Through many of our articles we focus on the future of manufacturing, such as upcoming trends and keeping up with new technology, but how did we get here? It’s important to take some time to think about the history of manufacturing and those visionaries whose contributions are still appreciated and felt today — whether you know about them or not.

It may surprise you to know that one of the greatest students of manufacturing in the modern age came out of Little Rock, Arkansas, but it’s true. Dr. James P. Womack was born there on July 27, 1948. As a child, his mother called him an exaggerator and a dreamer, but those traits stood him in good stead during his now fabled career.

After graduating from high school, Jim decided to move on from Arkansas, where his family had been since 1820. He moved to Chicago and obtained his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, then went on to advanced studies in transportations systems at Harvard, followed by a Ph.D. at MIT.

Dr. Womack and The Automotive Industry

Cars, speed and noise always fascinated Jim, so he focused his studies on urban transportation systems. He was project director and chief researcher on a project that resulted in the publication of The Urban Transportation System: Politics and Policy Innovation in 1978 by Alan Altshuler with Dr. Womack and John R. Pucher. It was hardly a best-seller, but a first step on the journey.

In 1979, during the era’s energy crisis, American automotive manufacturers were still churning out large gas-guzzling vehicles. Not many bought them. Instead, Americans were buying fuel-efficient foreign cars as fast as they could get their hands on them. When the energy crisis ended, they continued buying foreign cars, particularly Japanese models, because of the higher quality of the vehicles.

Revelation in Japan: The Toyota Production System

Both Ford and General Motors (GM) had connections with MIT — Alfred Sloan, the architect of GM as President and then Chairman from the early 1920s until 1955 — was an MIT electrical engineer. The Ford family sent its sons to the Sloan School of Management endowed by Sloan.

In 1979, Dr. Womack joined an MIT team to study the Japanese auto industry to find out why companies like Toyota were surging ahead as GM and Ford retreated. Dr. Womack and the team flew to Japan to visit the Gemba — the place where value creating work is done — where they soon realized that the story wasn’t about the Japanese auto industry as a whole: It was a story about the Toyota Production System (TPS) and the broader Toyota management system.

Interestingly, Dr. Womack had never been in a factory before he visited Japan. “What I didn’t know about how factories were supposed to work was my greatest advantage in understanding the new way they were working in Japan,” he said.

The team from MIT discovered that Toyota had developed a universally applicable system, now known as lean management, that was an alternative to Sloan’s modern management. Sloan’s ideas focused on an organization’s policies, systems and authority structures rather than the people and the work within the organization. Lean focused on helping people work more effectively.

The team from MIT set about documenting their experiences in Japan, first summarized in The Future of the Automobile (MIT Press, 1984). Dr. Womack and the team recognized that TPS continually created more value for customers with fewer resources — human effort, capital expenditure, inventories and rework. They were convinced that TPS and the Toyota management system were applicable in any company in any industry in any country, so they searched for a name that would demonstrate the philosophy’s universal nature. A young team member — John Krafcik, now CEO of Google’s Waymo autonomous car subsidiary — suggested they call it “lean.” The name stuck.

Introducing Lean to U.S. Manufacturing

In 1990, The Machine That Changed the World by Dr. Womack and co-authors Daniel T. Jones and Daniel Roos was published. For those of you who have read the book, you may have wondered how you missed the titular machine as you read it.

When it was submitted to the publisher, the manuscript had a much more academic title. Dr. Womack’s editor, Eleanor Rawson, called him one Sunday morning to tell him she had decided to change the title. When she told him what she wanted the new title to be, Jim protested that there was no machine in the book.

Eleanor was undaunted. “This title will sell books. It is decided. Goodbye.” The rest is history, since The Machine That Changed the World became one of the most influential books on manufacturing ever published.

Dr. Womack is also the author or co-author of several subsequent books, including Lean Thinking, Lean Solutions, Seeing the Whole and Gemba Walks, and he is the author of more than 150 articles.

The Lean Enterprise Institute

In 1997, Dr. Womack founded The Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI), a nonprofit education, publishing, research, and conference organization. Rather than categorize itself as a “Think Tank,” LEI considers itself a “Do Tank.” The Institute develops hypotheses and performs real-world experiments in real-world manufacturing plants to see if the hypotheses hold true. The goal is simple: make things better. Dr. Womack was the Chairman and CEO of LEI until 2010, but he continues to serve as a senior advisor. In 2007, LEI created a Lean Global Network of 23 other nonprofit institutes with the same mission around the world.

A Continuing Impact on Manufacturing

The influence that lean principles and Dr. Womack have had on manufacturing is undeniable. While some manufacturing people consider lean to be primarily an inventory management methodology, Dr. Womack considers it a management philosophy. Lean’s primary focus is on creating more value for customers by finding ways for employees, suppliers and customers to work together more effectively, and in the process, create more satisfying work for everyone involved.

Dr. Womack is still connected with MIT and the world of manufacturing, particularly the automotive industry, although he says, “the automotive industry is becoming the mobility industry.” He is currently developing a project that involves autonomy, hyper-connectivity, alternative energy and asset sharing. Sounds intriguing. It will be interesting to see what this innovative thinker comes up with next.

Dr. Womack is a true hero of manufacturing among us today, and I consider myself rather fortunate to hear him speak at a QAD Explore conference a couple years ago. Read other Heroes of Manufacturing articles to learn more about those who laid the foundation for the methods we operate by today.