Last Word


Last Word
William A. Levinson

Lean Manufacturing: Made in the USA

Use U.S. origins of lean manufacturing to drive change..

Frontline workers are often in the best position to recognize and take advantage of opportunities to improve quality and productivity. Given that worker empowerment and enthusiasm are prerequisites for successful change management, change agents and trainers can promote these traits by citing the U.S. origins of lean manufacturing.

 People and organizations often resist change. Although a wise person or organization is willing to learn from any teacher, many are unreceptive to ideas from outsiders. Quality Digest subscribers may have read Taiichi Ohno's and Shigeo Shingo's books, but most U.S. workers, engineers and executives don't know or care who these quality pioneers were. Japan's quality and productivity mystique might promote interest with terms such as kaizen, muda, poka-yoke, jidoka and 5-S, but they might also alienate workers by implying Japanese manufacturing superiority.

 Instead consider the effect of introducing a lean manufacturing workshop or seminar with the statement, "Guess who taught Japan how to make cars?" The presenter can then prove that the United States invented kaizen, poka-yoke, just-in-time, single-minute exchange of die and all the other productivity and quality improvement techniques we now associate with our overseas competitors.

 Lean practitioners might continue to use the Japanese terms in organizations where they are familiar, but Henry Ford's books My Life and Work (Garden City Publishing, 1922) and Moving Forward (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1930) describe all these techniques in plain English. Kaizen (continuous improvement) and elimination of muda (waste) were keystones of Ford's management system. He also described JIT manufacturing and its advantages in explicit detail. Ohno, one of the fathers of the Toyota Production System, makes no secret of where he learned to make cars. Shingo cites Frederick Winslow Taylor's book, The Principles of Scientific Management (Dover, 1998), as his inspiration.

 Ohno and Shingo emphasize that we can't eliminate waste before we recognize it. Little inefficiencies often become accepted because people can live with or work around them. Ford's Moving Forward leaves little doubt as to where Japan learned this principle: "It is the little things that are hard to see--the awkward little methods of doing things that have grown up and which no one notices. And since manufacturing is solely a matter of detail, these little things develop, when added together, into very big things."

 This statement brings us back to the frontline worker, who is often in the best position to recognize and correct these "little things." Ford learned to recognize inefficiencies during his agricultural boyhood, and this ability became a success secret--one he apparently taught his workers. Lean thinking pervaded the shop floor at Ford's River Rouge plant. Edwin P. Norwood writes in Ford: Men and Methods (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1931), "It worried the men," at least twice in references to waste and inefficiency. And the men (the contemporary work force at the time was predominantly male) did something about it.

 The saying, "Keep your eye on the doughnut, not on the hole," means to focus on what's important. Many people would be happy if the dimensions of six holes in a metal sheet (i.e., the product, or doughnut) met the definition of a six sigma process. Ford's workers made money by literally watching the hole, that is, what the process threw away. Someone asked, "What happened to the metal that was in those holes?" Someone then noted the size of the metal discs, thought of a pressing operation, and the plant got free radiator caps from what had once been scrap.

 The following are guidelines for lean trainers and change agents:

  Use Henry Ford's unquestionable bottom line to sell lean manufacturing to upper management. His enterprises were, through the creation of supporting jobs and industries, directly responsible for making the United States the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. Lean manufacturing allowed Ford to cut prices, raise wages and still make enormous profits.

  Use lean manufacturing's "Made in the USA" origins to sell it to U.S. workers, engineers and managers. This will help keep the label "Made in the USA" on other products. Past ASME president Henry R. Towne's introduction to Taylor's Shop Management (Harper & Brothers, 1911) shows that lean manufacturing overcomes the low-wage attraction of offshore labor. Nothing has happened during the past 90 years to change this.

  Teach everyone in the organization to identify waste. This was among Henry Ford's principal success secrets, and it became part of his company's culture.


 Oh yes, what was that other famous characteristic of the Toyota Production System? Norwood states explicitly that River Rouge workers could stop the line when there was trouble, and this led to correction of the root causes.


About the author

 William A. Levinson, P.E., is co-author of the forthcoming book Lean Enterprise: A Synergistic Approach and author of a forthcoming book on lean manufacturing from Productivity Press. He is also the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems. E-mail him at wlevinson@qualitydigest.com .

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