History of Flow Manufacturing

You might be surprised to know the the roots of Lean Manufacturing go back over 400 years (and maybe longer!). In this introductory lesson we review some of the history of Lean, and profile some of the heroes of the past who made it possible.

In this Memory Jogger we will remind you of some of the history of Flow Manufacturing, and its origins over 400 years ago.

From a geographic perspective, the documented origins of Flow Manufacturing point to the United States and Japan. This is not to say that these are the only two places where progress was made. There are documented accounts of Flow Manufacturing in Venetian shipbuilding 400 years ago!


Let’s take a look at some of the illustrious names in the Flow Manufacturing Hall of Fame.


The founder of Deere & Company was an expert Blacksmith, born in Vermont. After his apprenticeship as a blacksmith at the age of 17, he enter the trade himself to change the world of agricultural equipment and invent many breakthrough products, including the self-scouring steel plow. He moved to Illinois with his large family and after many inventions and a prosperous career, he left the day-to-day operations in 1857 to his son Charles who incorporated the Company under its current name. John Deere believed strongly in making only the highest quality products. In his own words: I will never put my name on a product that does not have in it the best that is in me. Those are words that the most advanced thinkers in the world of manufacturing would later live by.


Was a mechanical engineer who focused his career on the improvement of labor efficiency. Taylor is deservedly known as the father of “Scientific Management” and Industrial Engineering.

Taylor’s Scientific Management consisted of four basic ideas or principles:

  • •Replace crude estimates with methods based on the scientific study of work.
  • •Select, train, and develop employees using scientific criteria, rather than leaving workers to train themselves.
  • •Give worker detailed instructions at the task level.
  • •Plan the work scientifically and follow those instructions.

Those who criticize Taylor do have a point. No one could accuse him of being too nice a person, at least in his public persona. But look past that and, in Taylor’s work, you will see the solid foundation of Standardization, the use of Science to study work. Future Engineers built careers on that foundation.


Frank Gilbreth was the son of a hardware store owner and only had a high school education. He started his professional life as a bricklayer and over the years became one of the foremost experts in the field of process efficiency. Many people incorrectly associate his work with that of Taylor’s. While Taylor was concerned with the work, Gilbreth was concerned with the worker and his welfare. Frank and Lillian Gilbreth became the foremost authorities in Motion Studies looking to make work safe and efficient by minimizing motions. He and his wife Lillian were relentless in their pursuit of efficiency, practicing their ideas on their own large families. Yes, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth had 12 Children! Their adventures as portrayed in the novel “Cheaper by the Dozen”.


The American industrialist with a list of accomplishments and personal faults too long to list. Ford did not invent many things, but had an unparalleled vision for finding best practices and making them better. He did not invent the automobile, but made it accessible to the masses. He did not invent sequential progressive work, but he made it better and developed “Flow”. He did not invent standardization, but his drive to make car parts interchangeable or standard make Fords affordable and reliable. Ford and his Ford Motor Company was hub of innovation to which many of the greatest manufacturing minds flocked to learn and work.


The Japanese Manufacturing and business expert that is considered the father of the Toyota Production System. Taiichi Ohno was obsessive about designing lines and production systems to flow. Flow was at the center of Ohno’s thinking. He is credited with the categorization of the “Seven Forms of Waste” He was keen on finding and eliminating waste as a way to improve flow. Ohno clearly learnt from Taylor and the importance of applying the scientific method to manufacturing flow and continuous improvement. He did add one more dimension to scientific thinking: “Respect for People” valuing consensus over authority. His ideas and methods made Toyota one of the most successful manufacturing companies in history.


Let’s take a look at this evolution from a chronological point of view.

If you look at the illustrious names we mentioned in the prior section, you will also notice a concentration of knowledge that took off in the early 1900’s and completely changed the world of manufacturing from a trade to a science.

The early 1900’s saw the birth of Scientific Management and the application of the Scientific Method to the manufacturing processes.

During the post-war era the American statistician W. Edwards Deming helped Japanese industrialists to live within their means, and to relentlessly focus on quality.

The focus on product quality, flow, and continuous improvement that took place in Japan became very apparent in the 1970’s. Mass production was on the way out.

By the 1990’s no one was arguing any more about the merits and benefits of Flow Manufacturing; it became the standard. Today, if you are not building products in well-balanced flow lines, you are making yourself vulnerable to hungry competitors that will seize that opportunity at the first chance.

So, if you are not flowing yet, this is the right time to start!

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