WWII, Cars and Lean—What Do These Three Have In Common?

Lean Thinking is getting more press in the news lately, governments are now following big business leads and implementing these practices. So where did it all start? And is this something for small business?

After World War II, Japan made a revolutionary leap from mass production to a new unheard of method of production, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. 

The survival of their automobile industry after the war depended on their ability to compete in the global auto wars. This method of production so eroded the supremacy of American and European automakers' hold in the market, that it allowed Japanese automakers to gain and hold onto a significant share of the world’s market. The world paid attention and wanted to know how they did it!

In 1990, after a five-year, 14-country, $5 million study of the automobile industry by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, professors James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos introduced the world to Japan’s new way of making things called Lean Production. Six years later, Womack and Jones expanded the concept beyond traditional manufacturing to corporate business process as a formula for sustainable growth and success. They called it Lean Thinking.

It began to catch on and in the last 15 years many large corporations have gone lean and many more are heading in that direction.  

And now you hear about governments following big business’s lead and adopting these practices. So where does this leave small business? It’s difficult for a small business to take the knee-jerk approach to lean and sell a poor performing division, close down an old factory, or shed an under-performing product line. Setting aside the fact that this was not the approach advocated by lean thinking and was often compared to cutting off a leg to lose weight to short cut dieting. The correct approach in a large organization of integrating continuous improvement takes time and resources to assess, train, deploy and transform the organization.

This does not mean a small business cannot Think Lean and become a lean-performing business. 

But it must have critical focus on today’s definition of value as defined by the customer. Too many small businesses still use outdated organization models and definitions of value that create waste in their organization. Waste in time, waste in money, waste in repeat sales, waste in referrals, waste in lost customers. Waste that erodes the profits from their bottom line. Lean Thinking is a tool, and used correctly it will help a business focus on value and eliminate waste, improving profits.

Next Week—The Keys To Lean Thinking!


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