Mar 25, 2006

A scholar and a gentleman

Sometime in the mid-1970s, a young Robert “Doc” Hall was introduced to some new manufacturing ideas by Jinichiro Nakane. Now, roughly 30 years later, Dr. Hall is being honored with the SME Gold Medal for his journey into new philosophies and practices of manufacturing, and for introducing them to thousands of people since he began.

In 1983, Doc published an underappreciated book called “Zero Inventories,” in which he explored practices being used in Japan. The book opens,

“ ’Zero Inventories’ connotes a level of perfection not ever attainable in a production process. However, the concept of a high level of excellence is important because it stimulates a quest for constant improvement through imaginative attention to both the overall task and to the minute details. That leads to practical actions which break out of previously accepted tracks of thought about production.

“One such concept of an ideal total production system is most commonly called just-in-time production, a name which emphasizes producing exactly what is needed and conveying it to where it is needed precisely when required…Stockless production is a name sometimes used to mean the same thing, usually implying application in a broader context…Whatever it is called, the ideas need to be considered and understood in their entirety because they encompass every aspect of manufacturing management.”

With this opening, and through the rest of the book, Doc laid out almost all the elements of what we now call “lean manufacturing,” based on his many visits to Japan. He dug into the thinking of Mr. Nakane, Fujio Cho, W. Edwards Deming, Ryuji Fukuda, Henry Ford, Yoichi Kato and Taiichi Ohno, and many others.

I wish I knew more of the story of the writing of this landmark book and how Doc learned all he described in it. What were some of those ideas? How about flexible automation…small lot sizes…accomplished by people…pull systems…visibility systems…level assembly schedule…match final assembly to market demand…setup time reduction…flow and flexibility…improving process capability…the plant as a laboratory…supplier networks…delivery signals to suppliers…target cost vs. standard cost…organization, layout and housekeeping…U-shaped lines…stockless production for the job shop…stockless production in the overall corporate strategy.

I suspect Doc would now change a few things in the book, and I know he’s disappointed in the limited adoption of the system. Doc’s research since then, his leadership in founding the AME, publishing the ground-breaking journal “Target,” and his generosity in sharing knowledge with anyone interested, make him deeply influential, if not widely so.

I found Doc’s book in the mid-1980s, when I first began to hear about JIT. I’ll confess that I did no more than skim it, but I kept it on my bookshelf, recognizing it even then as a seminal work. When Doc visited SME a few years ago, Terry Begnoche – an influential person in his own right – invited me to a meeting with him. I brought my copy of “Zero Inventories” for Doc to autograph, and he inscribed it, “Thank you Karen -- best wishes on your journey.” To thank me -- how could I ever have done anything to earn his thanks? To even think I was on a journey was remarkable, considering the adventurous exploration that has made up his career.

Thank you, Doc, and may your journey continue to inspire students, readers and colleagues for many years to come.

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