The Machine That Changed the World
Author: James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos
Publication Date: 1990
Book Description: What’s the key message?
The Machine That Changed the World is the product of a 5-year, $5M study of the international auto industry. It was really an exploration of the Toyota Production System and contrast to the remainder of the industry. This book broke lean production from a relatively obscure topic among a small percentage of manufacturers to a mainstream focus that drew the attention of executives in the board room to those on the front lines. Virtually the entire U.S. automotive industry began to explore and apply lean after this book.
While this book is by no means a tutorial on how to apply lean to your own organization, it is a thoroughly researched and contextually significant book. Chapter 2, The Rise and Fall of Mass Production, provides an excellent history of craft production of automobiles, its pros and cons, and how the transition to mass production occurred and why. This provides insights into how the industry is currently structured as well as struggles to make the leap to lean production. Chapter 3, The Rise of Lean Production, is much shorter but briefly outlines a history of this shift.
Part 2 of the book attempts to detail the Elements of Lean Production with chapters on Running the Factory, Designing the Car, Coordinating the Supply Chain, Dealing with Customers and Managing the Lean Enterprise. The level of detail varies, with clearly a greater depth of the factory than other areas. While this is an early book, the level of insight is mostly at the surface, based on what is observable, versus the meaning or thinking behind the artifacts. Nevertheless, it covers a great many topics, observations and detailed facts about the Toyota Production System through the eyes of the research team.
The final part of the book attempts to deal with the issue of diffusion of lean production beyond Toyota and throughout the industry. It highlights the point, a point made then in 1990 but still forgotten often today, that “Japanese does not equal lean.” It also addressed 3 obstacles. Obstacle one is the Western mass producers. To this they suggest that every mass producer needs a lean competitor located right across the road, which, over 15 years later, it seems they have. Also, the mass producers of the West need a better system of industrial finance that demands they do better while supplying the large sums needed to turn the large companies around, which they also seem to have. And that mass producers will need a crisis to truly change, which many now face. The second obstacle is outdated thinking about the world economy and globalization. And the third obstacle is the inward focus on the Japanese lean products, adding that the Japanese firms “lack a final and essential innovation: the ability to think and act globally rather than from a narrow national perspective.”
How does it contribute ot the lean knowledge base?
The total contribution of this book is incalculable. It is hard to imagine that lean would be anywhere near as pervasive and universally accepted as it is today had it not been for those who read, and believed, The Machine That Changed the World. It’s current significance is greatly reduced as the body of knowledge has greatly expanded beyond this introduction.
What are the highlights? What works?
There is no book on the topic of lean production that was more thoroughly researched as a foundation. As it clearly states on the cover of the original edition, it is the output of a 5-year, $5 million study of the global automotive industry. Special research assistants were brought on to focus on different subjects such as supply chain, production and product development. Interviews and analytical research were completed thoroughly across the entire industry. While it is clear that there were several preconceived biases leading the research, it is presented thoroughly and objectively.
The other strength of this book is that it doesn’t just focus on Toyota but focuses on the contrasts between Toyota and their peers. By focusing the contrasts it is much easier to understand and digest.
What are the weaknesses? What’s missing?
This book is cover to cover about the automotive industry. The solutions and situations presented within are often applicable to many industries, but it would first be important to understand the intricacies of the automotive industry to understand the full context of the ideas in the book. Beyond the limits of transferring ideas from the auto industry to others, this book may also turn off someone trying to learn about lean that can’t get past the industry context.
The other concern about this book is that it is entirely about what lean production is, not how to do it. Someone looking for ideas on how to transform their organization will not find answers here. If you copy what is read, you will only be copying solutions to someone else’s problems, not a transformation strategy. Know your purpose in reading this book before doing so.
How should I read this to get the most out of it?
Many people have difficulty reading this book. It is written through a compilation of a large number of researchers. And the value of this book is in the details, not the summaries. Therefore, it should mostly likely be read thoroughly and not skimmed. Most importantly, read it for the right reason. If you are interested in the history and context of lean, or the automotive industry, then study the book thoroughly. If you are only interested in how to apply lean for your own organization’s success, then return this to the shelf.