Reflections on the American Revolutions

As I watched Keith Lockhart conduct the Boston Pops to celebrate America’s birthday on July 4, another revolution that was occurring around the same time as the American Revolution came to mind.

By coincidence, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, spawning a less dramatic, but more far reaching revolution:  The first industrial revolution is said by some to have begun in England’s textile industry with Samuel Crompton’s invention of the “spinning mule” (1779) making cotton fabric at once both available and affordable.

America at that time was slow to adopt these new methods, but within a decade the winds of change blew west.  Samuel Slater, an English mill employee, immigrated to Providence, Rhode Island rebuilding the spinning mule essentially from memory.  Slater is often called the father of the American Industrial Revolution, as his mill led the little state of Rhode Island to become the U.S. manufacturing powerhouse of the 19th century.    Ironically, the major impetus for this growth was an 1807 British embargo on US exports and imports, culminating in the War of 1812, a war which not only declared America’s economic independence but also brought us Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” not to mention Tchaikovsky’s War of 1812 Overture which is the finale of Boston’s annual 4th of July celebration.

By the late nineteenth century, the variety and complexity of mechanized production processes mushroomed.  Manufacturers too became larger and more complex as the “second industrial revolution” emerged.  Frederick Taylor’s scientific management and Henry Ford’s moving assembly line heralded the introduction of mass production, a movement that catapulted American manufacture to pre-eminence by the start of World War II.  Many scholars attribute the outcome of that war to the productive superiority of the US at that time.

At the end of the First World War the west wind continued across the Pacific, once again to a little textile manufacture owned by Sakichi Toyoda.  There, he invented the non-stop shuttle change type Toyoda automatic loom introducing the concept of autonomation that later became one of two pillars of the Toyota Production System.  After the Second World War, Toyota’s need to produce for a smaller market created the need to move beyond mass production to Just-In-Time production (the second of the two pillars of Toyota’s production system.)  W. Edwards Deming’s influence in post World War II is heralded in Japan as the start of the Third Industrial Revolution.  This is the revolution that has brought us Lean.

Significantly, many western pundits have espoused a different “Third Industrial Revolution.” They call it the off-shoring revolution.”  In this revolution facilitated by the advent of information technology, the winds of change blow in the direction of the lowest cost per piece.  The problem with this revolution is that it assumes status quo conditions and measures.  Perhaps it should be called the fait accompli revolution.

For those of us who feel that capitulation is a bit premature there is the Northeast Shingo Made Lean In America Conference coming to Springfield Massachusetts in October 2011.   Presenters like Craig Long from Milliken, the  largest privately held textile manufacturer on the globe and experts like Harry Moser of the Manufacturing Reshoring Initiative will share their stories of challenge and success.  We believe the real Third American Industrial Revolution  — the one pioneered by Dr. Deming — is just beginning.  Won’t you join us in October?

O.L.D.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on the American Revolutions

  1. Pingback: Insignificant Digits « Old Lean Dude

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