The Machine That Changed the World


As posted by founder Mark Graban, there is a new website available that focuses on helping individuals who want to guide their own self-learning, called The Lean Library. It includes a comprehensive list of lean books, book reviews, links and lean news. We thought we would add our own perspectives on some of these books, as it is part of the original intent of this blog. The first book we choose to discuss was The Machine That Changed the World, in part because it was the first book that influenced many, many people on the benefits and pursuit of the Toyota Production System and lean.

The Lean Library has a comprehensive review of the book, including all of its strengths and weaknesses. It will help you and others decide if it is the right book for you to read. You can find a link to the book here: The Machine That Changed the World at The Lean Library.

I thought I would start with a story that sticks in my mind as clearly as if it were yesterday. I was at Chrysler at the time. Chrysler was building throughout the manufacturing, purchasing, and finance areas the transformational effort of the Chrysler Operating System. It was widely recognized as the most successful copycat efforts of any of the Big 3 at the time, bringing Chrysler to industrying-leading performance in profitability, although still lagging important sustaining metrics of quality and productivity. I was focusing my efforts at the time on Windsor Assembly Plant where we built the higher end minivans, a true profit-machine for Chrysler at the time. I was walking the floor with one of the industrial engineers who I was asking for help with in my production area which was the lean Learning Laboratory (an approach to transformation that we still utilize today). We were walking down the west side of the plant past the first process steps within assembly and he said about The Machine That Changed the World “I think this book was written by the Japanese government. They are hoping we all read it and implement it. Then they will watch as we destroy our companies and they can take over the industry.” I was dumbfounded. He wasn't being sarcastic or dramatic, he really meant it. He thought this was so much the wrong way to go, it had to be a trick. At that moment, I understood for the first time to true magnitude of the hill we had to climb. This was significant for me, because I was honestly assuming that logic would prevail and education was the biggest hurdle. I knew then that it was more than understand what lean was about – it would require selling, leadership and casualties.

This book got many of the Big 3 and high-level tier suppliers on the lean journey. Lee Iaccoca has asked Denny Pawley (a Lean Leanring Center co-founder) to read the book and report back on what he thought. He was at the time soon-to-be EVP of Manufacturing at Chrysler. He read it during his vacation and shared his thoughts with Iaccoca (and for those who don't know, Iaccoca is not the smiley happy guy you see on TV; he's a ruthless, tough executive). That discussion lead in part to Denny's appointment, coupled with Denny's experience at leading at Mazda (Note: Mazda was no Toyota, but in the late-80's they were a heck of a lot closer than any of the Big 3).

Mark Graban, founder, had this to say about his experience with the book:

The first, and only, time that I read The Machine That Changed the World, I was working as a young Industrial Engineer at a General Motors plant. We had a number of internal consultants working at the plant, hired by GM corporate, from companies like Nissan and Yazaki. But, the consultants weren't of much use to our local plant management. There was still much debate about this “Japanese” system, particularly since our consultants were all hired away from Japanese companies. One of them suggested I read The Machine That Changed the World and a few very powerful points came out. For one, the book proved that lean production wasn't strictly a “Japanese” system, it was a Toyota system. The book showed the data that proved that not all Japanese plants were better and not all American plants were bad. The book helped convince me that principles were transferrable. The book helped me to not be influenced by our lean naysayers. For that, I'm thankful, and the book holds a special place in my lean past. I say “past” because I haven't picked up the book in 10 years, nor do I really recommend it to anyone. There are more practical books on lean and TPS these days, but it doesn't mean this is an unimportant book.

Thanks for that history, Mark. I also decided to ask another lean expert, a practitioner from DTE Energy, Shawn Patterson. Shawn helped start the DTE Energy Operating System, the first application of lean in the utility industry that continues on now 8 years later. Shawn was also a former GM-er, and had this to say:

I started at General Motors as a manufacturing engineering two months before The Machine that Changed the World become mandatory reading. Not realizing that at that time mandatory also meant “when you get around to it”, I took the assignment quite seriously and read the book over the weekend. I was shocked and somewhat deflated by the contrast between what the book portrayed and what I had seen at GM plants during my short tenure. The gap seemed large as to be hopeless. For me personally though, like many others, the book inspired me to become a lifelong learner of Lean manufacturing. I found the reaction to the book among GM leaders to be startling. During a staff meeting, my engineering director offered his review of the book as, “there are a few interesting points that might make us think a little differently”. (A bit of an understatement perhaps) For my peers, at least those that read the book, it was all about how the Japanese culture was different from US manufacturing. As if the gap wasn't big enough, the resounding dismissal of the book was thoroughly depressing. As an additional comment, General Motors has done an amazing job of inculcating many of the concepts from this book over the years. Perhaps the journey started slowly, but I can't help but be impressed with what the company has accomplished.

I consider Shawn not only a friend but an effective lean practitioner. You can read more about Shawn's efforts at DTE Energy by reading the interviews chapter of my book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road.

So what do you think of The Machine That Changed the World? How did it influence you? Please share your comments. And if you haven't read it, please check it out at The Lean Library.

To all lean learners, happy reading!

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Jamie Flinchbaugh
Jamie Flinchbaugh is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, and Board Member with more than 20 years of success spanning finance, manufacturing, automotive, and management consulting. Leveraging extensive operational experience, Jamie is an invaluable asset for a company seeking expert guidance with process improvements, lean strategies, and leadership coaching in order to transform operations, reduce costs, and drive profitability. His areas of expertise include continuous improvement, entrepreneurship, coaching and training, process transformation, business strategy, and organizational design.


  1. At the time, I was struck by the similarities between what the book portrayed and the Japanese transplant I work for, but also by how far we had to go to be in the same league as Toyota. This was one of the first books I encountered on this subject and I followed it up with 3 or 4 books by Dr. Shingo, including that awful “Green Book.”

    I’m struck by two thinks from your post–how long GM has been trying to learn lean and failing (despite the comments of Shawn from DTE Energy), and how many people who became excited about lean left GM and the other companies of the “Big Three.” What does that tell us?

  2. Mike,

    Great comments. First, GM has made a lot of progress in manufacturing. If you go into a plant today versus 15 years ago, they are worlds apart. They quality isn’t really that bad (Buick is #3 or 4 I think) and cost, productivity and other metrics look good. Unfortunately, you can’t just have a good plant.

    Also, a great number of good people have left, or been kicked out, of GM and Ford. The brain drain on the industry is staggering and may be the single biggest problem worth solving.


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