Skip to content

The etymological origin of lean

March 8, 2010

Most things exist long before they are given a name.  Lean is no exception.  I’m not talking about the 12th century Old English word hloene, later Middle English lene, which our friends at Merriam-Webster define as “deficient in flesh” or “containing little or no fat”.  I’m talking about a more recent coinage, referring to that revolutionary production system pioneered by Toyota.

The year was 1989, Madonna’s Like a Prayer was topping the Billboard charts and I was writing my thesis at Reed College on the use of lean production management by Japanese auto manufacturers.  Back then, lean, an elegant term that economically describes Toyota’s preeminent industrial achievement, was not in wide use.  Had it been, perhaps my thesis title, Industrial Relations and Production Management in the Japanese Automobile Industry: The Case of Transplants, would have been shorter.

In fact, it is well known that lean was coined by John Krafcik in his 1988 Sloan Management Review article “Triumph of the lean production system.”  It is less well known that Krafcik adopted the term late in his academic career.  In his early academic papers, including “Learning from NUMMI” (1986 ), an internal working paper of MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program, through his 1988 MIT masters thesis, he didn’t call it lean.  He called the production system used by Toyota and a small number of other Japanese automakers fragile.

So, when did it change from fragile to lean?  And why?

In The Machine that Changed the World, the book by by James Womack et. al. that introduced lean concepts to a broader audience, the authors use the term fragile only once:

…Lean production is fragile.  Mass production is designed with buffers everywhere — extra inventory, extra space, extra workers — in order to make it function.  Even when parts don’t arrive on time or many workers call in sick or other workers fail to detect a problem before it is mass produced, the system still runs.

The term fragile, while not terribly inspiring, made sense.  In Krafcik’s early papers, he was drawing a distinction between robust manufacturing — the kind practiced by General Motors and others, characterized by large buffer inventory stocks, long production runs between die changes, vast factory floors and a high degree of specialization among factory workers — and, essentially, its opposite.

In contrast, Toyota’s approach to manufacturing does indeed seem fragile.  Inventories arrive just in time, so one slow delivery or one bad batch of parts and the whole factory can shut down.  Making the system work requires flexibility on the part of factory workers.  Flexibility requires investment and that investment can be easily lost if an economic downturn precipitates layoffs.  The whole thing seems on the verge of collapse.

To resolve the question, I contacted Glenn Mercer, Director of MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program (IMVP) and he very generously conveyed my etymological query to John Krafcik, now President of Hyundai Motor USA, and John Paul MacDuffie, another influential researcher who is now Associate Professor of Management at Wharton.

The answer from Mr. Krafcik and Mr. MacDuffie, as encapsulated by Mr. Mercer, was “The Japanese guy I was working with translated the Japanese words as fragile and robust.  When we discussed our work with American managers they reacted negatively to fragile, so we dreamed up lean.”

So there’s your answer.  Clearly, calling a production system fragile, though accurate in many ways, is no way to sell others on its merits.  Without this re-branding, would lean production have gained acceptance in the English-speaking world?  I like to think fragile production would have succeeded on its merits but it likely would have struggled in the marketplace of ideas.  You can use a name like Smuckers to sell jelly but management concepts are another matter.

[Note: Sincere thanks to the IMVP for permission to use Mr. Krafcik’s internal working paper in this post.]

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2013 3:33 pm

    Fragile seems like a rather superficial definition of the Toyota management system, which is in fact quite resilient to shocks and adaptive, in many ways “antifragile” to borrow Nassim Taleb’s new term.

    Is a physically fit human “fragile” because they are 3-5 days away from death without water? Perhaps. How many of us have a “fragile” supply of <5 days of water in our house in case a natural disaster or worse cuts off supply? A lean supply chain or management system is not characterized by a snapshot of how much inventory or assets they have on hand but rather by their ability to bounce back thanks to the fact that they haven't invested in a lot of resources that don't add value or expose problems or promote creative problem solving on a day-to-day basis.

    The Productivity Press translation of Workplace Management by Taiichi Ohno the word "lean" appears in 1988. It's possible that this inspired the above-mentioned American researchers, particularly Womack and Jones.

    Footnoted in the 2012 McGraw-Hill edition of the Ohno book:

    8 The Japanese word genryou (減量) literally means “reduce weight,” and this
    expression is used both for “dieting” and for companies becoming more streamlined.
    The English word “lean” was used for genryou (減量) management in the English
    translation of Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management, published by Productivity Press
    in 1988.

    9 Ohno uses wordplay with genryou (限量) by replacing the “gen” character (減) for
    “reduced” with (限) to mean “limited.”


  1. A chat with James Womack « RK2 Blog
  2. Secara Etimologis, Lean adalah Sistem yang Rapuh? | ShiftShift
  3. What I’m Reading 8/29/13: Forcing Happiness, Saving $$ By Not Using Your Health Insurance, and More | Lean Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: