It is the rising star in business methodologies, the go-to word to improve performance in a “startup style”. Welcome to ‘Lean’, the customer-centric approach to innovation that promises to save a great deal of time and costs. It is also the methodology behind The Collider, particularly throughout the process of opportunity validation, where participants define and refine their business proposition.
A lot has been written about the ‘Lean’ methodology ever since Eric Ries published the book that propelled the trend, ‘The Lean Startup” (2011) with a clear, blunt foretitle: “How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses“. If you’re curious to learn about the principles, the case studies and procedures in the book, you’ll find all the answers here.
In this post, though, we’d like to focus on the actual birth of this methodology and draw a very brief history of ‘Lean’, its origins, core values and early protagonists. And to do so, we shall travel two centuries back to the manufacturing factory in the USA.
Up till the late 1890s, the processes in any American factory worked as individual units; products were moving from one to another without much concern of what happened in between or how the chain functioned as a system. By the end of the century, a few industrial engineers started to address this matter with different approaches. Frederick W. Taylor’s Scientific Management was a valid science-based redefinition of standardized work but it ignored behavioural sciences. Meanwhile, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth invented Process Charting, which took into account the off-value elements in the production line. All of these theories originated the idea of “eliminating waste” that seeded ‘Lean Manufacturing’ shortly after.
It was Henry Ford in the 1910s who coined the concept of “flow production” to manufacture the renowned Model T automobile. Ford speeded the whole assembly process by incorporating special-purpose machines that produced perfectly fitting parts. With his right-hand man Charles E. Sorensen, they arranged all elements – workers, tools, machines and products- in a continuous and effective system, which has transcended as the first true practice of ‘Lean Manufacturing’.
Despite Ford being a pacifist, once he was forced to succumb his plants to war production, the Ford system reached its maximum scale with the “a bomber an hour” plant during World War II. This mass production system caught the attention of Japanese industrialists, that also brought together Quality Control practices from theorists like Edward Deming or Joseph Juran.
The Toyota Motor Company incorporated effectively the production flow to its factories and paired it with an added value that supposed Ford’s downfall: variety. As Ford refused to adapt to the changing times and other automakers were struggling to handle a quick turnaround, Toyota relied its manufacturing system on a series of revolutionary simple innovations. This included right-sizing machines for the actual volume needed, introducing self-monitoring machines to ensure quality and having each process step notify the previous step of its current needs for materials, among others. All of these changes made information management simpler, more accurate and the whole process quicker and adaptable to changing customer desires. This is how the Toyota Production System was born for success.
Most early attempts to emulate Toyota failed because they were not integrated into a complete system and because few understood the underlying principles. However, by the 1980’s some American manufacturers, such as Omark Industries, General Electric and Kawasaki were achieving success.
The final turning point into the contemporary era of ‘Lean’ as we know it today was the publication of ‘The Machine That Changed the World’ (1990) by James P. Womack, Daniel Roos, and Daniel T. Jones, which described thoroughly the thought process of ‘Lean methodology’. Eric Ries and other authors would follow catching the imagination of not only manufacturers but practically any kind of business.