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Key Figures in the History of Lean

Jun 24, 2020 | Smart Manufacturing

Many people have heard of the term Lean or Lean Manufacturing.  But how  many know it’s history or where it came from?  The philosophy, as we  know it today, has been evolving over the last 150 years or so, with  many people having some impact and influence on shaping it.  Let me take  some time to get you acquainted with some of the bigger players and  influencers of Lean.

Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney is perhaps best known as the inventor of the Cotton Gin, a  machine designed to remove the seeds from cotton.  He patented this  machine in 1794.  However, his contribution to Lean had more to do with  the expansive use of interchangeable parts.  This is important as  interchangeable, or identical parts could be produced and inserted into  an assembly without custom fitting or craft work.  This is important as  he was supplying muskets to the government and they needed a way to  replace worn parts quickly and easily.  While he did not invent this  idea, he did have a major role in popularizing and promoting the  concept.


Fredrick Taylor

Flash forward about 100 years and the name Fredrick Taylor comes up.   Taylor focused his work heavily on individual workers and their methods  of performing work.  According to the Stevens Institute of Technology,  Taylor “pioneered the application of engineering principles to shop  management in the movement that came to be known as scientific  management.” He also performed many time studies in the pursuit of  creating and maintaining standardized work.


Frank and Lillian Gilbreth

Not so long after Taylor’s work came a significant expansion of the work  he started with the husband and wife team of Frank and Lillian  Gilbreth.  They both took the ideas of time studies and standardized  work a bit further.  They especially focused on eliminating the  non-value added portion of work to reduce employee fatigue and improve  productivity.  Their initial efforts focused on the assembling and  disassembling small arms around the time of World War I.  They broke  most hand motions into 17 basic elements.  They also warned of the  dangers of repetitive motion injuries and are credited with the  establishment of ergonomics.  They believed for every work activity this  should be only one standard method of performing it.


Henry Ford

Henry Ford took much of what had been done and created perhaps the first  Manufacturing Strategy.  He focused on what he considered the four  basic elements of manufacturing – people, machines, tooling and  materials or products.  He believed they can all work together in a  sequence of constant motion to create a continuous flow.  We know this  today as the modern assembly line.


Taiichi Ohno

Taiichi Ohno in Japan in the post-war expanded further on Henry Ford’s  assembly line thought. Ohno focused heavily on the impact of inventory,  both work-in-process and finished goods, on the business. Ohno believed  eliminating or reducing inventory, anywhere, would make a business much  stronger and more nimble. Ohno also believed workers at all levels,  especially the ones performing the work, were in the best position to  offer improvement ideas and as such created methods to capture and  pursue those ideas. He fathered the idea of Cellular Manufacturing which  is basically a mini-assembly line where raw material goes in and a  finished product comes out, usually with continuous flow and very  little, if any, inventory between stations. Ohno is widely credited with  the Toyota Production System. This system is largely used as the gold  standard of the application of Lean in an organization.


Shigeo Shingo

Shigeo Shingo worked with Taiichi Ohno at Toyota.  Shingo’s primary  focus was on set up and changeovers on the machines in the Toyota  factory.  He believed quicker changeovers was a way to reduce inventory  to allow machines to make smaller and smaller batches of products.  This  reduction would ideally reduce to making one of anything to virtually  eliminate inventory between processes.  He focused heavily on reducing  the need for tools, creating center-lines inside machines, standardizing  tooling inside machines and utilizing quick connect/disconnect devices  whenever possible.


Edward Deming

Edward Deming also contributed to Lean as we know it today.  One of  Deming’s focus area was around sampling and statistical process  control.  Instead of inspecting every part, which in some cases is  impossible, a structured sampling plan of a batch of product could  provide an adequate confidence level of the entire batch.  He also  pioneered the use of Statistical Process Control (SPC) to measure  certain process parameters to ensure the quality of the product it was  creating.  Deming spent much time in Japan perfecting these concepts and  eventually brought them back to the US.  Another of Deming’s efforts  was formalizing the PDCA or Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.


James Womack

James Womack put much of this together in his book “The Machine That  Changed The World”.  In this book, Womack espoused on the past and  future of automobiles.  He highlighted much of the Toyota Production  System perfected by Taiichi Ohno and is credited in coining the phrase  Lean Manufacturing as a way of describing what Toyota was doing.

No single person, company, or country is singlehandedly responsible  for what Lean is today.  Some of the most basic elements each person  listed are still fundamental cornerstones of Lean.  They all took an  idea, understood it and then took it to another level which only  complemented the previous work. 

Clearly, there are many other people in the past, present and future  who have and will continue to shape what Lean is and will be.  This only  makes sense as Lean is a continuous journey for an organization so it  should be a continuous journey of what Lean is.





Original Article by MAMTC/ Joe Torrago / 2017 

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