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MIT professors publish car study

By Karen Kaplan

A five-year, $5 million study conducted by the MIT International Motor Vehicle Program has concluded that lean production techniques, developed in Japan over the last 40 years, will replace mass production worldwide and revolutionize manufacturing, especially in the automobile industry.

IMVP's director, Professor of Civil Engineering Daniel Roos '61, along with James P. Womack '83, the program's research director, and Daniel T. Jones, European research director, announced the results of their study last week in New York City and presented their book, The Machine that Changed the World, which

is based on the findings of the study.

On a general level, the purpose of the study was "to examine what we have called the lean production system, which is a fundamentally different approach than the traditional mass production system," said Roos. More specifically, the researchers studied "the dynamics of change in the automobile industry and . . . what the principal forces of change were."

The objective of lean production is not to make a large number of decent copies of the same product, as with mass production, but to minimize the number of mistakes made during the production process in order to achieve a perfect product the first time.

There are many advantages to lean production, according to Roos. "You can manufacture goods of significantly higher quality with roughly 50 percent of the effort that was previously required."

"You can do it in a far shorter time period (about a third less) and you can do it with about one third of the effort in terms of engineering time, and you can turn out a much broader diversity of product," Roos explained.

Also, lean production workers are more involved in the production process. Rather than performing a specific task over and over, they work in groups and are involved in many stages of production, including engineering. With lean production, "you're pushing responsibility down the ladder, from top management to the work floor," Roos said.

The researchers concluded that lean production is the wave of the future, and that industries which fail to convert to the

lean production method will find themselves falling behind in the coming decades.

Lean production methods

originated in Japan

Not surprisingly, the study found that the most efficient automobile manufacturers are Japanese. However, the researchers were surprised to learn that the Japanese plants varied greatly in terms of efficiency. "There are good Japanese plants, and there are bad Japanese plants," said Roos.

Also surprising was the fact that the most efficient American plants -- which have adopted lean production methods -- were better than the average Japanese plants.

Roos and his colleagues found this encouraging. "Lean production originated in Japan, but it is not a function of Japanese culture," Roos explained.

"We see the principals of lean production being transferred here in the United States," Roos said. He predicted that it will take about a decade for American companies to complete the transition from mass production to lean production. If they fail to make the change, they risk losing an even greater market share to foreign auto producers.

Although lean production has many advantages, its implementation in America will not be totally painless. Fewer workers will be needed at each plant, and since the auto industry is not a growing one, many of the displaced workers will have nowhere to go. The workers that do remain will have to be more intelligent and better trained.

"The challenge is how can companies downsize themselves and be competitive at the same time that workers are given time to retrain and transfer into other industries," said Roos. So far, companies have been bearing most of the brunt of that responsibility, but Roos said he saw room for the government to help.

In July, Roos received another grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation "to build upon this program," he said. One of the primary focuses of his new project will be to study how the concepts associated with lean production can be realistically transferred to industry. He will also study how to broaden the concept of "best practice" to include social and environmental concerns.