Lean History

The term "Lean" was coined by John Krafcik, an MIT graduate, in an article he published in 1988. The term then caught on when James Womack and Daniel Jones wrote the book "Lean Thinking". If you look at it this way, Lean history is quite short. But if you actually look at the underlying pillars of Lean, you will find that Lean history goes far back. The great thing about Lean is that it is not a new concept at all. It is just a great way of bringing together some of the greatest ideas and successes from the history of mass manufacturing. Lean uses many old tools and concepts along with some new ones to help companies remove waste from their processes.

Lean was first known as Lean Manufacturing as it was very much confined to large manufacturing companies when it first got its name. But since the early 2000s, the "manufacturing" part of the name has pretty much been dropped. This is because Lean is now used in all kinds of industries whether it be large manufacturing, small manufacturing, logistics, customer service, hotels, financial institutions, and many others.

Lean history can take us back to the late 1700s when perhaps one of the oldest concepts of Lean was born. Eli Whitney started the concept of standardized parts to mass produce guns. Today, we take standardized parts for granted. But imagine if this was not the case. How long would it take to build one computer? If there are no standardized parts, then the computer and all its parts will have to be built from scratch under one roof. That would take ages! You would not be able to have multiple suppliers send you the different components of a computer and expect them all to fit together if parts are not standardized. Also, if one of the keys on your keyboard fell off, what would you do? You would have to buy a whole new computer! So we have to be thankful to Mr. Whitney for his genius! He did create Lean history indeed.

Most Lean developments, however, took place in the 1900s. Most of these developments came from Japan and the United States. You guessed it! Cars! The assembly line started by Henry Ford when he started mass manufacturing Ford cars got the ball rolling for Lean concepts. After World War II, Toyota in Japan started building cars. With this competition, each country tried to outdo the other with ideas for better efficiency and lower cost while ensuring quality in the manufacture of cars. Towards the end, it was the Japanese who were winning out and seemed to have found the code to produce top quality cars for very low prices.

Toyota's ideas and successes have contributed greatly to the foundations of Lean. For many people, Lean is just a modification of the Toyota Production System. The Toyota Production System was essentially fathered by Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo. Some basic Lean tools such as kanban (which ironically Ohno conceptualized after seeing how American supermarkets operate), quick changeover, one piece flow, and zero inventory were born due to the innovation and creativity that Ohno and Shingo encouraged at Toyota. The principle of the 7 wastes were also conceptualized at Toyota. With a slight modification to this, we have the 8 wastes in Lean today.

By the mid 1990s, Lean Manufacturing was a common term in all car manufacturing plants. By the new millennium, Lean gained huge popularity and many manufacturing companies had implemented (or tried to implement) Lean at their site. By 2003, even non-manufacturing companies got into the action as they realized that they could inherently increase efficiency if they treated their processes like a manufacturing process.

Today, Lean or at least some its most popular concepts are used in all types of industries. Lean history has come a long way to bring us here.

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