Japanese Manufacturing Techniques – the early days of Lean in the UK

In the late ’80’s I was fortunate to join a very fast-growing electronics company that was one of the first UK manufacturers to adopt what was then known as “Just-in-Time Production”. I was employed as Materials Manager to implement a new MRPII system and to introduce Just-in-Time supply to a reduced supplier base. The concept of “Lean” was not then known, and the main focus of business improvement activities was around Total Quality Control, Zero Defects and Quality Circles.

One of the very few English language books available at the time was Richard J. Sconberger’s Japanese Manufacturing Techniques, first published in 1982, and still on my bookshelf. Even the title of the book shows that the main focus then was simply to copy what were thought to be the main techniques of successful Japanese manufacturers. In fact, each of the book’s nine chapters deals with one of these “techniques”.¬†¬†Chapter 4 in particular indicates this thinking: “The Debut of Just-in-Time Production in the United States. Lesson 4: Culture is no obstacle; techniques can change behaviour”

Sadly, this view still persists to this day with some manufacturers. They still see “Lean” – as we now call it – simply as a set of tools and techniques to be learned and applied. Not surprisingly this narrow approach rapidly leads to disappointment and then a search for the next “initiative”.

Over the last 30 years we’ve come to realise that Lean is a company-wide philosophy that requires strong Leadership at all levels, a respect for people and a willingness always to look for a better way. Yes, the right tools and techniques are important, but there’s much, much more to Continuous Improvement than tools and techniques.

If you’d like to share your own experiences of “Just-in-Time” and Lean, please register and comment. And if you’d like some help with your own Lean journey, please email me at Andrew.Nicholson@ImproveMyFactory.com

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