-san never rendered judgment simply on the basis of hearing about something. He always insisted on going to the place in question and having a look.”amazing example of the importance kanban had for flow, and, given the amount of historical detail provided, unfortunately it is not easy to see the direct relationship to the office in these examples.

Also, the focus on process in this chapter leaves little room to explore the topic of respect for people. But it does help with understanding why it is so much better to use and refine (PDCA) manual processes prior to automation. And then, to only automate if it actually solves a problem that would be harder to solve manually. That is a very important message for lean beyond the factory.

Chapter 4: The Evolution of Buffering at Toyota

This chapter is based on talks with Kaneyoshi Kusunoki, whose career was mainly in production engineering and control. In it we learn how Toyota learned to deal with elements of the system that were not in complete flow. These problems exist in the office frequently, so much is relevant in this chapter. The first line is ‘practice trumps theory’. This assertion that “Trial and error is what it’s all about” represents a basic shift away from traditional management.  Kusunoki does, however, urge you to study something if you do not understand it. Don’t just follow direction. 

This chapter made me think of how sales orders are often pushed into production, rather than pulled. A swimming pool cover company I am familiar with has done a great job using buffers to even out flow and make backlog or gaps obvious.

I was also pleased to see his calculations on developing kanban in circulation to be exactly what I describe in Easier, Simpler Faster.

Also, he makes the point that when you have smaller batches, lead time is shorter. Oh yes! And completely relevant in the office. Do one at a time. When cash is short, speed flow through your system! Ah, the lean business model.

Oh and by the way, John Shook has written a nice piece sharing his thoughts on this chapter. And another that shares many quotes from this text

Chapter 5: Total Quality Control and the Toyota Production System

“If you do things the same way for 20 years it means you are not making progress.”This chapter is based on a talk by Masao Nemoto, who shares his views on the importance of TQC as a companion to TPS. For me it also, emphasized the importance of building quality and value in during the initial design stages, which is the promise of Lean Product and Process Development, a topic explored in depth in the Liker-Morgan book Designing the Future.

Related to the office, we too need to develop supplier relationships at the earliest stages, just as in the factory. 

Nemoto-san also reminds us that looking at quality from an internal perspective is not enough. We must live the experience from the customer point of view. How true for internal functions like Accounting, HR and IS! We too need to deeply understand our internal customer experience. 

So much to learn in this longer chapter!

Chapter 6: The Guiding Management Perspective

This final chapter is two interviews with Eiji Toyoda, the revered former chairman of Toyota Motor Corp. during the first six decades in the automotive business. He oversaw the Toyota Production System from a management perspective. 

The entire chapter is interesting, but these points struck me in particular:

  • His start was in the department that was to just go everywhere (not just production!!) and fix things. To me this reinforces my belief that when we move people around the organization, they learn the most. “I became familiar with nearly all the work that the company was doing.”
  • He mentioned that when he visited US (Ford and GM) there was lots of talking, not showing. So he felt he could not learn that way. Go see.
  • You can only learn technology (used in the broadest sense) by doing it yourself. Mastery happens you fail and learn why. And when you succeed, you learn why. To me, this is the heart of PDCA.

Everything in this chapter applies in every type and part of an organization.  

I’d like to thank John Shook for encouraging me to read this book. I hope you will find as much value and insight in this as I did; and encourage you to read this and discuss the ideas with your colleagues. Please share any thoughts in the comments below.

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Bob Emiliani July 31, 2019

RE: "TPS and lean may not merely endure, but prevail." TPS is unique to Toyota and may endure, but endurance is not a right; it must be earned. Lean, being the popular version of TPS, fights a different battle -- to displace the ubiquitous classical management. For Lean management to endure, let alone prevail, Lean practitioners must better understand classical management and its long-lived (and resilient) institution of leadership. Knowledge of this should result in better plans and more widespread favorable outcomes. Please see https://bobemiliani.com/understanding-the-institution-of-leadership/">https://bobemiliani.com/understanding-the-institution-of-leadership/

Reply »

Wei Lit, Teoh August 04, 2019

I read Bob E's latest book on Classical vs Lean Management. As a senior member of technical staff in an MNC's Singapore site, I couldn't agree more observing my home ground.

Whether our ongoing Lean Transformation will succeed or not, depends on how well we understand Classical Management, in our own context, and apply the necessary countermeasures as we go along.

Toyota's a real good example of what could be. Us Lean practitioners know the objective benefits. But first we have to take the blinders and earplugs of the heart and mind off our leaders...

Reply »

Tom Richert August 06, 2019

The Birth of Lean is worth many times the investment of time spent reading the book. It's important to understand the history of lean if we want to fully employ it's lessons for how we work. I'm grateful that the post also revealed John Shook's 2013 "Related Post" regarding Charles Francis - a piece of history I hadn't known about.

As the post about Francis helps make plain, much important history regarding lean pre-dates Ohno, and it is this history that provided the conditions for TPS. Other helpful books include Inside the Mind of Toyota, by Satoshi Hino and Against All Odds, by Yukiyasu Togo. The first portions of each book provide important background into the Toyoda family and the shared identity and purpose they deliberately created for their companies. My own sense is that the birth of lean might be more properly dated from 1890, the year Sakichi Toyoda invented his first loom and coincidentally 100 years before the publication of The Machine that Changed the World.

There are two additional books to be read. The Soil, by Takashi Nagatsuka, provides a presumably accurate portrayal of the agricultural world into which Sakichi Toyoda was born. I suspect he saw technology and industry as a form of liberation for the agrarian population oppressed by the Shogun rulers up through teh Meiji Restoration. Naomi, by Junichiro Tanizaki, provides a metaphorical portrayal of the social struggles of a culture divided on the integration of western ideas into Japanese culture. Both books help the reader understand the contextual background in which the ideas that seeded TPS originated.

I'm sure there is much more of this history I have yet to uncover, and look forward to what other Post readers can add. 

Reply »

Bob Emiliani August 06, 2019

As a historian of progressive management, it is more important at this time to understand the history of classical management. While the ideas that led to TPS are certainly interesting and worthy of study, the antagonist in this story, (classical management) can no longer be ignored. 

Reply »

Alex SHARP August 15, 2019

Thank you for this. Im interested to know how much Dr Deming is mentioned in the book? His contribution to lean seems to be routinely overlooked?

Reply »

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By Koichi Shimokawa and Takahiro Fujimoto (Editors)
July 12, 2019 | 2 Comments
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