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Was Adam Smith the first Lean thinker?

Lean thinker

This year we are commemorating the 300th anniversary of the birth of Adam Smith, the great Scottish philosopher and economist, and author of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and “The Wealth of Nations”. Currently famous for being the economist who is most quoted but least read and adopted by both the right and left of politics as the flag bearer of their ideas. I recently came across the story of the pin factory that Smith describes in “The Wealth of Nations”, which was published in 1776.

Reading this excerpt (no, like so many others I have not read the full 900 pages of “The Wealth of Nations”), it made me wonder whether Smith was the first Lean thinker and scholar. Paraphrasing his 18th century English, Smith describes how an industrial process (the pin manufacturing plant) has significantly higher productivity when the labour is divided over multiple workers in a sequential process, rather that each worker makes a whole pin one at the time. Smith describes each step and observes that individual worker output scarcely reaches 20 pins per day, while with divided and specialised labour the workers go well over 20 pins per day per person average. Hardly the paradigm shifting results we see in other Lean implementations, but an improvement, nonetheless.

But what really makes me wonder whether Adam Smith was an early (the first?) Lean thinker is the method he employs. He visits the place where the work is happening, observes the real process, talks to the real people, and obtains the real data. This is the “three reals” of Lean, or “Genjitsu, Gemba, and Genbutsu” in Japanese, a true characteristic of a Lean thinker. If a person born in 1723 can apply Lean concepts like a Gemba Walk, we should all be following in Adam Smiths’ footsteps in 2023.

Thanks to Stephen Dubner from Freakonomics Radio for his great 3-part podcast series on Adam Smith (his podcast is often a source of knowledge, wisdom, and inspiration for me – thanks Stephen), and thanks to the Scottish National Gallery for the image.

About the author: Geerten Lengkeek is the Managing Director of Productivity People