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What is Lean?

Many definitions of lean exist online, in books, and in company- adopted lean initiatives, but the one from the source says it all. Taiichi Ohno, founder of the Toyota Production System, said that the purpose of lean is to “just produce what is requested by the customer.” Nothing more, nothing less, nothing sooner or later than what is needed. It makes no sense to overproduce products that customers haven’t ordered. Not producing to customer demand results in increased inventory that comes with carrying costs such as storage space and tied-up capital. All of this adds cost and is nothing more than waste.

Lean Rules of Thumb

Current headlines extol the virtues of lean manufacturing but few quantify the benefits one can realize by implementing a lean program. The following are some eye-opening statistics from the 1996 classic Lean Thinking by Womack & Jones:

  • Double labor productivity
  • Cut production throughput by 90%
  • Reduce inventories by 90%
  • Half the errors and scrap
  • Fewer job related injuries
  • Faster time to market for new products
  • Wider variety of products made possible with little additional cost

What’s amazing is that many of these benefits can be obtained with only modest capital investment, and facilitated by implementing simple tools for observing processes (i.e. value stream mapping) and root cause analysis (i.e. 5 Why) -- topic of a future webletter.

History of Lean Manufacturing

Production systems date back to the early 1900’s when Henry Ford began producing automobiles and Frederick Taylor developed the concept of Scientific Management. Taylor felt that every task could be distilled down to one best method by performing time studies and standardizing. Toyota developed their production system in the late 1940’s out of necessity during a period of recovery in Japan, a period in which there were no natural resources, little access to capital, and a homogeneous workforce. After spending some months at Henry Ford’s Rouge River plant, the Toyota engineers recognized that Ford’s way of making cars would not work for them, but it was inspiration for a new method. (It should be noted that Toyota continues their process of continuous improvement some 60+ years later, recognizing the fact that one is never truly finished with Lean.)

In the late 1980’s lean manufacturing first appeared in the Western Hemisphere as a result of Japanese transplant companies. From there, companies such as Porsche, Ford, Audi, Delphi, Mercedes, and Bosch each developed their own internal "lean" manufacturing systems as customers and suppliers to the automotive industry. In fact, the Bosch lean initiative resulted in the development of Rexroth’s MPS Manual Production Systems technology to help Bosch implement lean worldwide. We’re pleased and proud to be part of the lean community.