The man who coined the term 'Lean'

From NUMMI to MIT to Ford to Hyundai: John Krafcik- President and Chief Executive Officer Hyundai Motor America

As he recalls, his analysis of 37 assembly plants (his thesis was titled "Comparative analysis of performance indicators at world auto assembly plants") led him to recognize what he calls a "fragile production system." He explains that in a "fragile" system, wherein things like inventories are exceedingly limited, wherein things could "break" rather easily, the need to have strength within that fragile system is critical. He witnessed the Toyota Production System (TPS) and realized that it was a clear differentiator. Having inside appreciation of TPS--Krafcik was the first American engineer hired by New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI), the Toyota-GM joint venture in Fremont, California; he worked there between Stanford and MIT--made him all the more cognizant of the power of fragile production. He says that he'd had the opportunity while employed at NUMMI to visit (and work at) the Toyota Takaoka Assembly Plant (where Corollas and other cars are built) and then the GM Oklahoma City Assembly Plant (which at the time was building the A-body platform, such as the Olds Ciera) and that this had "set up his thought process" as regards efficiency in production. His experiences at NUMMI essentially led him to MIT ... and to the concept of "lean".

In his 1988 paper Triumph of the Lean Production System, published in Sloan Management Review, Mr. Krafcik first coined the term 'lean' in reference to a production system and that was later used by his thesis advisor James Womack in the title of his now famous book about Toyota- The Machine that Changed the World. The Story of Lean Production.
In comparing auto assembly plant production characteristics, Mr. Krafcik contrasted early Henry Ford (Pure Fordism) with recent Fordism (Ford Motor of today) and Toyota's interpretation of Pure Fordism. He wrote-

"Rather than continuing to refer to the different paradigms as recent Fordism and TPS, I would like to introduce two new terms here- buffered and lean production systems."

"The reasons for selecting these terms are obvious. The production systems of most Western producers throughout most of the post-war period were buffered against virtually everything. Inventory levels were high, buffering against unexpected quality problems (bold italics mine); assembly lines had built-in buffers to keep production moving if equipment broke down; legions of utility workers were kept on the payroll to buffer unexpected periods of high absenteeism; repair areas were he to buffer against poor assembly line quality (bold italics mine), and so on."


"Other plants, best exemplified by Toyota, truly were lean operations. Inventory levels were kept at an absolute minimum. so that costs could be shaved and quality problems quickly detected and solved; bufferless assembly lines assured continuous-flow production; utility workers were conspicuous only in their absence from the payroll. If a worker was absent without notice, the team would fill in; repair areas were tiny as a result of the belief that quality should be achieved within the process, not within a rectification area."

So I ask you- is this philosophy and actual practice so different from our current laboratories here at Henry Ford now that we have innovated the Henry Ford Production System to our work.

Yes, this is hard work. Yes this requires daily leadership and focused management. But with a little ingenuity and hardwork, is extrapolating this basic approach to efficient, high quality work any different for the thousands of work processes that constitute the rest of our healthcare work environments?