IoT, Industry 4.0 & 21st Century Lean

Just two days to go before our 16th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference, an opportunity for all of us to put aside the tactical realities of Covid-19 and think more strategically about the future of society.  Our theme this year, 21st Century Lean, deals with the humanistic application of technology, in particular information technology, in the coming decades.  Concepts like the Internet of Things (IoT, coined in 1999) and Industry 4.0 (first referenced in 2011) are rapidly moving to center stage.  The goals of each are laudable:

  • IoT is the network of physical devices, vehicles, buildings and perhaps even humans -embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity- that enable these to collect and exchange data.  This capability could support a worldwide Utopia of sharing, innovation and best use of scarce resources; but it could also support a dystopic world such as that painted in George Orwell’s 1984.  When Orwell’s book was published in 1949, IoT was entirely science fiction.  Today it’s approaching science fact, making the questions he raised 70 years ago urgent.
  • Industry 4.0 is more narrowly defined as a network of physical devices, vehicles, buildings and other items—embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity- that enable these objects to collect and exchange data. The expressed goal here is to accommodate an anticipated shortage of human workers in the coming decades. Population studies suggest rapid population growth for the remainder of this century to perhaps 10 billion people, but thereafter a sharp decline.  And in some more industrialized countries, a shortage of labor already exists.  As with IoT, the impact of Industry 4.0 may be viewed as yet another advancement in productivity and quality; and like IoT, it’s knocking on our doorsteps.  It’s no longer science fiction as noted in a 1964 episode of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.  Here is a link to a 90 second clip, from “The Brain Center at Whipple’s,” but for those of you with Netflix, I recommend the full 30-minute version. 

So where does Lean fit into these strategies?  Must we adapt some of the thinking to new technology?  A client of mine, for example, once asked “If Mr. Shingo were alive today, with all of the automation we have, would he have invented mistake-proofing?”   Or are the principles and concepts of Lean more important than ever before to help us reign in our impulses; to aim for, as my teacher, Hajime Oba once said “what we should do, not what we can do.”   In 2003, speaking at SME’s Eastec Exhibit in Springfield, Mass, Mr. Oba was asked, “Why do American manufacturers get so little benefit from TPS?”  Mr. Oba responded without hesitation, “First, management does not understand TPS and second they are focused only on quarterly earnings.”   Did Mr. Oba have Mr. Whipple in mind?

Here is my 10th and final Lean Peeve before the conference: short-term thinking.  It’s not too late to invest in a little strategic thinking about this critical and now urgent idea of harmonizing the best of Lean Transformation and Digital Transformation.  Take a couple days to stop worrying about what’s going to happen the next month. Give yourself a break, and join our discussion about where our world is headed for next century.  Hope to see you at the conference.


9 thoughts on “IoT, Industry 4.0 & 21st Century Lean

  1. Michael O'Flaherty

    I think it was pretty neat that you threw in the clip of the Twilight Zone as it was so humorously spot on with the future. Certainly, the IoT is coming up in the near future and I liked how you wrapped up the post by stressing the importance of looking ahead.

  2. Abigail Person

    Hi O.L.D,

    I really enjoyed this post! IoT and Industry 4.0 are things that definitely would have been considered crazy in the 1940s/1950s, especially thinking about Orwell’s 1984 novel. As a college student, I have learned in my classes that back then this book was considered pretty disturbing, but nowadays it is very relevant. I also find your reference to population studies suggesting a population growth to 10 billion and then a sharp decline very intriguing. I’m curious as to what would cause the decline, whether it be lifestyle choices, or something similar to the pandemic we are living in today. We definitely need to start looking further ahead in regards to the future of civilization, and I agree that Lean could be used as a strategy to stop our society’s habit of short-term thinking.

  3. Stefan Diarbi

    Great article, Industry 4.0 is a rising topic and I believe is going to be here quicker than we can expect. Those who were around 60+ years ago who were in the midst of their careers would definitely have had a very hard time grasping the idea in their time. I am also interested as to why there is a supposed sharp decline in our population? To perhaps avoid such an event, we should do what your teacher Mr. Oba said, “What we should do, not what we can do”.

  4. kristen carriera

    Hi Old Lean Dude,
    You gave some great insight on industry 4.0. You mention short term thinking being the detriment to many lean thinkers and I agree. It is crucial to look ahead and plan strategically for a more cohesive lean strategy .

  5. Christian Reilly

    Hi O.L.D

    I really liked the what you had to say and found it very interesting. I think that in the near future these topics (Industry 4.0 and loT) will be even more popular and we will hear more and more about these two. I also really liked that quote from your teacher saying “what we should do, not what we can do”

  6. Chris Ohsberg

    Hey Old Lean Dude,
    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on IOT and Industry 4.0 and how Lean fits into both strategies. I think the connectivity these strategies offer can be very beneficial and could enhance a companies data collection when utilized properly.
    Thanks for the good read,
    Chris Ohsberg

  7. Evan

    Hi Bruce,

    My name is Evan and I am a senior in college where I study Business, Computer Science, and Spanish. I am currently pursuing my Green Belt certification which led me to stumble upon your blog post here.

    I really enjoyed reading your post about Industry 4.0, IoT, and the humanistic application of technology. I am personally a huge fan of IoT, with my home equipped with all the latest Alexa-compatible gadgets and smartphone-controlled devices. I like how you brought up 1984, as that is one of the concerns behind having microphone enabled devices in your home. This is even seen in other books such as Brave New World or TV shows like “Person of Interest.” The idea of “big brother” has even led conspiracy theorists to propose that coronavirus was a fake disease designed to give the government the ability to put microchip-embedded vaccines in our bodies. It is crazy what people think of!

    I like how you explained how Lean relates to our current Industry 4.0 and how many companies are thinking short-term by trying to maximize quarterly earnings. I think a major problem with our society is that companies are less likely to make good, calculated decisions that benefit them in the long run because they are so preoccupied with pleasing stockholders.

    I did have a couple questions for you. First, you mentioned that the population is expected to soar to 10 billion people, and then have a sharp decline afterwards. What is the reason for this? Both, why do you think the population will grow so quickly, and then also what will cause the sudden falloff at the 10 billion mark?

    Additionally, your article is focused on Industry 4.0, but what do you think will happen in Industry 5.0? Industry 5.0 is characterized by the cooperation of man and machine through artificial intelligence and cognitive computing. Do you think that the trends outlined in your article, mainly the labor shortage, will augment in Industry 5.0 or retract?


  8. Brett Dolan

    Hey O.L.D,

    I really enjoyed this post. I remember having to read 1984 in high school (during a time where technology was very prominent) and thinking that this could never happen in our society. Crazy that the questions he raised are becoming more and more relevant today. IoT is certainly fast approaching and if used correctly could change the way we share any form of data.

    As others have mentioned, I am also very curious as to why we are expecting a sharp decline in population. What exactly would cause this decline? Is the cause related to the current pandemic we are facing?

    Thanks for the great read once again,


  9. Ben Bennett

    Very insightful article! Industry 4.0 is becoming a more and more popular topic and is going to be as relevant as ever. When it was first talked bout 70+ years ago there was no of telling how much it would effect us in 2020. My question is why do you believe the population will sharply fall after we hot the 10 billion mark?


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