Title:  The Machine That Changed The World

Authors:  Womack, J P, Jones, D T & Roos, D

Printer:  Harper Collins

Date:  1990, republished 2007

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The tale of the superior performance of Toyota over its mass-producing competitors was first brought to widespread Western attention by “The Machine that Changed the World”. The success of this book was claimed to trigger much attention into finding:

a better way to organize and manage customer relations, the supply chain, product development, and production operations

Womack, J. P. and D. T. Jones (1996) ‘Lean Thinking’ New York, Simon & Schuster p9

The book documented the history of management thinking in the automotive sector from the early craft manufacturers, to the mass production techniques exemplified by Ford/GM, before telling the story of the TPS’s creation (circa 1950) and that of Toyota’s thought leader Taiichi Ohno.

Through necessity Ohno had developed a contrasting approach to the mass production of the US firms. Competitive advantage could not be won by Toyota through taking on the American giants at their own game – by competing to achieve economies of scale. Through experimenting firstly with simple die-change techniques (ways of stamping metal sheets), Ohno was able to perfect the whole process until it could be reduced from taking one day down to 3 minutes.

In doing so, he made the first of a series of counterintuitive discoveries: it cost less per part to make small batches of stampings than to produce in large batches. Ohno sought to understand more as to why less units and greater variety actually meant lower costs. He found that true costs of production are end-to-end, and that more variation in his line left fewer parts tied up in inventories and work in progress. Whilst the unit cost for each product was higher, the total production costs were considerably lower. Ohno was then able to realise over time that economy of flow was superior to economy of scale, and to see this flow, he needed to understand his organisation as a system.

At Vanguard, we regard The Machine That Changed the World as a ‘must-read’ book. That the enterprise should be understood and managed as a system was the book’s central message. Ohno’s discoveries were gained through studying and working on his manufacturing system. The ‘tools‘ that were developed were solutions to the problems he discovered; the reader will understand that it was Ohnos’ approach that mattered, not the tools.