The History of Lean Manufacturing and Why the Products You Buy Actually Work
In the 1970s, manufacturers in North America and Europe had a serious problem. Japanese companies that had long been dismissed as quaint and largely irrelevant were eating into their market shares and profit margins like rapacious predators. Worried executives in cities from Detroit to Dusseldorf quickly dispatched teams of efficiency experts to Japan to find out what companies like Toyota, Hitachi and Sony were up to. They wanted to know what could be done to reverse what they saw as a worrying and potentially ruinous trend.
Unfortunately, most of these teams were dazzled by Japanese culture and completely missed the secret of their suddenly surging competitors. They came back and told their CEOs that Japanese workplace culture was the ingredient they were missing, and soon western executives were wearing overalls, eating their lunch next to factory workers and perfuming elaborate calisthenics routines before starting their workdays.
It comes as no surprise that none of this had any effect. Improved morale does not lower overheads and egalitarian attitudes do not pay the rent. Japanese companies were not concerned about their share prices or quarterly sales figures, but they were focused on building a manufacturing foundation that would serve them for decades to come. What was really driving their manufacturing success was a commitment to engineering and a focus on lean production methods, and today’s consumers, who have grown used to products that work and don’t break, owe them a great deal of thanks.
The Muda of All Concepts
This 1970s wake-up call and the epiphanies that followed are the reasons why so many of the terms used to describe lean manufacturing are Japanese. Chief among these esoteric terms is Muda. Muda is the Japanese word for wastefulness and futility, and it is the principal that turned Japanese carmakers and electronics manufacturers into global powerhouses. Companies like Honda and Canon identified activities that added value and helped them to make products that consumers actually wanted to buy, and they then looked for activities that drained resources without creating value. These non-value adding activities were then separated into two categories that allowed Japanese companies to eliminate waste and save money without impacting product quality.
Type I Muda Activities
These are activities crucial to manufacturing a quality product that do not provide customers with a benefit that they can see or touch. Examples of Type I Muda activities include product quality testing, inspections and crash tests.
Type II Muda Activities
Muda Type II activities squander resources while adding no benefit for either the manufacturer or consumer, and it is eliminating them that forms the foundation of all modern lean production methods. Toyota is seen as the pioneer in this area for good reason, and Kiichiro Toyoda built his company by reducing or eliminating what he saw as the seven great wastes.
Mura Makes the World Go Around
Mura is a Japanese word that means irregularity or inequality, and it is used to describe the just-in-time production philosophy that made Toyota the world’s largest auto manufacturer. Mura is the way that Muda principles are put into practice, and it is achieved by ordering carefully, scheduling jobs prudently to avoid bottlenecks and choosing reliable business partners. Rubber Industries Inc. embraces Mura by concentrating all of its operations at a vast 5-acre campus, adopting a first-in, first-out production strategy and establishing strategic partnerships with some of the most respected manufacturers and suppliers in Asia.
A Muri Way to Run a Business
Muri means unreasonable or impossible in Japanese, and it is incorporated into lean manufacturing by standardizing production and business practices whenever possible to eliminate waste and prevent mistakes. At Rubber Industries Inc., each step of the production process is broken down into its component parts and analyzed carefully to identify areas that can be improved. It is this fastidious attention to detail that has made us capable of doing in days or even hours what our competitors take weeks or months to accomplish.
In Plain English
Rubber Industries Inc. workers do not perform push-ups or jumping jacks before they clock in, and our senior executives may have a slightly nicer bathroom to use. While our corporate culture remains distinctly American, what we have taken from Japanese companies like Nissan and Panasonic is a commitment to making the very best products available and delivering them to our customers at a price that scarcely seems possible. Lean manufacturing principles like Muda, Mura and Muri are the reason why we can produce quality steel prototypes in a day and custom molded rubber or silicone prototypes in as little as 72 hours. The wisdom of manufacturing pioneers like Kiichiro Toyoda inspires us to invest millions into what is already a state-of-the-art facility, and it is our success at incorporating their philosophies into our day-to-day operations that makes us the first choice for Fortune 500 companies and small local businesses alike.