John Krafcik on Lean Production

On my way down one of those infamous web-browsing rabbit holes, I stumbled upon an article from the Fall 1988 issue of MIT’s Sloan Management Review, “Triumph of the Lean Production System,” by one John F. Krafcik.

“Really?” I thought to myself. “That John Krafcik?” How many John Krafcik’s can there be in the automotive industry?

Indeed, the article appears to be from the current CEO of Waymo, back when he was in his twenties, a graduate student at MIT.

Apparently Krafcik coined the term, “lean production.” Who knew?

The article has a lot of good stuff.

  • Krafcik’s first job out of college, before he wrote this article, was at GM’s NUMMI plant in Silicon Valley. The article kind of reads like Krafcik maybe doesn’t think so much of GM — it’s the only company he criticizes by name. (Keep in mind this is 1988, so no aspersions on present leadership.)
  • Krafcik seems to revere Henry Ford’s production system, and thinks that Japanese lean production is the natural evolution of that system.
  • Krafcik found that the location of a plant didn’t matter as much as the location of the company’s headquarters. Japenese plants in America were more efficient than American plants in America, and almost as efficient as Japanese plants in Japan.
  • Krafcik writes that European companies have a strong Not Invented Here bias that has led them to reject lean production, to their detriment.
  • Product design has a big impact on plant efficiency.
  • Plant workers should be empowered to improve processes, not just blindly follow instructions.
  • There’s not really a tradeoff between quality and productivity. High-quality plants can dispose of most inspection and rework processes, which ultimately makes them more productive.
  • Technology and robots don’t really seem to help make plants more effective.

That last point seems particularly interesting and ironic, given Krafcik’s current role.

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