One common origin story for lean production methods focuses on the Japanese origin of these techniques. Japan has many important manufacturing resources, but is hugely lacking in one: Space. The land in Japan is just too dear to use for massive factories and warehouses, so Japanese manufacturers like Toyota were forced to find a way to manufacture with smaller batches and reduced inventories.
The story makes some sense, but I believe that it tends to miss the point of lean production. In the lean perspective, we have to flip our traditional way of looking at resources and realize that to some extent, having more resources is often part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
If Japanese car companies had enough space to build the kinds of massive factories, warehouses, and dealership lots that characterize American car companies, it would still have been a mistake for them to do so. Having lots of space in your facilities gives you the freedom to be careless. It gives you corners into which you can toss defective parts and forget about them. It gives you floorspace to install inflexible, single-purpose machines when better multipurpose solutions might be available. In other words, it gives you room to overlook waste in your operations and do nothing about it.
That isn’t to say that resources have no place in lean production. In fact, kaizen (continuous improvement) initiatives often require significant investments of all sorts of resources (time, money, space, personnel) to be successful. (Failure to commit these resources is a big reason why some of these initiatives ultimately fail.) It just means that throwing resources of any kind at a problem can hide underlying waste in the process and prevent it from ever becoming truly lean and smoothly-flowing.
For instance, at home in the past when I got seriously behind on laundry, I’d just take a day on the weekend and do nothing but wash and fold clothes. I’d use the ample time I had available to compensate for the fact that my laundry wasn’t getting done very effectively. The extra time I had to do a weekend laundry blitz blinded me to the fact that my laundry processes were quite wasteful.
Now that I have the toddlers running around all day, I no longer have the extra time for laundry blitzes and have been forced to come to the realization that my laundry process needed revamping. (More on how I did this later.) The thing is, I’m not more efficient with laundry because I lack the extra time I had before; I’m more efficient because the loss of extra time made me realize the mistakes I had been making all along.
In short, lean methods aren’t useful only when resources are limited. In fact, the opposite may be true: Organizations that are rich in resources may be more in need of lean-oriented approaches than organizations with fewer resources, which haven’t been able to hide from their own wasteful practices as easily.
Being on a small island may have forced Japanese automakers to look closer at their way of doing things, but it’s not why Japanese cars are better.