Sorry about being off line so long but I had to take care of my mother. I’ll be back soon to finish the Lean post and the other ideas I have been storing.

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English is such a malleable language with words that can mean many things, depending on context.

Lean is one such word with two common meanings: to lean on something and slim or thin. Recently from manufacturing comes a slightly different version that is based of work done about 100 years ago by Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor to improve industrial efficiency. Their version was not widely adopted for the most part except as a way to make workers work faster by timing the most efficient worker and make their production the standard all the other workers had to achieve.  The image of a guy walking around with a stop watch and a clipboard was one that was greatly hated by the average worker. In fact speed up often was one of the motivators for unionization and as a result largely abandoned in the US.

However, in Japan they loved it but because of a different culture it took a slightly different form. One place where it was put into action was  Toyota to improve both efficiency and quality. The difference in the focus was that in Japan they paid more attention to the process and less on the people. They mostly didn’t try to make people work faster, but rather more efficiently by putting tools and supplies where they were easy to get at and getting rid  of other common wasted effort such as re-work to fix defective output, or waiting for supplies to arrive.

From Toyota’s (and other companies that worked with them) successes with this approach came the growth of Toyota into one of the largest, if not the largest, auto manufacturing companies in the world.

With Lean, and the introduction of automation, Toyota was able to trim the number of workers they required to make their automobiles. This helped to improve their profits. All well and good, you’d think, right?

Like almost every action we take in life there are unintended consequences. In the case of Toyota the benefit of fewer employees became the social problem of greater unemployment, something that used to be unheard of in Japanese culture where one had a job for life. But if you are never hired, what then?

Now Lean, and a variety of similar disciplines, are being pursued vigorously here in the US, as well as other industrialized countries. Our neighbor, Canada, is among them.

“So what?” you say.

Here’s what. In about 1830 a farmer was able to produce only about 1.25 to 1.5 times as much as he needed for him and his family. As a result there were lots of farmers everywhere. Nowadays how much can a farm produce beyond its own needs? It’s hard to tell exactly but here is one way of looking at it. In 1830 it took 250 to 300 manual labor hours to work 5 acres of wheat. By 1890, with limited mechanization, gasoline tractors didn’t come until 1892, it took only 40 to 50 hours of labor to work that same 5 acres.   By 1930 it was down to about 15 to 20 hours and by 1987 it was estimated that it took only about 5 hours.

Another way of looking at it is that in 1930 the average farmer was able to produce for about 9.8 people, by 1950 it was estimated that it had increased to 15.5 people, by 1970 it was 47.7 and by 1990 the estimate was a bit over 100 people.

So where is all this headed? You’ll have to tune in later for Part 2 where one thought will be explored. Part 3 will have a different thought to explore and then Part 4 will sort of wrap it up for the moment.

There was an interesting article in the paper the other day about “junk” mail. What was interesting was not the junk mail itself, but rather the volume, money and jobs dependent on “junk” mail in the United States of America.

According the the U.S. Post Office the approximately 83 billion pieces delivered by them represents a $1,000,000,000,000 ($1 Trillion) business with 8,000,000 jobs dependent on it. This is approximately 6.6% of the total Gross Domestic Product for the US. (Table 9, http://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/national/gdp/2012/pdf/gdp4q11_adv.pdf)

Catalogchoice.org is trying to help cities reduce landfill by reducing the volume of junk mail but what will happen if they succeed in stopping half of the junk mail we get? Best guess is that one consequence will be that about 4 million people will lose their jobs, adding about 25% to the total number of unemployed in the US. Does this mean that we should accept junk mail as a necessary evil just to keep the economy afloat?

Oh, dear, Hobson’s choice: Accept the junk to keep the economy going or  remove the annoyance?

My guess is that there are many, many more such questions and choices that face us but are not being discussed. After all, according to one figure I have seen, in 1992 1/6th of the entire GDP of the US was  created by the advertising industry. How much advertising is required to feed, house, clothe, educate, transport, keep healthy or entertain us? Not much, I suspect.