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Bruce Hamilton


Tribute to Norm

Norman Bodek, ‘Mr. Productivity,’ was among the first to bring lean to America

Published: Tuesday, December 22, 2020 - 12:02

Norman Bodek, who sadly left us on Dec. 10, 2020, at the age of 88, will no doubt best be remembered for the amazing library he brought us more than 30 years ago from Japan: primary sources like Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo, as well as brilliant consultants like Yashuhiro Monden and Shigihero Nakamura, and professional associations like JUSE, JMA, and JHRA.

Before it was lean, Norman delivered Hiroyuki Hirano’s comprehensive JIT Implementation Manual (Productivity Press, 2009). Tomo Sugiyama’s The Improvement Book (Productivity Press, 2009) is one of my favorite sources for teaching the concept of waste, and Hirano’s JIT Factory Revolution (Productivity Press, 1989), essentially a picture book of best practices, melds Toyota Production System concepts with TPS tools in a way that makes it a great choice for book study groups. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was such a flurry of new releases that some of these gems may not have made it onto our bookshelves. And unfortunately, some are now out of print. 

My discovery of this TPS trove began serendipitously as a footnote in Robert “Doc” Hall’s Zero Inventories (McGraw-Hill, 1983), one of the few books of the time not published by Norman Bodek. The footnote led me to Shingo’s books and from there to Productivity Press, located in a small Cambridge walk-up just a few miles from my plant. There in 1987, I met Norm and his small staff of instructional designers and editors. Before this fledgling publisher, there was just a trickle of references to TPS, all written by faithful Western reporters like Doc Hall.

Norman opened the flood gates. The better-known texts are standards on lean bookshelves today, but there are so many less well-known treasures like Toshio Suzue’s and Akira Kohdate’s Variety Reduction Program (Productivity Press, 1990) that brought lean out of the factory and into product development. Norm’s is a unique publishing legacy from a time of remarkable discovery that I think will never again be matched.

Lauded in the business press as the “Godfather of Lean” and “Mr. Productivity,” Norm Bodek, by his own admission, had no experience with manufacturing or TPS. He was not an inventor like many of those with whom he was compared or whose ideas he ushered into the light. Norman was an explorer, a latter-day Marco Polo, with an eye for trends that eluded the rest of us, someone who found the best thinkers, practitioners, and authors, and made them accessible outside of Japan.

Norman Bodek

Perhaps even more remarkable, however, was Norm Bodek’s ability to popularize these discoveries he was publishing. For the 35 years that I had the pleasure of knowing Norman, I fully expected that, at every encounter with him, he would have something new to sell me. He would greet me with a statement like, “Bruce, I have just discovered the most wonderful teacher, and you need to let me share this with you.” This was expected; Norm was a promoter, with the enthusiasm of a child and salesmanship of P. T. Barnum.

On more than one occasion, he lamented, “You know, Bruce, I’ve never made any money on these books.” I suspect he probably did OK for himself. In any case, he surely enriched the rest of us. 


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change. Also, he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an ongoing reflection on lean philosophy and practices, with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.


This is sad news

I am sorry to hear this. I remember that Norm wrote the foreword for Henry Ford's Today and Tomorrow (from Productivity Press) which introduced me to very important lean principles. He will be missed.

Funny man

I remember his humor. If you ever had a chance to hear him speak, he was hysterical. Quality Digest and Norm collaborated on a few projects over the years. Nice man!

Dirk Dusharme

Improvement Book

I never got a chance to meet Norm in person, and I am sorry I didn't.

I didn't even know about The Improvement Book until today, but I just ordered it.