The History of Lean Manufacturing – Part 1
09/03/12 by Ripe4
It may come as some surprise to lean that the roots of what we consider “modern” manufacturing techniques can be traced back to as early as the beginning of the 19th century. However, it was not until the early 20th century, when mass production grew to a truly global scale, that the likes of Henry Ford, among others, started to pay particular attention to increasing and maximising the efficiency of production lines. Ford took the various elements of a manufacturing system, and was able to arrange them to in such a way in order to create continous production line, to produce the world’s first mass produced automobile, the Model T. Ford’s manufacturing strategy meant the Model T could be produced at a cheaper price, and therefore cost far less for the consumer, than any automobile had done before. This resulted in huge success for Ford, and for the growth of the automotive industry as a whole. With the Model T, automobiles soon became the choice of transport for the general public, when they had previously been the reserve of the elite.
Observing the success of Ford, many others attempted to emulate his success by adopting his manufacturing systems. However, the system was rigid, and designed specifically with the Model T in mind, so often failed when applied to other products and industries. No one fully understood the ins and outs of the system, and it soon started to stagnate, as the world economy changed, and Ford failed to adapt his methods in order to suit the introduction of unions, and the prosperity that came in the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, General Motors had overtaken the early success of Ford, and Ford’s system seemed doomed to redundancy. That would all change, however, with the outbreak of World War II.
As the United States’ involvement in the war started to become an inevitability, Ford’s factories were forced to retool in order to produce armaments and military vehicles on a huge scale, to support the war effort. Suddenly, Ford’s system was once again at the forefront of the manufacturing world, and its success was evident on no greater scale than at the Willow Run Bomber Plant, in Michigan, which famously claimed to be able to build a B-24 Bomber at the rate of one an hour. The application of Ford’s manufacturing philosophy was cited as one of the key reasons for the Allies’ victory in WWII, and it soon caught the attention of the Japanese industrialists, attempting to rebuild the country’s economy following the collapse of its once vast Empire.
At the Toyota Motor Company, Shigeo Shingo and Taichii Ohno saw the value of Ford’s system, and started to use it in their own company. However, they were able to identify the failings of Ford’s original system, and adapt it for the post-war economy. Ford’s system was seen as harsh and demeaning to the workers, classing them as little more than mindless muscle power, and this simply wouldn’t have worked in the unionised industry of occupied Japan. Toyota identified that workers could contribute far more, and adapted the system in order to encourage teamwork, cellular manufacturing, and an attitude that put an emphasis on the importance of quality. They were also able to make the system more flexible, by reducing changeover and setup times, allowing smaller batch sizes, so it could then be applied to a far greater range of products. Over the next quarter of a century, Toyota grew to become one of the largest companies in the world, and a number of other Japanese companies were able to adopt the Toyota Production System, with a great deal of success.
Eventually, the increases in productivity and quality, brought about by the Toyota Production System, started to become apparent to the rest of the world, and it was not long before the executives of America’s largest companies started to travel to Japan in order to observe it in action…
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