The History of Lean Manufacturing
To say Lean Six Sigma concepts changed the trajectory of industrial manufacturing is an understatement. Lean philosophies revolutionized how we think about manufacturing and how companies perceive their value streams. From improving efficiency to eliminating waste and preempting problems, lean manufacturing has long been the gold standard for operational excellence.
1913: Henry Ford’s sequenced production line
Henry Ford was one of the earliest adopters of lean manufacturing. He devised a strategy for arranging people, machines, tools, and products for maximum efficiency. Ford’s success with this strategy produced the Model T, the first major mass-produced vehicle. It wasn’t called “lean manufacturing” back then, but Ford’s assembly line was undoubtedly the first at-scale deployment of efficiency in the industrial era.
While this strategy revolutionized manufacturing, its rigidity kept it from keeping up with market changes. Demand for new models and a variety of options did not mesh with Ford’s work methods. By the mid-1930s, General Motors surpassed Ford in the automobile market — in large part because of GM’s expansion on Ford’s assembly line concept.
1937 – 1962: Toyoda revolutionizes the lean concept
Kiichiro Toyoda, founder and former president of Toyota Motor Corporation, improved upon Ford’s approach by blending in elements for variability, waste reduction, and value stream efficiency. Essentially, Toyoda took the assembly line concept further to encompass total factory operations.
Toyoda sought to eliminate the three chief enemies of lean manufacturing: muda (waste), muri (overburden) and mura (unevenness). Part of this strategy involved establishing a “kaizen” workplace, in which the goal is constant improvement of products. Toyoda also pushed the concept of “jidoka,” the earliest philosophy behind industrial automation. His vision of a factory operating in perfect harmony paved the way for formalized lean fundamentals.
Today, most major automakers use a version of Toyoda’s concepts, now known as the Toyota Production System (TPS).
1973 – 1990s: Lean manufacturing in the United States
Lean manufacturing came to the United States after industrialists visited a Japanese Toyota assembly plant in 1980, learned the concepts, and brought them home. Lean philosophy gained worldwide recognition in the 1990s and has only continued to grow. The Machine That Changed the World, a 1990 book by James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, introduced the lean thought process. In their 1996 follow-up, Lean Thinking, Womack and Jones formalized the five principles of lean manufacturing:
- Defining value.
- Mapping the value stream.
- Creating flow.
- Establishing pull.
- Pursuing perfection.
Though application varies in each plant, these five principles are used by manufacturers around the world to reduce waste and improve their products. Its ongoing use illustrates lean manufacturing’s status as the most fundamentally critical concept in the history of manufacturing.
The modern pursuit of perfection
Today, lean manufacturing is alive and well in factories worldwide, and technology is making streamlining even easier. The industrial internet of things (IIoT) has infused lean concepts with valuable data to allow producers to apply efficiency concepts with unprecedented accuracy. Time has only proven the lean philosophy’s excellence as a framework for continuous improvement.