Who Coined the Term “Lean”? And Where is He Today?


People often ask “So where did the term ‘lean' come from?” It didn't come from Toyota. And the term isn't an acronym (so no need to type it as LEAN or L.E.A.N.).

The term came from John Krafcik, who was a graduate student at MIT, working for Lean Enterprise Institute founder Jim Womack on the research for the book The Machine That Changed the World. See comment #5 where I added more detail about that.

Where is Krafcik today (pictured at left)?

Krafcik, 48, is currently (in 2010) the CEO of the Korean automaker Hyundai. Maybe GM made a huge mistake in not hiring him instead of promoting yet another finance guy to the head of that troubled company? Maybe there's still a chance he can take over after the next CEO-of-the-quarter is done at GM.

Krafcik was featured in a recent USA Today article, “Hyundai's John Krafcik isn't your typical CEO type“).

From the article:

Krafcik got his first auto break with a venture Toyota and General Motors were setting up in Fremont, Calif., to build small cars for both companies. New United Motor Manufacturing (or NUMMI) was a chance for GM to learn Toyota quality methods and for Toyota to try operating a U.S. plant.

And he saw the difference between GM and Toyota at the time:

Hired as a manufacturing engineer, Krafcik says the experience “was just awesome,” especially his Toyota-trained boss, who wanted him to see what makes an auto plant succeed or fail. Krafcik was dispatched to GM's plant in Oklahoma City, where he says he saw half-built cars backed up and workers napping on the job. Then he went to Toyota City in Japan, a plant he says was so well laid out and efficient he could see across it to the other side. There was little inventory, with parts arriving from suppliers only hours before they were needed.

Krafcik is described as a disciplined, data-driven engineer, but one who is innovative and keeps connected to customers (personally calling an upset customer each day, something I wish American Airlines Gerard Arpey would try, but that's beside the point).

I wonder how GM would be different with Krafcik in charge? Do you think he could make a difference?

Regardless of your workplace, what's the ideal “lean CEO”?


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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

  1. Mark Graban says

    It turns out that John is the uncle of a good friend of mine. I figured there are a lot of Krafciks, so I didn’t make the connect. Maybe that will help me get a podcast interview with him sometime.

  2. Quarterman Lee says

    This is a neat little tidbit about Lean history. Thanks.

  3. kengon says


    The ideal Lean CEO? :-)

    OK. The way I see it, he/she would have the following attributes:
    1. Understand the customer, their expectations and what is of value to them.
    2. Develop an environment and corporate culture where it’s safe to communicate, lead and innovate.
    3. Understand and build sets of measures that help them set an effective organizational agenda and let everyone see how they’re doing
    4. Understand the transformation tools available to them and not get attached to any one of them as “the way”
    5. Develop an effective team of senior leaders who will get the job done (satisfying customer and shareholder/stakeholder objectives). If they aren’t, they’ll either develop them to get it done OR replace them.

    Seems to me that anything else can get worked out in flight.


  4. Daniela says

    I’m relatively new to the term “lean,” it’s interesting to see how manufacturing ideas can drive so many industries. The term calls to mind fitness, but also means applying pressure on someone/thing. Does the word come more from a sense of power than necessarily efficiency?

  5. Mark Graban says


    I should have posted the link to the original coining of the phrase — you can read the page from “Machine” via google books”


    “… is “lean” because it uses less of everything compared to mass production – half the human effort in the factory, half the manufacturing space, half the investment in tools, half the engineering hours to develop a product in half the time.

    Also, it requires less than half the needed inventory on site, results in many fewer defects, and produces a greater and ever growing variety of products.”

    So “lean” was somewhat a description of the results, but also came to describe the methods and thinking of Toyota (the process).

    Lean can sound like “healthy” or it can sometimes sound like “too thin” (as in we don’t have enough employees), so there can be a negative connotation to the term to some people.

    1. Dick Danjin says

      I would submit that their are only two words that Management has the sole responsibility and accountably for, Efficiency and Effectiveness. Only when Management visibly and operationally proclaims that in terms of the purpose of THEIR system will that organization be on the path of long term viability and increased market share.

  6. Paul Everett says

    Kengon is spot on!! Check out Paul Akers of Fastcap.com. He’s of this mold, I believe. Bellingham, WA. Paul has formed LeanAmerica.org and is going to take Lean out to governments in a very powerful way. He has Leaned out the implementation of Lean, I believe.

    I’m going to use Kengon’s list in talking to our mayor very soon. Governments everywhere are in agony and now is the time when Lean can be heard as a way forward into the future. The state of Washington just ordered 7% across-the-board cuts in costs. We know how that’s going to work out. Pain, pain, pain because they are not Lean.

    Love your blog, Mark. Great resource. Suggest you get the just published book “Inviting Everyone: Healing Healthcare through Positive Deviance” by Singhal, et. al. In the past 2 1/2 years Billings Clinic in Billings, MT has reduced HAI’s, clinic wide, around 80% using PD. Part of a six-hospital nationwide/international effort originally focused on MRSA funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

    It isn’t that the Doc’s and Staff in our health care system don’t know how to prevent HAI’s. It’s that they don’t DO what they know works. That’s a culture issue. PD works on, and changes, that.


    1. Mark Graban says

      Thanks, Paul for that book suggestion. I’ve got it on order.

      I’m being a smart-aleck on a Sunday morning, but I’d suggest that if “lean” is a word with negative connotations that telling someone to be a “positive deviant” isn’t much better!

      But from what I’ve heard before, the ideas and methods are sound.

  7. […] to the Toyota Production System by John Krafcik, now of Hyundai, then of the MIT team that tried to define the reasons for the growing chasm between the American automobile industry and Toyota way back in the 80s. […]

  8. […] Lean Startup methodology was coined over 5 years ago and continues to fuel a movement that generates new ways of thinking in the product development […]

  9. […] of the Lean Production System (1988) by John Krafcik is a first paper on what is today know as Lean Thinking. It came out of the MIT International Motor […]

  10. Tamer says

    Actually Lean was not first coined by John K. in his 1988 paper. In 1986 it was first introduced by Haruo Shimada, visiting professor from Japan’s Keio University at MIT Sloan School of Management. Shimada used a scaled (fragile, robust, buffered) to benchmark and score U.S. based Japanese Car Manufacturing plants (Honda, Nissan, Mazda). Fragile was revised to Lean to have a more positive connotation.

    In fact, I can’t find any reference to say who exactly revised it from Fragile to Lean because Shimada was working with multiple researcher at MIT IMVP (International Motor Vehicle Program).

    1. Mark Graban says

      Hi Tamer — I’m confused… did Haruo Shimada introduce the term “fragile” or “Lean?”

      It’s ironic that “Lean” was meant to be a more positive term, since the word seems to have negative connotations to most people.

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