Lean Principles: Definition and Origination

What is Lean?  At its core, it essentially means doing more with less.  Formally speaking (and according to APICS of course), Lean is a systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste (i.e. muda) via continuous improvement (i.e. kaizen) for the purposes of reducing cost and increasing customer value.  The origination of Lean concepts can be traced back to Henry Ford in the early part of the 20th Century.  The following excerpt was taken from Henry Ford’s autobiography My Life and Work:

“There is no manual handling of material.  There is not a single hand operation.  If a machine can be made automatic, it is made automatic.  Not a single operation is ever considered as being done in the best or cheapest way. At that, only about ten percent of our tools are special; the others are regular machines adjusted to the particular job.  And they are placed almost side by side. We put more machinery per square foot of floor space than any other factory in the world–every foot of space not used carries an overhead expense.  We want none of that waste.  Yet there is all the room needed–no man has too much room and no man has too little room.  Dividing and subdividing operations, keeping the work in motion–those are the keynotes of production.  But also it is to be remembered that all the parts are designed so that they can be most easily made.”

In my opinion, this is one of the most illuminating excerpts in the entire book.  Here, in his own words, Henry Ford mentions automation, continuous improvement, design simplification, facility layout optimization, waste elimination, flow manufacturing and component commonality all in one paragraph.  It is remarkable that from this single paragraph the origins of Lean methodology would begin to unfold.  With this ideology, Henry Ford was able to differentiate his company from the competition and elevate it to new heights.

As a nearly 100% vertically-integrated organization, Henry Ford was able to apply this methodology to every facet of the organization’s supply chain; from the coal and iron ore mines, lumber mills, railroads and freighters to the factory floor.  However, in his book he also famously stated that “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”  Thankfully, Taiichi Ohno, who is considered the father of the Toyota Production System (TPS), picked up where Henry Ford left off by introducing integral concepts such as Voice of the Customer (VOC) and employee empowerment in the “House of Toyota” model.  This model forms the basis of the organizational culture for many businesses today.  Does your company currently utilize Lean principles?  If so, please give examples.  As always, your comments are welcome!  Thanks again!

Additional note:  Samuel Obara, an expert in TPS methodology and implementation, will be conducting a presentation titled “Root Cause Analysis” on June 22, 2011 at Domenico’s Italian Restaurant from 6:30pm – 8:00pm PDT.  The event will be a joint collaboration hosted by APICS San Gabriel Valley and ASQ San Gabriel Valley.  Dinner starts at 5:00pm and is included with the price of admission.  For more information and to register for the event, please click here.

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