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Continuous Improvement -- Are You Reinventing Wheels?

Nov. 20, 2006
Lean manufacturing has been around for more than a century -- so what are you doing to make it relevant to your company today?

I'm always interested in how "new" ideas for business improvement come about and whether they are really original and new. For example, today there is the widespread application of lean manufacturing processes and tools in manufacturing, health care, the military and many other types of enterprises. While the term was coined by James Womack and his colleagues at the Lean Enterprise Institute, it is generally accepted that lean manufacturing is based on the Toyota Production System (TPS) and its focus on continuous improvement and the elimination of non-value-added waste.

In his book, "The Toyota Production System," Taiichi Ohno (its father in the late 1940s) credits Henry Ford with many of the original ideas behind the TPS. Ohno read Ford's book "Today and Tomorrow" and learned about the assembly line that Ford had developed and implemented for his Model T assembly operation. Ohno studied the continuous-flow process that Ford developed when he visited Ford's Dearborn plant, and subsequently used these observations and ideas as the basis for his Toyota Production System. He adapted it to the needs of Toyota where they were producing very few automobiles in a low-volume/high-mix environment instead of Ford's high-volume/low-mix model.

The continuous-flow process with demand pull from feeder operations to assembly that Ford pioneered on the Model T line was the foundation that Ohno used to develop the Toyota Production System. On his visit to the U.S., he also visited American supermarkets, and the replenishment of grocery items on the store shelf was the idea behind his kanban systems.

In his autobiography, Henry Ford wrote that his inspiration for the continuous-flow production line came from his visit to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. While there, in addition to seeing his first internal combustion engine, he visited some of the meat packers' slaughterhouses at the Chicago stockyards. There, he saw a continuous disassembly line that reduced a live hog to, as Philip Armour said, "everything but the squeal" in less than 20 minutes, and that was the inspiration for Ford's continuous-flow-assembly process.

So, this lean manufacturing process that so many of us are implementing today is the product of continuous improvement and refinement of an idea that Henry Ford had on a visit to a slaughterhouse 113 years ago.

I think the lesson from this is simple: To help your business become globally competitive and grow, you need to get outside of your four walls and see what others are doing. Then adapt and improve on these ideas to apply them to your business instead of remaining isolated in your own operation, only knowing what you have seen every day and trying to reinvent the wheel.

Ralph Keller is president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, an organization dedicated to cultivating understanding, analysis and exchange of productivity methods and their successful application in the pursuit of excellence. He has been an operations practitioner for the past 35 years.

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