The purpose of this paper is to first examine two historical figures, Eli Whitney and Henry Ford, and provide an explanation of the significant role in their relationship to Lean Manufacturing. The paper then goes on to discuss how the success of a joint venture between auto giants, General Motors and Toyota, was directly correlated to manufacturing principles discovered and refined by Henry Ford.
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Lean Manufacturing can be traced back to Eli Whitney with the use of interchangeable parts to manufacture rifles for the United States Government. Little did Whitney know, he would later be credited for laying the foundation for manufacturing processes still used today. Another key figure to expand on Whitney's foundation was Henry Ford and his idea of a moving assembly line. These historical figures innovated manufacturing processes across the globe. While Henry Ford’s contribution to the manufacturing industry was one of the most significant advancements, other automotive leaders like Toyota and General Motors made substantial strides using the foundation forged by Henry Ford.
Background and Key Historical Figures
Eli Whitney’s Interchangeable Parts
Lean manufacturing can be traced back to the late seventeen hundreds when an inventor by the name of Eli Whitney, made famous for the creation of the cotton gin, developed the idea of using interchangeable parts for manufacturing guns for the United States Government. The concept of using interchangeable parts was unheard of at this time, and Whitney used this to his advantage. Whitney’s revolutionary innovation is the predecessor for modern-day manufacturing processes.
The Revolutions of Henry Ford
Henry Ford decided that the process of manufacturing cars in his era lead to unreliable, unsafe, and unpredictable vehicles. Ford wanted to create vehicles that were useful, reliable, and safe, but the old way of doing things was not cutting it. Mr. Ford decided to throw a wrench in the industry and re-invent the metaphorical wheel. In doing so, Ford developed the process of manufacturing that used a moving assembly line. Using a moving assembly line was unchartered waters, but Ford had a vision on how to change the way products were manufactured. Flinchbaugh and Jackson call the implementation of the moving assembly line, “perhaps the most dramatic industry-changing moment in modern times”(Flinchbaugh & Jackson, 2003). Ford’s vision was to clear the path for the increasing efficiency of how materials moved through the factory and how work was performed at each stage of the manufacturing process. His goal was simple: create a reliable product that could be adopted by every American family that was manufactured with little to no wasted product and labor. Flinchbaugh and Jackson note that the goal of Ford’s process was based on the continuous, zero-waste flow of materials from where the iron was mined all the way to the consumer (Flinchbaugh & Jackson, 2003). Ford had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and used this thirst to steer the way modern-day manufacturing procedures were completed.
Because of manufacturing pioneers like Eli Whitney and Henry Ford, companies across the globe have nearly perfected the craft of no waste manufacturing processes. While many different industries have developed their own no waste processes thanks to the innovations of Henry Ford; Toyota and General Motors made tremendous strides within the industry in the early nineteen eighties.
General Motors’ Failing Plant
The first example to be discussed also comes from an innovative company in the car manufacturing space. General Motors’ (GM) plant in Fremont, California was among the worst manufacturing plants in the nineteen eighties for several reasons. Low morale within employees, unsafe work environment, and poor management were all contributing factors to the reason this particular GM plant was failing so miserably. Morale was low among the workforce for a good reason. According to Roser, the management within the plant refused to stop the assembly line regardless of backups or accidents that occurred on the assembly line (Roser, 2017). When a mistake was made, or backups on the line would happen, the assembly line would not stop. This lead to low quality work and unsafe vehicles. Management did nothing to stop these wasteful practices and this lead to low quality, high costs, and low profitability throughout the factory. The culture in the Fremont plant was bleak, to say the least. Workers often ignored safety procedures, and physical altercations between employees and even management were not uncommon throughout the factory. Employees would often show up inebriated or simply not show up at all, and management would quickly hire workers from a local bar in an attempt to prevent halting operations (Roser, 2017). The workforce would frequently strike, file unnecessary grievances and even deliberately sabotage the quality of cars because hurting the consumer meant hurting the company as a whole (Shook, 2010).
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The General Motors and Toyota Partnership
The original Fremont plant was shut down and re-opened as a Toyota and GM factory with a new plan of attack. The new venture, called New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., commonly known as NUMMI, had a goal of providing exceedingly high-quality products that created little waste. Unlike its predecessor plant, stopping the assembly line because of quality issues was not only allowed, but encouraged by upper management. The plant operators discovered that preventing or evaluating quality issues early on in the manufacturing process would cost far less than revising the issue later down the road. According to Roser, the backbone of success was streamlining the manufacturing process, reducing waste, and using space within the factory more efficiently and effectively (Roser, 2017). NUMMI also knew that changing the culture within the company was a crucial factor in achieving success. Instead of continually challenging the workforce, leadership within NUMMI promoted change that was good for both the organization and the employees. The shift of focus on quality helped to steer workers in the right direction. According to Shook, management within NUMMI was successful because they were able to change how people behaved by changing what they do (Shook, 2010).
To conclude, manufacturing as we know it today would be very different without the accomplishments of innovators like Eli Whitney and Henry Ford. Whitney’s use of interchangeable parts during the manufacturing process laid the foundation for the future of industrial engineering. Equally, if not more, crucial was the introduction of the moving assembly line developed by Henry Ford. Ford’s idea of eliminating waste that did not benefit the end user was a novel idea during the era and he used this philosophy successfully to help shaped global manufacturing processes. The joint venture between GM and Toyota adopted many ideas used by Ford and turned a struggling plant into one of the largest success stories to date.
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- Flinchbaugh, J., & Jackson, T. (2003, May). The extraordinary vision of Henry Ford: many principles of lean manufacturing trace their roots to the man from Dearborn. General Reference Center GOLD, pF-10(4). Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.fitchburgstate.edu:2048/ps/i.do?p=GRGM&u=mlin_c_fitchcol&id=GALE%7CA101862496&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon
- Roser, C. (2017). Faster, Better, Cheaper in the History of Manufacturing : From the Stone Age to Lean Manufacturing and Beyond. Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.fitchburgstate.edu:2048/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzEzNjcxODlfX0FO0?sid=3c7ad763-c0d3-4813-a9e5-28f8a5596b48@sessionmgr4007&vid=0&format=EK&lpid=nav-9&rid=0
- Shook, J. (2010, Winter). How to Change a Culture: Lessons From NUMMI. MIT Sloan Management Review, 51, 63-68. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.fitchburgstate.edu:2443/docview/224959703?pq-origsite=summon
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