“Birth of Lean.” Comments on the book title


Back on July 14th we created a post about the book “The Birth of Lean.” A contention was made that the book should be renamed from “The Birth of Lean” to “The Birth of TPS.” For those not familiar, TPS stands for Toyota Production System. We responded to the comment that the title “Birth of Lean” is indeed correct and were immediately rebuffed. We were told that “lean and TPS are not the same thing, despite your protestations.” And that “the ethical thing to do would be to change the title and not mislead your customers. It’s not difficult to do the right thing.”

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion. In some cases there are genuine misunderstandings. Other interactions may well have hidden agendas. Often online exchanges don’t change opinions. In any case, such comments are quickly lost on internet platforms – an example of today’s news being tomorrow’s chip (fries for those outside the U.K.) paper wrapper. However, over recent months, disagreements on the supposedly more professional social media platforms are becoming more noticeable to me. I’m not sure whether I am just more aware of them or whether there are algorithms at work – more commented upon posts becoming more prevalent in a feed, perhaps?

Is the title “The Birth of Lean” correct?

Having a little vacation time available, I decided to think a little more deeply about the nature of comments like these. Why are positions taken up so quickly online? Are comments becoming more aggressive? Is it just that we can’t determine tone from the written word? My conclusion was (as with most lean thinking) that it’s all in the situation. The issue being debated, the people debating it, the motives and rewards for taking a particular stance.

The question remained as to what, if anything, to do with the contention above? Our ethics have been questioned. It has been claimed that we have misled our customers. Those are serious accusations and deserve a response to the lean community. We didn’t publish “The Birth of Lean” but our affiliate in the USA, The Lean Enterprise Institute did. So, I decided to do what any earnest lean thinker would do: Get the facts; Weigh and decide; Take action and Check results.

The issue was with the title of “The Birth of Lean” book. Is the title the correct one? To “get the facts” I contacted a number of people. Firstly, I contacted John Shook. For those that aren’t aware, John was the first Westerner to be employed by Toyota in Japan. He is the person “most responsible” for the title and we thought it best to publish his response in full:

John Shook’s response

Hi Dave,

Thanks for informing me of the questions raised about The Birth of Lean. Great to see the book getting attention! It is an outstanding book – one of the most important in LeanWorld and should be read more widely! 

As for the title, the question is much ado about nothing. I’ve been mulling the idea of writing an article on “translation mistakes I have made”. Translation mistakes I have indeed made over the years. But this is not one of them.

I am the person most responsible for the title, as well as the rest of the translation. I found the book in Japanese, proposed publishing the translation to LEI, approached the Japanese authors and publisher, and coordinated the actual translation work. I did substantial portions of the translation myself and read and “approved” the rest. My point here is simply to make it clear that IF there is a crime here, I am the culprit. 

However, the title is fine. Note that the individual who actually proposed the title was one of Toyota’s most trusted translators in Japan. Cultural appropriation couldn’t have been further from his intent. The Japanese authors also weighed in and were happy with the translation overall, including the title. Note also that author Taka Fujimoto writes in English as well as you or me. He has authored dozens of papers and several books in English. This includes the seminal “Evolution of a Production System at Toyota.” It is the most extensive examination of the topic at hand. Taka is no stranger to the cultural (or technical) dimensions of Toyota’s system of working. By the way, it is his work that comprised the bulk of content in “Machine” on product development.  

We did in fact debate the title during the process of producing the translation. But the debate was not around the use of the term lean, rather the term “birth.” The most direct translation of the Japanese title would be “The Origins of TPS.” Anyone who has translated from Japanese to English knows that each sentence entails decisions about word choice and more. I make no claims to have always got it right. 

My own policy from the beginning (when I started doing this kind of work for Toyota in 1983) has been to use common English words whenever possible. 

My own practice is to begin with a quite direct translation, ensure that the translation of each passage is accurate, and then ask how would each passage be best stated if it were generated originally in English.  

Once accuracy is ensured, my policy (I emphasize “my” policy because this is the way I do it; others do it differently, which is fine) of using as few Japanese words as possible. For many years, my thinking was that the only Japanese words that students of lean must know were gemba and kaizen (with a tip the hat here to Masaaki Imai!) Of course, more technically inside TPS there are a few more. Jidoka and heikunka defy direct translation in a single word.  Others, such as standardized work, the standard English terminology works well enough. (Haha – observing the turmoil over the years with translations of “5S”, it has been nice to see that I am not the only one who has struggled – I could write an article about that alone.) 

And there are other terms that are on the cusp: can we find suitable English or should we stick with the Japanese. Translating “muda” as waste is not wrong, but we really should try to understand muda absent its relationship with mura and muri, where sticking with the three Japanese terms really helps. 

Kata has more recently been added to the Japanese terms associated with lean, as has sensei, cases in which I understand the arguments to use the Japanese terms. However, in both cases, the English meaning has strayed a bit from the Japanese original. Hey, if it’s useful, I guess it’s okay. 

Andon and obeya, too, are interesting cases. Alternative English terms are available. But is it better to use the Japanese term and explain the multiple layers of meaning that it contains? Hoshin kanri is another; with that one, I often find people using the term in confusing ways, but the English alternatives open themselves to very problematic interpretation. 

I cringe when see terms like yamazumi and kamishibai, thinking surely we can use existing English terms (in the case of yamazumi) or come up with new ones (in the case of kamishibai.)  

In that vein, I still fully accept the rationale of the MIT team when they decided it was best to come up with an English term to describe what they had discovered at Toyota. Their thinking was to go back to the original *intention* of the system or process or phenomenon at hand and to describe that in terms that make it independent of any given company or national culture. So, lean. 

(I should note that were I in that room when John Krafcik, Jim Womack and others chose the term, I would have proposed something else . But in the end “lean” is fine – we just need to continue to explore, to take the meaning deeper and further. Doing so requires going back to the origins at Toyota in Japan – as we did with Birth of Lean – as well as experimenting in every locale, every instance of work around the world – as has happened with the lean movement, which we’ve seen evolve in unpredictable ways.)

Toyota, for its part, was also very happy that their system had been “discovered” and found articulation in a western English language setting. I was still working for the company in Toyota City at the time of the launch of Machine That Changed the World. “Machine” (and “lean”) was big news and there was a great sense of satisfaction that what we had been working on for many years was receiving recognition. Jim Womack and Dan Jones received thanks directly from Shoichiro Toyoda in personal meetings shortly after publication and in Toyota City as recently as four years ago in Toyota City (it was awesome that Dr. Toyoda was eager to meet with us; he is well into his 90s now.) 

That’s not to say that Toyota is okay with many of the misunderstandings of lean or TPS have unfolded over the years. Indeed, in application, I can see how we could apply the term/concept of cultural appropriation to many of the mechanical-side only (minus the people or social and culture sides) interpretations of lean have proliferated. It’s interesting. There is still much to learn. You know, industrial organizations and the problems presented by them are only a couple hundred years old. We have much to explore and, to me, it is the questions (not dogmatic answers offered up by so many) presented by lean thinking that offer the richest opportunity for that exploration. 

As for the many misinterpretations and misapplications, none of us are okay with that. In many ways, correction has occurred, in public discourse anyway. I don’t spend much time on social media and no longer try to read every “lean” book that comes out, but there seems to be a chorus of violent agreement that lean is not just a technical system. From clicking around a bit after receiving your note, I see that all one needs to do to generate a gaggle of “likes” is make the statement that “lean is not just tools; it’s a culture”. 

Well, yes, indeed it is (as we’ve known from the beginning.) 

It’s interesting. Some of the earliest lessons from NUMMI were of the “social” variety. The success NUMMI had with the “team concept” and mutual trust were understood both internally and externally. JV partner GM then had much difficulty with the people and cultural aspects of what they had the opportunity to learn at NUMMI. And from there came the many consulting firms that saw lean as the latest POM to sell. Unfortunate, indeed. But not surprising. 

It’s worth adding that a very social-dimension-skewed TQM was popular at the same time TPS (mainly in the guise of “JIT”) was becoming known in the 80s and then lean thinking in the 90’s. I’ve long presumed that the overly-technical or process view of lean that proliferated in the 90’s was in part a reaction (pendulum swing) to that overly-social view of the quality movement. At the time, many quality improvement advocates were pushing QC Circles and suggestion systems and teams as purely social activities (let’s vote on where to place the soda machine) divorced from critical changes in the actual technical details of…doing work. 

So, here we are in the 2020’s. The lean community has evolved and will continue to do so. Lean thinking entails, after all, a learning journey (as Dan articulates so well in his recent post.) Lean is indeed a journey in the pursuit of learning, and, it should be added, learning that is in the service of certain objectives and even ideals centered around value creation and prosperity. It is a noble journey. 

Apologies as I digressed. Back to the topic at hand, the book Birth of Lean. Again, I think it’s fantastic that renewed interest in the book has emerged. It is an important book and was so hard to translate! The original Japanese was often highly colloquial, defying easy interpretation even in Japanese, as some of the protagonist-subjects of each chapter were speaking in the local Mikawa dialect, and a Toyota plant-floor version at that. Anyone interested in the topic – the genesis of lean thinking and of TPS and of other dimensions of the Toyota Way (alongside the purely “TPS” originators, Nemoto, the innovator TQM and hoshin kanri and A3 process is featured as is overall system “architect” Eiji Toyota) – benefits from a deep dive into the Birth of Lean. As for the title, the title is fine. John

Lean & The Machine That Changed The World

So, in search of more facts, I went back to the materials and the authors of “The Machine.” It is indeed correct that the term “lean” was written in the title of a scholarly article for the first time in 1988. The article, by John Krafcik, “Triumph of the Lean Production System” was published in Sloan Management Review in the Fall (Autumn in the U.K.) The term appears earlier in minutes from the International Motor Vehicle Program (IMVP) International Policy Forum Meeting held at Lake Como, Italy in May of the same year.

In Krafcik’s paper “European Manufacturing Practice in a World Perspective” the term “fragile” production is used alongside the term lean as follows: “Japanese plants do tend to follow a leaner, more “fragile” production management policy compared to the buffered, “robust” policies of most of their American and European competitors.” Out of interest, the terms “robust” and “fragile” are taken from Haruo Shimada and John Paul MacDuffie, from an IMVP working paper published in December 1986. Earlier in September 1986, Shimada published an IMVP internal working paper title “Industrial relations and “Humanware”: An analysis of Japanese investment in the United States.” This paper also discusses fragile and robust in the context of a “humanware” system. That is the production system, described as both the hardware and the social organisation operating together.  

What have the origins of the terms got to do with responding to the criticisms? Well, it concerns where the term “lean” came from and what it means. The term “lean” was coined to describe the techniques the Japanese producers were using to gain competitive advantage in the auto industry at the time. The researchers found that Toyota led the development of these techniques and the term lean was used to describe them. The researchers’ conclusions were that the lean system was superior to the (at the time) mass production systems used by Western manufacturers and that, to remain competitive those manufacturers would need to respond. To re-iterate, the term lean was used to describe what the researchers had observed at Toyota!

Why use the term lean?

However, why use the term lean? The term “lean” was used because it accurately (at the time) described what researchers found. “Lean production is ‘lean’ because it uses less of everything compared with mass production – half the human effort in the factory, half the manufacturing space, half the investment in tools, half the engineering hours to develop a new product in half the time. Also it requires keeping far less than half the needed inventory on site, results in many fewer defects, and produces a greater and ever growing variety of products.”  The Machine That Changed the World pp.13.

The point here was that the researchers realised that the principles were applicable beyond Toyota and wanted a generic term to describe what they could see. Imagine VW or Ford telling their shareholders and team members that they were trying to implement the Toyota Production System. I suspect it would not be successful. The rationale of the MIT team was that it was best to come up with an English term to describe what they had learned at Toyota. Their thinking, as John states in his letter, was to go back to the original intention of the system or process or phenomenon at hand and to describe that in terms that make it independent of any given company or national culture. Therefore lean was coined.

In summary – The Birth of Lean

So that’s the history that answers the criticisms relating to a post we made about “The Birth of Lean” book. 

  • The term lean was coined to describe what researchers found at Toyota. 
  • The term lean was used so as to be independent of any given company or national culture but the original description and principles come from observations at Toyota.
  • Without the observations at Toyota, the term lean would never have been used. 
  • For the book “Birth of Lean” The term “birth” was used as it describes the beginning of lean.
  • The book title is obviously OK and should remain as is. It is both historically and factually accurate, not inaccurate.
  • It is therefore logical to conclude that the origins/birth of lean happened at Toyota.

Do the above conclusions mean that customers have been misled? Not by the Lean Enterprise Academy. Nor by the authors who were happy with the title. Not by the translators. Not by the publisher, The Lean Enterprise Institute. Readers can make up their own mind. It’s a fine book and helps anyone that wants to learn about how they can apply lean in their environment.

What is potentially more concerning, though, is the comment made that Birth of Lean “might have been a good title for another book, ca 2000, when ”Lean” still meant generic TPS. Today, it’s too late, as the “Lean” label has been so overused as to lose any meaning.” It is true that there are many misinterpretations and misapplications of lean. None of us (including Toyota) are OK with that. But, as we can see online, there is a huge amount of material, often not wholly accurate in the subject area of lean. Inaccuracy exists in whatever field you are in. It’s the nature of the ease with which publication can take place on the internet. Just look at the arguments on social media platforms about six sigma, TQM, TOC, TPM and the wider fields of economics, environmentalism, social studies etc. 

Just because a term is used wrongly, doesn’t mean we need to stop using it and use something else instead. That’s not a very logical argument to follow, where is the constancy of purpose in that? The time to change a standard is when the standard doesn’t work. Being unaware of something is fine, engineering a new term in the hope of selling the same thing in a different wrapper is quite cynical. 

I explained at the outset that we believe everyone is entitled to their opinion. For us at The Lean Enterprise Academy, we have a duty to, at least, articulate what lean is. To explain where it came from and what we have learned about the best way to be successful at using and implementing it. Probably even more important is to ask and reveal the next sets of questions that need answering as good lean thinking exposes our next challenges. 

The claim that we were misleading customers is an incendiary statement to make. We were told the “right thing” we should do. It strikes me that this person didn’t get the facts. They decided, from their view, that the title should be changed. I suspect that debate (online or face to face) won’t change that. Instead, I offer an alternative to their “right thing.”

That is to always show respect. You show respect by Getting the Facts; Weighing and deciding; Taking action and Checking results. Try to articulate as clearly as possible, recognising that it is extremely difficult to get across tone and manner in the written word. So, the next time you see a post weigh it up. Is this person posting to genuinely help others? What is the motive for the post? As a not for profit organisation founded to further research (learn), teach and coach and share a phenomenon that researchers found at Toyota all those years ago we will keep trying to do that. …