The Machine That Changed The World

A book review.

The Machine That Changed The World. Ostensibly, this is a dry, technical book about the state of the automobile industry in 1990.

This book in now nearly 30 years old, why is it still relevant?

Well, at its core is a paradigm shift — a change in the philosophy of manufacturing and modern life.

The protagonist is the automobile, as first made part of everyday life by Henry Ford and his ‘mass production’. Ford is famous for the assembly line, for turning a pile of raw materials into a car in 80-something hours, for providing a living wage to factory workers, for changing the American way and the global landscape.

Douglas Adams jokes about this in the introduction to Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: “he chose the name “Ford Prefect” as being nicely inconspicuous”.
The Prefect was a popular model of car in England. Adams later explained that the alien character “had simply mistaken the dominant life form” of Earth.

In 1931, the opening of Ford’s Rouge Complex in Detroit integrated all aspects of making a car in one place and was the culmination of Ford’s master vision of how to make things.

The book describes how, 59 years later, manufacturing in North America did not changed. In 1990, we were still doing the same things we did in 1931 when horse and buggy were more commonplace than cars.

In the words of one of the book’s authors,

“We believe that the fundamentals of lean production are universal — applicable anywhere by anyone — and that many… have already learned this.”
“…the conversion to lean production will have a profound effect on human society — it will truly change the world.”

In truth, this is not a book about automobiles nor about “lean production” (which we’ll get to defining in a moment) but rather it’s a treatise on how people organize. The book outlines huge-scale collaborative efforts to make global change in harmony with the rules of the universe.

To wit: the authors describe a scientific approach to providing value in people’s lives.

The book pivots from a historic perspective on the dominance of US manufacturing into how the unique environment of post-war Japan fostered the development of “lean production”. Lean is a set of philosophies, which are codified a few different ways.

One of my favorites is Kaizen, which I actually first learned from a therapist I was seeing. Simon Rego is the Director of Psychology Training at Montefiore Medical Center, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Albert Einstein School of Medicine, and, I’d say, one of my key mentors in life.

Kaizen. If you plug it into Google, you get:

a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices, personal efficiency, etc.

When I’m asked, I say,

“Kaizen is the zen philosophy of always taking the smallest possible step forward.”

As Rego taught me, this has big advantages. If you mess up, it’s one little step. And just as in climbing a mountain, any significant journey starts with a series of steps.

In business, Kaizen gives discipline to change. It emphasizes changes which can be made quickly, continuously, and which offer clear observable feedback as to whether they are working or not. This is where the Americanization “Continuous Process Improvement” comes from.

It’s been an amazing privilege to learn so much about the origins of Kaizen and gain a broader perspective through lean. In some ways, Kaizen is the birthplace of lean. It’s deeper than just process improvement.

Kaizen isn’t a business tool, it’s a life philosophy, a guiding path for a righteous life. That’s why it’s such a big part of Rego’s core teachings and has become such an important part of my life.

Kaizen comes from the words, “Renew the heart and make it good.” — SkyMark

This is some incredibly spiritual, philosophical stuff for a production efficiency tool.

The next term we’ll look at is Muda, or ‘waste’. This is the thing you are trying to minimize through Kaizen. Muda is all-encompassing. It covers wasted time, wasted effort, wasted money, wasted resources, and wasted energy.

Remember Japan is a tiny island country which has to import most of their resources. Even growing food in Japan is a challenge. So out of this practical need for efficiency and preservation came a deep spiritual belief to live without excess.

This has huge positive environmental effects. Lean companies are inherently ‘greener’ than mass producers.

The book talks about Toyota’s Kaizen as a “continuous, incremental improvement process” through “collective suggestion”. Worker satisfaction is way higher in lean companies as a result of this collaborative engagement.

One of the biggest differences in philosophy between the Mass Producers and the Lean companies is that Mass Producers try to make the worker as replaceable as possible.

Lean companies invest enormous resources in training their people to be interdisciplinary, to the point where Mazda and Subaru could quickly retrain production workers to do sales when they experienced crises of demand.

Everyone is expected to do any job that’s required for the company to thrive, and everyone is committed to learning as many skills as possible to fit an role that is suddenly required.

According to the book, this developed as a result of labor laws imposed in Japan by the Americans following WWII. Unions had enormous power early on, and there were no poor displaced foreigners to fill menial roles, so the only way producers could grow was to offer basically lifetime employment.

The trade-off to lifetime employment? Employees have to be committed to adapting to change, through Kaizen.

The undercurrent of communism is strong. It stems from a highly communal culture that values the community above the individual and has a deep communal knowledge of history.

These organizations think in centuries, not financial quarters, which is why it’s mind-blowing that their profitability and growth were just absolutely crushing the big auto-manufacturers of North America and Europe.

It’s also interesting to see other societal beliefs creep into business. In the book Blue Zones, which is about longevity and health around the world, they describe how in Okinawa, Japan, when you are born you are placed into a small tribe of lifelong friends to look out for you and for whom you are responsible, a Moai.

Amazing, then to see echoes of this at Toyota and Honda, where one of the first Kaizens to show marked success was to organize production workers into small self-directed teams with a team leader, as opposed to random masses of production workers overseen by a foreman.

These teams work together for longer, and members are more likely to have life-long collaborative relationships, than at American companies.

This leader is not a ‘manager’ the way we think of in the US, but rather, something more like the captain of a sports team or the leader of a wilderness expedition — someone selected by group consensus for their leadership prowess and specific suitability for the problems the team is likely to face on their present mission.

Another big change at Toyota was the trend toward ultra-fast setup times for their work, beginning with the giant metal-forming presses to make body panels, bumpers, etc. These heavy machines needed to be set up precisely to avoid costly mistakes.

In the post-war boom, American companies, needing relatively fewer panels because of an extremely limited number of models, and producing massive quantities for the world’s largest market, had many expensive metal-forming presses. Specialists set up the machines and got them dialed in, taking days to reach acceptable quality and then typically leaving the press set up that way for months or years.

This could never work in Toyota City, because the Japanese had no money for many machines and needed to produce an enormous array of different types of vehicle — from luxury cars for diplomats to tiny trucks for farmers.

Over a couple decades of experiment and refinement, the Japanese kaizen process evolved a whole new system, where the production workers themselves set up the machines, which were adapted to be easier and faster to set up. They could produce exactly the panels needed for production that day on the assembly line.

Toyota would then use the panels produced almost immediately on new cars, making any defects obvious within hours as opposed to days or weeks of production for US cars. This feedback would reach the stamping operation and they’d fix the problem long before mountains of scrap or rework could be produced.

The goal was reducing muda, waste, in both the setup time and defective product. The means was kaizen, this continuous collective tinkering and incremental refinement toward reducing muda.

These little changes added up to completely different opportunities in other aspects of the lean businesses. We’ll explore those, including just in time delivery, total quality,lean sales, and organizational development and communications, in a follow-up to this post.

The big idea here is that a lot of little changes (kaizen), focused on an irrefutably fundamental goal (muda), can drive enormous change for the betterment of humankind.