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Was Henry Ford a true Lean thinker?

29 Jul

Do not forget that Today and Tomorrow was written in the 1920s, over a half century ago when Ford’s career was at its peak.  Shortly, he would face his first failure and discouragement even though the Ford Motor Company ultimately survived.

As I said earlier, I have long doubted that the mass-production system practiced in America and around the world today even in Japan, was Ford’s true intention. For this reason, I have constantly sought the origin of his ideas. For example, take a look at the American social environment of the 1920s when Ford was prospering

“But are we moving too fast – not only merely in the making of automobiles, but in life generally? One hears a [great] deal about the worker being ground down by hard labour, of what is called progress being made at the expense of something or other, and that efficiency is wrecking all the finer things of life.

It is quite true that life is out of balance – and always has been. Until lately, most people have had no leisure to use and, of course, they do not know how to use it. One of our large problems is to find some balance between work and play, between sleep and food, and eventually to discover why men grow old and die. Of this more later.

Certainly we are moving faster than before. Or, more correctly, we are being moved faster. But is 20 minutes in a motor car easier or harder than four hours solid trudging down a dirt road? Which mode of travel leaves the pilgrim fresher at the end? Which leaves him more time and more mental energy? And soon we shall be making an hour by air what were days journeys by motor. Shall we all then be nervous wrecks?

But does this state of nervous wreckage to which we are all said to be coming exist in life – or in books? One hears of the workers nervous exhaustion in books, but does one hears it from workers?…

The very word “efficiency” is hated because so much that is not efficiency has masqueraded as such. Efficiency is merely the doing of work in the best way you know rather than in the worst way. It is the training of the worker and the giving to him of power so that he may earn more and have more and live more comfortably. The Chinese coolie working through long hours for a few cents a day is not happier than the American worker with his own home and automobile. The one is a slave; the other is a free man.”

There have been many changes in the last half century. Circumstances in China have changed drastically, for instance. Recently, between September 1977 and September 1978, I visited many Chinese industries trying hard to promote modern industrialization.

From the Ford’s time to the present, through our postwar period when we began work on the Toyota production system, and within the industrialization that China is trying to achieve, there is one universal element – and Ford called it a “true efficiency”. Ford said efficiency is simply a matter of doing work using the best methods known, not the worst.

The Toyota production system works with the same idea. Efficiency is never a function of quantity and speed. Ford raised the question: “Are we moving too fast?” In connection with the automobile industry, it is undeniable that we have been pursuing efficiency and regarding quantity and speed as its two major factors. The Toyota production system, on the other hand, has always suppressed overproduction, producing in response to the needs of the marketplace

In the high-growth period, market needs were great and losses caused by overproduction did not appear on the surface. During slow growth, however, excess inventory shows up wether we like it or not. This kind of waste is definitely the result of pursuing quantity and speed.

When describing the characteristics of the Toyota production system, we explained the concept of small lot sizes and quick setup. Actually, at the heart of this is our intention to reform the existing and deeply rooted concept of “faster and more” by generating a continuous work flow.

To be truthful, even at Toyota, it is very difficult to get the die pressing, resin modelling, casting, and forging processes into a total production flow as streamlined as the flows in assembly or machine processing. For example, with training, setup of a large press can be accomplished in three to five minutes. This is shorter than that of other companies by a surprisingly large margin. In the future, as work flow is perfected, we could slow down and still keep it under 10 minutes.

This explains why the Toyota production system is the opposite of America’s system of mass production and quantity sales – the latter system generates unnecessary losses in pursuit of quantity and speed.

Ohno, Taiichi. 1988. Toyota Production System. Beyond large-scale production. Pp 107-109. Productivity Press. New York.

 

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2 responses to “Was Henry Ford a true Lean thinker?

  1. Helpin

    February 9, 2012 at 4:48 am

    Great llitte post! I see relatively llitte collaboration in IT shops – except through formal projects. So, my variation on your question to leaders, is;“In what ways are you encouraging collaboration – both across your organization, and with your clients, customers, and suppliers?”

     

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