The History and Simplicity of Lean Process Improvement

Brian Hunt.
Posted: 07/01/2009

Lean production is currently being promoted as a Japanese approach to speed, simplifying and optimizing business processes in every conceivable area from manufacturing cars to treating patients.

However, many of the ideas behind Lean manufacturing can be traced back 100 years to the production lines of Henry Ford, and even earlier.

Origins of Lean Process

During the reign of the first Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (221 BC), standardization, a key aspect of Lean, was used to manufacture crossbows with standardized parts that could be quickly replaced in battle. In the 1500s it is claimed that the Venetian Arsenal was able to produce one galley a day by using assembly line principles and a workforce of up to 16,000. Other examples of early mass production include the mass printing of books starting in the 1400s using Gutenberg's printing press.

Henry Ford’s vision was to "build a car for the great multitude." The electrification of previously steam driven machinery together with new management and production techniques enabled him to take 20th century mass production to a new level and to produce a Model T in only 93 minutes.1 Offering high wages, Ford attracted some of the best and most innovative mechanics, some of whom conceived and developed the moving assembly line. Ford’s approach to mass production was developed further by his vice president, Charlie Sorensen, for the World War II manufacturer of B 24 Liberator bombers. Their manufacture was significantly more complex than producing cars and required the design of a new manufacturing system and plant. Sorensen's design increased the production rate from one a day to one an hour. Ford’s approach had a strong influence on Taichi Ohno, founder of the Toyota Production System, who in the 1950s provided all Toyota engineers with a copy of Ford’s book, Today and Tomorrow, originally published in 1926 and republished in 2003.

Ford's management approach was influenced by FW Taylor's theory of Scientific Management, published in 1911. This theory, often referred to as Taylorism, is still applied in many organizations today. Its foundation is "every action of the worker is pre-planned and directed by the manager." Workers or "directed labor" are there as human machines, paid to do and not to think. Any production line worker can tell you what a soul-destroying and inefficient way of working that is. Although Scientific Management allowed Ford to increases productivity so that his Model T was within the reach of the average man, this production system could not survive against later competition from Japanese manufacturing.

Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic was quoted by Labovitz as follows: "We will win and you will lose, because your firms are built on the Taylor model. Even worse, so are your heads. With your bosses doing the thinking, while the workers wield the screwdrivers, you’re convinced deep down that this is the way to run a business. . . We are beyond the Taylor model. Business, we know, is now so complex and difficult, the survival of the firm so hazardous in an environment increasingly unpredictable, competitive and fraught with danger, that its continued existence depends on the mobilisation of every ounce of intelligence."2

As Japanese manufacturers took over an increasing share of U.S. markets, Toyota's development of Ford's Production System enabled them to produce better, more innovative and cheaper cars than their U.S. competitors. However, when Ford executives visited Toyota in 1982 to find out how they managed this, they were told that they had learned it from Ford!3 Japanese manufacturing was investigated in the 1980 NBC documentary If Japan Can... Why Can't We?, which highlighted the work of W. E. Deming, an American quality systems guru who had been helping Japanese industry rebuild after the war. This documentary was a key stimulus for the modern quality and process improvement movement. This was accompanied by an avalanche of books, training courses and consultants who repackaged and resold Japanese methods, some of which originated with Ford, back to the West.

Six Sigma, with its martial arts based hierarchy of colored belts, was one of these repackages. I believe that it is elitist and echoes Taylorism. Newly trained belts may know the language and jargon of Six Sigma but not have the understanding of a person who operates a process during their working day. The "directed labor" knows how the process works or doesn't, and has the knowledge that could be used to improve it. But in too many organizations these people don't have a voice. This is why Six Sigma often fails. Lean, if implemented with jargon, elitism and too narrow a focus (e.g. by focusing on using tools rather than solving problems), will also fail.

Sometimes it seems that consultants don't really understand what they are doing and cause more harm than good by doing change to, rather than with, the workforce. One recent example of this is a report of the 2007 lean production pilot at an office of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs in North Tyneside, U.K., where staff had their desks marked out with tape to indicate where their pens, staplers, telephones and other office equipment should be placed.4 Why the consultancy did this is unclear. The workforce were not impressed, one saying, "They come in and say how you should have your phone, rubber, stapler and so on. They work out what's best so you don't have to stretch too far for them. They're trying to turn people into robots." This is obviously not process improvement!

Lean Process Implementation Does Not Need to Be Complicated

That Lean implementation does not require expensive training and technology is demonstrated by the 5,000 self employed Dabbawallahs of Mumbai.5 Although about 85 percent are illiterate and the remaining 15 percent only educated up to eighth grade, teamwork and simple management systems mean that they consistently achieve Six Sigma performance in delivering 200,000 meals a day without error.

Lean production has to be simple and pragmatic. Daft approaches like marking desks out with tape waste people's time and intellect. The fundamental requirement of Lean is to identify wasted resources. In my own process improvement projects, I promote the term WOMBAT for Waste Of Money, Brains And Time, and not Muda, the Japanese classification of seven types of waste. WOMBAT is easier to remember than Muda, and thus more useful in providing opportunities for waste reduction. Taking Japanese terms and dropping them into an English speaking environment can create unnecessary barriers to understanding. The simpler the language used, the greater clarity and power of communication. Simple language and methods allow faster training and more people to be involved. All employees can be effectively trained on the following five techniques in a morning.

Lean Process Mapping

Mapping a process helps to achieve a shared understanding of how it works and can work better. A process map is produced by writing each process step on post-it notes and then arranging them on wall mounted paper. This simple technique quickly shows duplicated, unnecessary and missed steps. The post-it notes are removed or relocated as the process is improved. Each stage of development can be captured using a digital camera. These maps can also be turned into value maps by arranging the post-it notes above or below a line to indicate + "value adding" or – "value taking" stages.

5 Whys

"5 Whys" is a simple technique to get to the root of a problem. In practice, asking the question three times will be sufficient. Asking naive questions can challenge assumptions and uncover how much people really know about a process and what it has to do.


This dates from Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Elephant's Child" (published 1902) which opens with:

I have six honest serving men
They taught me all I knew
I call them What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who

Most process review and improvement can be based on this set of questions alone.

Tally Charts or Check Sheets

These are a simple but powerful to graphically show information as it is collected. They can be implemented quickly to record categories of manufacturing defects, help desk calls or any other requirement for immediate data collection.

Pareto Principle

Also known as the 80:20 rule, this is the statistical relationship that shows how roughly 80 percent of the effects are due to 20 percent of the causes. For example, 80 percent of the calls to a help desk will be about 20 percent of the total problems list. Focusing problem solving on these 20 percent will remove 80 percent of the call volume.


Whatever Lean tools you use, the most important thing to remember is to use them pragmatically to reduce waste, not create it. So please don't mark out where people should put their pens and staplers!

Taichi Ohno defined Lean as, "All we are doing is looking at the timeline from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing that timeline by removing the non-value-added waste."6

It's all very simple really!

1 The Electric Shock: Electric Cars Pre-Date the Civil War
2 Labovitz, G., Rosansky, V. & Chang, Y. S. (1993)
Making Quality Work: A Leadership Guide for the
Results-driven Manager (New York, Harper Business).
3 Johnson, T. & Broms, A. (2000)
Profit Beyond Measure (London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing)
4 The Tale of The Tape at
6 Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-scale Production by Taiichi Ohno (1988)

Brian Hunt.
Posted: 07/01/2009

In This Resource Center


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Contributor: Hisham Sabry
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