Lean Management, We Gave It To Japan - Is It Time To Take It Back?


photo by StuSeeger
photo by StuSeeger

The Machine That Changed the World
 by James P. Womack, Daniel T Jones and Daniel Roos was born out of a 5 year 14 country international study that was launched by MIT. Dubbed the International Motor Vehicle Program they set out to document the challenges facing the automotive industry. But in the process they discovered a small company capable of producing cars, faster with higher quality for less in terms of manpower, money, materials and space. It was precisely because they were doing more with less that the term “Lean” was coined.

While recognized by most as the philosophy of Toyota Motor Corporation, in truth much of what Lean Management is, originated in the U.S.

Kaiichiro Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno have both credited Henry Ford as being inspirational in their methods of manufacture. The Japanese have recognized Dr. William Deming as being instrumental Japan’s emergence as an economic powerhouse after World War II.

Reading a copy of My Life and Work by Henry Ford you can see the links to Japanese ways and their Lean methods. Henry’s spirit of frugality that was inspired in part by Benjamin Franklin’s writings (his blog of the day) that focused on self-reliance, responsibility and sound financial management.

When you study the theory and application of what Dr. Deming taught in statistical control of quality, coupled with proof of concept not only in Toyota but dozens of other companies and organization he touched as well it is hard to find falt with the lean approach.


Fundamentally Deming applied a continuous cycle of improvement based on scientific observations of a given process. This approach was originally developed by Walter Shewhard of Western Electric to help improve the reliability of their transmission systems. They used control charts which allowed the statisticians to focus on things that really mattered and enabled them to quit wasting time on things that were not controllable.  Hmmm, that makes sense!

What’s really silly is that as a country we used the concepts and principles of frugality urging every citizen to play their part during the second world war. Additionally to ramp up productivity for the war effort, concepts like William Deming’s continuous improvement cycle were incorporated into a program called Training Within Industry, a government funded initiative to help our companies improve productivity in support of the war effort. By many historians accounts the allies’ ability to produce more, faster and with greater quality was instrumental in our ability to win WWII.

After the war, industry was faced with an excess supply of labor and little competition. Soldiers returned, families had money to spend (this was back when people actually saved!). Companies had no problem finding people to buy their products. There was little reason left to maintain or increase productivity or quality.

Meanwhile our government was faced with the challenge of helping the countries we defeated rebuild. To that end we exported all the good we had learned and developed as part of the efforts by the War Manpower Commission. Deming was sent to Japan along with dozens of other industry experts. The Japanese listened and improved.

I recall as a child in the 70’s when every day brought a new and smaller transistor radio or “Walkman” into our market. The adults would joke about how the Japanese couldn’t invent anything, they just took all our ideas and made the smaller. While we continued to joke, they continued to Kaizen (continuously improve). Their products got better, their share of our market larger.

Where have we left our self in the process? Deeper and deeper in debt, with an escalating trade deficit. Our current Government and U.S. industry have a lot to learn from our past and from what we taught the Japanese.

Our Government and our Country continues to waste to much time, effort and energy on bridges to nowhere and stimulus packages that do little, if anything. We waste money, we waste time, and we waste energy at every turn. It is time we take back what we gave Japan, it’s time to eliminate the wastes in government, in our financial system, and in our companies. It’s time to once again become a lean mean (economic) fighting machine.


2 comments to Lean Management, We Gave It To Japan – Is It Time To Take It Back?

  • I agree with everything in the article, because it is true. However, before we can take it back so to speak, we have to be disciplined enough to use it. There is nothing to take back. It was here all the time, but there was not enough of a top down commitment to consistently implement small systematic changes that could be effective. We are a reactive society and not a proactive society. Perhaps if we did not have the war to bring the economy out of the depression, or the rest of the world knocked to its knees for more than a generation, we would have listened to Demming when he presented his theories to the “big 3” auto makers.Instead we let him present his concepts to Japn who embraced them because of their desparate situation only to have us crying the blues because they used his concepts successfully when we chose not to.
    Now you can find a lean manufacturing, six sigma, kaizen, kanban, poka yoke course almost anywhere, but until these concepts are implemented nationwide (not neccessarily implementing ISO 9000 or TQM)or at least a consistent part of our manufacting and production base, we will always be complaining about stolen jobs and an unfair balance of trade which is actually an efficiency issue and a cost effectiveness issue that we as a country were willing to listen to but not buy into.

  • […] What’s really amazing is that our government doesn’t already apply all this sound advice. It is especially surprising to learn that much of these techniques were ideas that our government took to Japan over 50 years ago. They sent their best and brightest to Japan to help that nation rebuild after WWII. We taught them about quality control and continuous improvement. Lean Management, We Took It To Japan, Is It Time To Take It Back? […]