Lean Manufacturing is not a new concept. The roots of this approach stretch back to the use of interchangeable parts over two thousand years to Carthage in the First Punic War and East Asia, during the Warring States period around 400 BC. But, to keep this brief, let’s focus on the last 150 years of modern manufacturing to understand better how it impacts us today.
While Eli Whitney is best known for inventing the cotton gin, but it was a minor achievement compared to his concept of using interchangeable parts for weapons design and manufacturing. In 1799 he won a contract from the U.S. Army to manufacture muskets based on what was then called the “American System” based on this idea of interchangeable parts. For over two decades, he delivered hundreds of thousands of weapons. While we now know Whitney never achieved interchangeable parts manufacturing he was a visionary because he knew it was the future of manufacturing. Unfortunately he didn’t live to see it. But his family’s arms company did realize this breakthrough manufacturing approach after his death.
Over the next hundred years, we evolved systems of engineering drawings, developed modern machines, and developed large-scale processes—for example, the Bessemer process for making steel.
In 1881, Frederick Taylor introduced his time and motion study theory by applying the scientific process to manufacturing. This theory formed the basis of his subsequent theory of management science. Today Taylor is known as the Father of Scientific Management.
According to scientific management, we can simplify all manufacturing tasks into discrete simple activities or motions. These operations are then combined in sequences to produce a final product. This simplification means workers can specialize in less complicated tasks and achieve efficiencies quickly rather than years of study becoming master craftsmen. This distillation significantly cuts the breadth and depth of knowledge and skill needed to manufacture products because we encapsulate the specialized expertise in the process.
For example, if you want to build a house, you need to have a high level of expertise in carpentry, electrical work, and plumbing, right? Now, this assembly process would be mechanized under scientific management, and you would produce prefabricated homes. The process encapsulates the expertise and now you only need to know how to hammer nails. You specialize in executing this single, simple, and straightforward task over and over again until the entire process with all the steps are complete and you have a finished house.
Other innovations include Motion Study and Process Charting from Frank Gilbreth and the integration of psychology and motivation into the manufacturing processes from Lillian Gilbreth in early efforts to eliminate waste.
Around 1910, Henry Ford and Charles Sorensen brought us the first comprehensive Manufacturing Strategy. They arranged people, machines, tooling, and products in a continuous system to manufacture the Model T automobile. Ford’s success made him one of the wealthiest men globally, and many consider him the founder of Just In Time and Lean Manufacturing.
Here’s where we start seeing people fall off the cliff… falling victim to short-circuited thinking: Many people meticulously copied Ford’s methods after seeing his success. However, most of them failed to understand the fundamentals. They failed because a cookie-cutter copy of Ford’s processes wasn’t usually the right tool for their particular job. They incorrectly attributed his success to his processes, thinking it would magically work in other contexts… and it did not.
Even Ford’s system started falling apart when the world changed, and he refused to adapt.
So by the 1930s, General Motors had surpassed Ford and dominated the automotive market.
Alfred P. Sloan developed business and manufacturing strategies for managing massive productions with a brilliantly more pragmatic approach. However, the core concepts of Ford’s production remained highly influential.
And when Ford did finally adapt and retooled his factories for war production, they manufactured bombers on an enormous scale. For example, the Willow Run Bomber plant built “A bomber an hour.”
The Allied victory was only possible through the revolution in manufacturing processes which caught the attention of Japanese industrialists. They studied the US manufacturing processes of the Ford plants and the Statistical Quality Control practices of Ishikawa, Deming, and Juran.
Starting in 1949 through 1975, The Toyota Motor Company incorporated these techniques into the Toyota Production System or “Just In Time” approach. Toyota recognized that the Ford system had shortcomings. They figured out that factory workers had boots on the ground and brains in their heads which meant they had far more to contribute than just being cogs in a wheel. This realization is likely a key driver in the Quality Circle movement. Ishikawa, Deming, and Juran contributed to the quality movement, which resulted in team development and cellular manufacturing.
In the 1950’s the innovative productivity and quality gains became evident to the outside world, American executives traveled to Japan to study it. But they also failed miserably and did not achieve the true benefits of this innovative manufacturing technology because, for the most part, they brought back the most superficial aspects like kanban cards and quality circles. Most early attempts to emulate Toyota failed due to a complete integrated system, and almost nobody understood the underlying principles.
They fell victim to the same mental short-circuit called the Ergo Ad Hoc logical fallacy. The same logical failure people ran into when copying Ford’s processes. I’ll cover it more in a future video. But, the short version is that if you don’t explicitly watch out for it, ALL people often make the mistake of incorrectly connecting cause and effect. A simple example of this short-circuit is thinking the sun comes up because the rooster crows, which seems ridiculous. However, this flawed thinking is driven forward by the weight of centuries of evolutionary adaptations to help us conserve mental energy. Now, we see the same problem here, when people superficially think that Ford’s manufacturing ceremonies produce results when in reality, it’s much deeper and more complex.
By the 1980s, after about three decades of repeated failures, some American manufacturers started getting past the surface ceremonies into the real heart of the idea and made the necessary investment required to start seeing some success, including Omark Industries, General Electric, and Kawasaki in Lincoln, Nebraska.
In 1990, James Womack coined the phrase “Lean Manufacturing.” in his book on the history of automobile manufacturing called “The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production.” This term caught the imagination of manufacturing people across countries and disciplines who now practice lean manufacturing worldwide.
Unfortunately, we have seen the same pattern over and over again. We have seen many people blindly copying Ford’s approaches who failed to realize the benefits. And, again we have seen many companies blindly copying Toyota’s ceremonies who failed to achieve the desired results. And, again, today too many people only take the superficial aspects of lean software development like meeting cadences, task boards, and ceremonies and are not seeing consistent results or achieving their original intended objectives.
We just need to apply some critical thinking here. If it’s truly that easy, why do we see 911 system outages, internet outages, and dangerous criminals being incorrectly released from prison early? Why do we see the loss of billions of dollars and people dying from inadequate software like the Boeing 737 crashes, the Toyota accelerator crashes, and Nissan recalls from an airbag software defect? Shouldn’t the ‘modern’ industry practices have prevented these horrible disasters?
All you have to do is avoid falling victim to confirmation bias and use clear, rational, and critical thinking. Take a hard look around at the current state of how software is negatively affecting society and ask yourself if, on the whole, we are getting the intended benefits of the current manufacturing movement that has been underway for the last twenty years.
Many core manufacturing principles will not change; however, the successful application of these principles is crucial. And application is vastly different depending on context. Application is where the real work happens and is not something you can simply pull off the shelf to quickly achieve magical results. Developing an effective manufacturing strategy in any industry is always a complex, uncertain, and highly tailored exercise.
Thousands of years ago, alchemists took advantage of the ‘wishful thinking’ logical fallacy, but just because we want to believe some magical secret transforms a lump of lead into dazzling gold doesn’t mean it is real. And, I’m sure many of the alchemists who were not outright charlatans fell victim to the same short-circuited logic and may have believed in the fantastic fantasy. I bet some even convinced themselves that they were the chosen ones that could figure out the magical shortcut to easy riches.
However, It didn’t work thousands of years ago when alchemists promised they could turn lead into gold, so why would it work today? It didn’t work in automobile manufacturing over the last 150 years when people draped themselves in the ceremony of successful companies missing the substance. So, why would it work today? Don’t you feel that success takes more work than this? If it were TRULY that easy, why isn’t everybody wildly successful at today’s equivalent of turning lead into gold?
Maybe it’s worth considering it takes more than a quick shortcut to succeed? Maybe critical thinking and logic are needed to pave the way forward? Perhaps it’s more complex than the magical elixir on sale today?
In this video, you learned about three short-circuited thinking patterns that have plagued the lean manufacturing industry for over a hundred years. First, just because we wish for something to be true doesn’t mean it is true. And second, you saw how incorrect attribution of cause and effect plagued the modern manufacturing industry for the last 150 years. And finally, you learned you have to watch out for confirmation bias.
We all hope and pray for an easy way, a shortcut, or some mystical low-hanging fruit. It’s human nature. It would truly be awesome if only it were true. But you have to be careful to avoid the seductive mirages because there have been plenty of charlatans praying on these very human logical weakness throughout history.
Wishful thinking is not a good strategy. Too often, the elusive magical silver bullet is just a misleading myth. And sometimes, while myths are grounded in some far-off truth, getting concrete results takes critical thinking, hard work, and sheer perseverance.
You can’t put your brain on autopilot and expect to achieve great results no matter what you are working towards, right?
I founded TruthShield to specialize in and help you focus on the hard work required to achieve results. If you prefer to focus on achieving results over processes, this is for you.
At TruthShield, we understand the human element is extraordinarily essential in digital product development, much more so than any process or tool. We know that in software manufacturing, the only constant is change. We understand that structured, logical thinking and adequate preparation are essential to achieving any objective. At the same time, it is even more critical to design your processes and your systems and your plans to adapt, accommodate, and even benefit from changes. This strengthening under change is called antifragility. And this antifragility requires tight customer collaboration to track, adjust, and retarget continually.
We are here to help you succeed because getting solid results and outmaneuvering your competitors is not achieved through wishful thinking but is a real challenge. If you want an advantage, you have to bring more to the table than the same tired tools everyone is pulling off the shelf and using, right? While processes are critical to success, sometimes they can be counterproductive, and sometimes they can stifle how things get done.
Do you want more flexibility and power driving you forward towards achieving your objectives? TruthShield’s deep expertise in digital product development strategy, practice establishment, and process management can help you find the right balance between structure and fluidity. We can help your team reach your objectives in the shortest time, at the least cost, and with the least risk. Engage TruthShield and we will revolutionize how you think about digital product development and launch you light years forward.
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