In 1945, World War II had ended, and Japan was spent: spent of people, of money, of equipment, and even somewhat of spirit. At that time, a man by the name of Taiichi Ohno was promoted to manager of Toyota Motors’ machine plant. Although everyone in his section opposed him, he came up with what at the time was an incomprehensible productivity improvement plan that challenged people with slogans like, “Limit the waste of overproduction and make only what is needed” and “Use fewer people,” and that ended up delivering breakthrough productivity improvements.

What that involved was machines that used the jidoka concept: they didn’t create ...

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