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September 4, 2013

Lean in the UK – in the 1920’s

This blog is an edited version of the Wikipedia entry on Frank George Woollard the British engineer who established something very like the lean production system at Morris Motors Ltd. It makes interesting reading about this little-known aspect of the history of lean.


In 1923 Frank George Woollard led the re-organisation of engine production at Morris from batch to flow, increasing output from less than 300 units per week in to 600 units within the year, and to 1200 units by December 1924. To achieve this remarkable increase in output, Woollard developed an advanced flow production system for low volume production. In comparison, reorganisation of Toyota’s engine shop in the 1950s, took six years – and at half the production volume of Morris Motors.


Woollard’s flow production system was remarkably similar to current-day Lean production, and utilised most features of today’s Lean production system methods and processes. This included (using current terminology): U-shaped cells, multi-skilled workers, takt time, standardized work, Just-In-Time, supermarkets, autonomation, quick change-over, etc.


As a result, Woollard was able to prove, prior to Toyota, that achieving flow in lower volume production resulted in costs that were lower than that which could be achieved by mass production.


Kiichiro Toyoda is credited with creating Just-in-Time (JIT) production in 1937, while Taiichi Ohno is credited with inventing “supermarkets” in 1953 to supply downstream processes. In fact, these innovations were established and used in flow production by Woollard between 1923 and 1925. Other innovations, such as autonomation, appear to have been discovered independently by Sakichi Toyoda and Frank Woollard.


Woollard viewed factory workers as part of the production system, not separate from it, and gave them responsibilities that would have normally be handled by supervisors. He also allowed workers to participate in efforts to improve production processes which was innovative for its time, but was rudimentary and more limited compared to Toyota’s systematic development of workers capabilities. Further, Woollard understood that achieving flow in production activities alone was not enough; management and workers must work to connect all processes, from beginning to end, to achieve flow throughout the enterprise.


Woollard clearly understood the idea and practice of continuous improvement in a flow environment, saying: “the virtue of flow production lies in the fact that it brings all inconsistencies into the light of day and so provides the opportunity for correcting them,” and “[the] high visibility conferred on the company’s activities by flow production will lead to unceasing and continuous improvement” (Woollard, 1954, p. 87).


Additionally, Woollard understood that workers had to be respected and also benefit from flow production, in addition to customers.


Although Woollard published many papers on his work, it wasn’t taken up by other British companies and is now largely forgotten. In January 2009 Professor Bob Emiliani published a 55th Anniversary Special Edition of Woollard’s 1954 book, “Principles of Mass and Flow Production”, available on Amazon.


Morris Motors Ltd. ceased to exist in 1952 showing that innovations in production methods and machinery are not sufficient to ensure long-term company success. Managers and employees must excel at many other business processes including responding to the voice of the customer with new designs, short cycle-time product development, introducing new technologies, aftermarket service, and so on. An advanced production system alone will not make a company successful long-term.