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How much of a role does the history and evolution of lean manufacturing play in the context of Product Development? 

A Glimpse into History: Lean Manufacturing 🏭

It’s a big question, isn’t it?

The role of lean manufacturing in product development is huge, monumental even. Lean manufacturing, though prevalent throughout the ages, really got its name in the late 40s and 50s at Toyota. Chief Engineer Taiichi Ohno started standardizing a method of working that eventually came to be known as the Toyota Production System, or more colloquially, “the Toyota way.” 

Keep these points in mind around the importance of Lean Manufacturing:

  • Pioneering Practices: Lean manufacturing introduced a standardized way of working that prioritized efficiency and value creation.
  • Roots in Toyota: Originating from Toyota in the late 40s, lean principles have shaped industries far beyond automotive manufacturing.
  • Foundation for Modern Techniques: The methodologies and principles of lean manufacturing have laid the groundwork for various modern product development practices.
  • Focus on Value: Lean emphasizes identifying and creating value in every step of the process, ensuring products are built with purpose.
  • Ubiquitous Influence: Lean manufacturing principles are seen across various industries, highlighting their adaptability and continued relevance.

Decoding Lean: More Than Just Efficiency 🤔

Lean, at its core, is about identifying value. It’s about understanding what makes your product worthwhile and mapping out the chain that creates that value. It’s more than just seeking efficiency; it’s about making the workflow smooth, reducing work in progress to a minimum, and then chasing after perfection.

  • Identifying Value: What does your product bring to the table? That’s a question many can’t answer.
  • Mapping the Value Chain: Determine the steps to create value, identify the valuable steps, and understand how long these steps take.
  • Establishing Flow: The aim is to create a seamless process from start to finish.

The Toyota Vision: Single Piece Flow 🚗

Toyota had a vision, a dream even. It was a simple concept: single-piece flow. The idea was that when a customer asked for a car, they would build it right then and there. A seamless, smooth process from request to realization.  

Even though the practicality of building one car at a time for a company as large as Toyota was challenging, this vision was their version of perfection at the time.

Underlining the Significance of Toyota’s Vision: 

Pursuit of Perfection: Toyota’s vision of single-piece flow was a pursuit of perfection, aiming to meet customer needs instantaneously. 

Customer-Centric Approach: The philosophy centred around immediate response to customer requests, underlining the importance of the customer in the manufacturing process.

Minimising Work in Progress: The approach emphasized the reduction of ongoing, uncompleted work to the bare minimum necessary to deliver value.

Influence on Lean Practices: Toyota’s vision significantly shaped lean manufacturing principles, focusing on flow and smoothness in the production line.

Setting Industry Standards: Toyota’s pursuit set a precedent for efficient and customer-focused production practices.

Lean Manufacturing vs. Product Development: A Different Focus 🔄

Lean originates from reducing defects in manufacturing and simplifying the process to maximize profitability.

In product development, the focus shifts slightly. We build products once, and thus, while efficiency is desirable, it isn’t paramount.

  • Efficiency vs. Problem Solving: In product development, solving the problem correctly takes precedence over efficiency.
  • Focus and Flow: Concentrating on one problem at a time ensures swift resolution.

Lean Thinking: The Backbone of Product Development 💡

Product managers often find themselves engaged in understanding what’s valuable. They interact with customers, stakeholders, and other interested parties to discern the problem and whether it can be solved. This approach mirrors the lean way of thinking.

  • Solving the Right Problem: Lean thinking is about understanding and solving the problem efficiently.
  • Continuous Improvement: The agile mindset borrows from lean by always striving for better products and processes.

Lean as the father of Agile Thinking 🌱 

Lean can be considered a precursor to agile ways of thinking. Its impact on product development isn’t necessarily in the tools and techniques directly used in manufacturing but in the underlying philosophy, culture, and mindset.

author avatar
John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.

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