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A chat with James Womack

June 9, 2010

RK2 is well-represented at the Lean Enterprise Institute’s first annual Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit, happening now in Orlando, Florida.  Although it’s a balmy 92 degrees here in Disneytown, we’ve been sequestered in chilly air conditioned conference rooms for days.

Although he wasn’t expected to attend, Jim Womack is here, filling in as master of ceremonies and providing his incomparable perspective.  Jim, of course, is the co-author of The Machine that Changed the World and is the leading American voice of lean management.

I was pretty thrilled to chat with Dr. Womack and took the chance to ask about the origin of the term “lean,” a topic I covered in a previous post.

As Womack explains it, the term was coined in 1987 during a white board session in Jim’s office at MIT with “seven or eight” folks including John Krafcik and John Paul MacDuffie.  MacDuffie was fairly attached to the term “fragile,” a word used by a colleague translating from Japanese.  Of course, John Krafcik used the term in his early papers, as well.  However, it was pretty clear the term “fragile” wasn’t going to catch on with business managers.

The group assembled around Dr. Womack’s white board thought about an earlier production system pioneered by Henry Ford (“channeling Hank” as Jim puts it).  Observers at the time called his system of mass production “Fordism.”  Henry Ford preferred “flow.”  Afterall, that was a key attribute of the system.  Materials flowed continuously on the assembly line.

Jim Womack

So what does one call the production system pioneered by Toyota?  Toyotaism?  Japanism?  Those are words you use when you don’t have a clear understanding or theoretical framework.  “Fordism” is what Henry Ford did, whatever that was.  Mass production, flow production.  Those are more descriptive, specific terms.

“What is the key attribute of the Toyota production system?” Jim asked the group.  Many of the ideas revolved around the concept of doing more with less.  Less inventory, less shop floor space, fewer workers per unit.  John Krafcik proposed the term “lean” and that’s what they went with.  But, Womack said, lean still doesn’t perfectly capture the essense of the production system practiced by Toyota and others.

Asked what name he would have used if he could re-name it today, Womack said he doesn’t re-live the past.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 24, 2013 10:27 am

    I agree the word “Lean” doesn’t fully and sufficiently describe the Toyota approach.

    I wonder how things would have progressed if “Effective” had been the term instead of “Lean”?

    I had a chance to ask Jim about the word Lean in this podcast (about 20:50 in):

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