The Birth of Lean

By John Hunter, founder of

The Birth of Lean is an valuable book from the Lean Enterprise Institute. It collects the thoughts of those leading and working with the Toyota Production System in the early days: Taiichi Ohno, Eiji Toyoda, Michikazu Tanaka, Kikuo Suzumura and others.

The book doesn’t talk about Dr. Deming directly but provides great thoughts from those in Toyota designing and continually improving a management system consistent with Deming’s management ideas.

cover image of The Birth of Lean

You can’t read the book as if it is a recipe for what you need to do. Of course, no management book can do that for you (a cookbook, sure). I am sure some readers find some of the methods used as too authoritarian or the confrontations with others too direct.

What worked for Toyota in 1950 may very well not be exactly what you need to do in 2014. Still there is tremendous wisdom in this book. There is more for those interested in applying Deming’s ideas to improving their organization to learn in this book than is available in most books on management today.

“Good kaizen,” said Imai, “depends on the active cooperation of your employees. You might think you’re on the right track. But unless your employees are taking part actively, you’ll never get the full potential of the improvements. That’s why we’re going to keep working on this until the people in the workplace think we’ve got it right.”

Here is an example where the wording isn’t what we would suggest today.

“What in the world do you think you’re doing here?” shouted Ohno-san. “We don’t hire people to lift engine blocks. You go check and see right now if you’re not sitting on other problems just like this one.” The production supervisor soon reported three similar problems, and he received the predictable scolding from Ohno-san. “You’re out here on the floor every day, but you’re not really seeing anything: whether your people are having problems with something, whether waste is happening, whether you have overburden somewhere.”

The message is worth hearing, and I fear most of our organizations are not nearly as focused on continual improvement as they should be.

The book is a collection of recollections from individual so you also get a feel for the people and their thinking. And some nice little stories, I like this one:

I was amazed at the idea of retailers letting you choose freely from a bunch of merchandise on display, put your stuff in a basket, and pay on the way out. I couldn’t get used to the idea of shopping without shopkeepers.

What would happen, I asked, if someone went in and ate a bunch of food without paying? That stumped Ohno-san. He finally said that he supposed that Americans were a people of integrity and that they just wouldn’t do something like that. And he repeated that our production system was like going shopping at a supermarket.

Another great book, to read about Taichii Ohno’s thinkings is: Workplace Management.

To gain a real understanding, you need to take what you’ve heard in a seminar, put it into practice in your own workplace, and show your boss how it can generate results. Hearing something in a seminar corresponds to the planning phase [of the plan-do-check-act cycle]. Learning depends on doing in the workplace, undergoing a follow-up check by your superiors, and determining what action is necessary to make things work better. Only then have you really learned what you heard or saw in the seminar.

More wise words, this time from Masao Nemoto. In the last post on this blog, I mentioned the value of Langford’s competency matrix – if you study that you will see it incorporates this understanding (hearing ideas is only the first step, being able to repeat them is good but you need to be able to apply them in the real world).

Related: Interview with Masaaki ImaiDeming and Lean; The Disparities and SimilaritiesA great benefit of Deming’s management system is we can learn from others, no matter what industry they are inquotes by Taiichi Ohno

Also from Masao Nemoto:

They said that TQC heightened quality awareness among employees; that everyone shared ideas about ways to solve problems; that TQC promoted cooperation among the people in product technology, production engineering, and manufacturing; and that it mobilized employees throughout the company in kaizen initiatives through team activities.

That’s how we at Toyota ended up tackling TQC. We went to work on TQC in 1961, and we earned the Deming Application Prize in 1965 and the Japan Quality Medal [from the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers] in 1970. What is most important is that our quality really did improve dramatically over that time. And around 1970, our exports to the United States finally took off.

TQC was thus a success at Toyota. It succeeded because we acknowledged forthrightly that we had problems with quality and because someone in senior management [Eiji Toyoda] had a clear vision of what we were setting out to do.

Even though you don’t hear Deming’s name much in the book, the ideas he taught are everywhere; and explained by those in an organization that created a management system that strongly ties the ideas together into one cohesive whole (which is very rare).

Eiji Toyoda had the right idea when he said, “You can’t rely on the inspections. You’ve got to take responsibility in your processes for providing output of the necessary quality.” His words still resound in my ears.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top