Throwback Thursday: Taiichi Ohno, Father of Lean Manufacturing

The more inventory a company has, the less likely they will have what they need. This was the opinion of Taiichi Ohno, a Japanese industrial engineer, considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System, a management philosophy which in 1990s came to be known as Lean Manufacturing. Using Lean Manufacturing principles, manufacturing companies gain a competitive edge, reduce their manufacturing lead time, improve the quality of their products, and reduce waste. He devised the list of seven wastes (or muda in Japanese) as part of this system. His “just-in-time” system (kanban) revolutionized manufacturing processes.

Taiichi_Ohno.jpgSource: Wikipedia

Taiichi Ohno was born in Manchuria in eastern China in 1912. He graduated from Nagoya Institute of Technology and started working for Toyota Automatic Loom Works in 1932. The company was then sold to a British company and the owners started the business of manufacturing cars.  

Toward the end of the second world war, Ohno changed jobs and joined Toyota as a production engineer. At that time, the productivity of the company was low in comparison to America’s automobile manufacturing industry based in Detroit. For the next twenty years he continued to work his way up in the ranks of the Toyota organization. 

Ohno recognized inefficiency and wastefulness as the reasons for Toyota’s low productivity. He started working on ways to increase efficiency and eliminate waste in the part of the production process that he was responsible for. His ideas later became the core of the so-called Toyota Production System (TPS) that he and others subsequently developed between the 1940s and the 1970s. 

Several elements of this system are still used today, including muda (the elimination of waste), jidoka (the injection of quality) and kanban (the tags used as part of a system of just-in-time stock control).

In the book The Toyota Mindset: The Ten Commandments of Taiichi Ohno, author Yoshihito Wakamatsu shares Ohno’s approach of leading by example. He recounts the time Ohno was touring several Toyota factories with another manager. During the tour, the manager observed that several factories were not applying the Toyota Production System properly. The manager then asked Ohno, “I was wondering why you did not instruct the workers to correct it as we walked through.

Ohno’s answer to this was amazing. He said “I am being patient. I cannot use my authority to force them to do what I want them to do. It would not lead to good quality products. What we must do is to persistently seek understanding from the shop floor workers by persuading them of the true virtues of the Toyota System. After all, manufacturing is essentially a human development that depends heavily on how we teach our workers.”

Ohno became vice president of the company in 1975. He retired in 1978, continuing to work as a consultant until 1982. Ohno died on May 28, 1990 in Toyota City, Japan. He is considered one of the greatest Lean leaders whose ideas can help anyone in manufacturing put their thinking to work for the improvement of manufacturing processes in an organization. 


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