It seems funny to me that lean manufacturing is considered by so many in the woodworking industry as some new-fangled management idea. After all, it was way back in 1984 – 28 years ago – when I met Shigeo Shingo and was introduced to the concept. Dr. Shingo and Taiichi Ohno were part of the team that began in the 1950s to develop the Toyota Production System, which is the foundation of what we call lean manufacturing today.

When I met Dr. Shingo, he was already in his mid-70s, but he was just being discovered by American productivity experts even though the efficiency principles he is known for had already been in use for many years. Dr. Shingo, in his typically humble fashion, told me himself that many of the production ideas he is known for were largely based on early 20th century concepts developed by American efficiency pioneers such as Frederick Winslow Taylor and further developed in the 1950s by Dr. W. Edwards Deming.

Resistance to change 

So, what keeps American manufacturers in general and the woodworking industry in particular from more fully adopting these ideas and benefitting from increased productivity and efficiency? I think there are a number of issues at work here that go beyond basic resistance to change. One factor is simple terminology. Many lean consultants and advocates absolutely bask in a sea of acronyms and special terms, many of which are Japanese. That can be very off-putting for the average American business owner who can’t tell a kanban from a poka-yoke (see our glossary of lean terms). Such confusion might help to make the consultants more important, but it does little to help improve efficiency.

Another factor is that many of the concepts of lean manufacturing seem counter-intuitive at first. How can making one product at a time be more efficient than big batches? One has to see the results to believe. How can a lot of minor changes add up to huge gains in efficiency? Again, you probably have to see to believe.

The tire change lesson 

When I put that last question to Dr. Shingo nearly 30 years ago, he smiled and asked if I’d ever had a flat tire on my car. Then he asked how long it took for me to change the tire myself. I guessed about 10 minutes. He then asked if I’d ever seen how fast the pit crews at the Indianapolis 500 could change a tire – a matter of seconds, not minutes. Now apply that kind of change to every part of your factory and see how much time you save.
There are more examples like that from prominent woodworking industry lean experts and advocates in this issue. The point is summed up in another Japanese word that gets bandied about in lean circles: kaizen. But all it really means is making a change for the better. What are you waiting for? 

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