Keith Hautala


College: Engineering

Lean Systems Program Turns 20 This Year

Published: Apr 4, 2014

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 4, 2014) — It has been 20 years since the University of Kentucky took its first big step on the road to becoming a world-leading center for lean systems research and training.


The journey began in 1993, when representatives from the UK College of Engineering embarked on a series of discussions with Toyota leaders, regarding the possibility of collaboration in lean knowledge development and manufacturing research and development.


Lean systems is an approach to production practices that emphasizes efficiency through the systematic identification and elimination of waste. Derived from the Toyota Production System, developed between 1948 and 1975, the lean approach seeks to produce the maximum amount of value for the customer from resources expended in production. The UK program calls it "True Lean" because of its continuous collaboration with Toyota, something no other lean training program can offer.


"Lean is about the endless pursuit of converting resources — materials, equipment, labor, energy — most effectively and efficiently,” says Glenn Uminger, UK's Lean Systems Program director. "The goal is to deliver the highest customer satisfaction (quality, timeliness, value) with zero waste, while providing an engaging and rewarding environment for employees and delivering a good return for shareholders. This applies to any industry,including manufacturing, service, transportation, health care, restaurants, even government.”


The basic idea sounds simple enough. But in a complex, large-scale enterprise, such as a modern automotive manufacturing facility — with thousands of employees and literally millions of moving parts — the potential sources for waste and inefficiency are virtually limitless.


Toyota's production system sought to root out and eliminate inefficiencies large and small from all quarters, including manufacturing defects, surplus inventory, excess product weight, extraneous movement by workers on the production floor, wasted space — and the list goes on.


So, in developing its own production system, Toyota of necessity also developed its own manufacturing philosophy, built around a set of core principles. That philosophy aims at continuous improvement. Rather than settling upon arbitrary benchmarks, the goals for efficiency are constantly advancing. The principles underlying this philosophy promote a culture of problem-solving, embracing transparency, communication, team-building and standardized work.


These principles, and the lean systems philosophy itself, would find ready applications in other industries. And the usefulness of these concepts was not limited to manufacturing. "Lean" was to become a watchword for efficiency in process-driven enterprises of all types, starting around the early 1990s.


Yet, despite nearly a half-century of history, no comprehensive academic study of the Toyota Manufacturing System had ever been conducted. Nor was there an academic center where the principles of lean systems could be explored and taught, refined, elaborated, and tested experimentally.


On March 15, 1994, Fujio Cho, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing U.S.A. in Georgetown, Ky., sent a brief but historic letter to Kozo Saito, UK professor of mechanical engineering, outlining the goals of the proposed collaboration between UK and Toyota. That letter marks the establishment of a partnership for research on painting technology and lean systems training that has flourished now for 20 years.


“Cooperation between UK and Toyota was a success from the start," said Saito, now director of the Institute of Research for Technology Development (IR4TD). “Kentucky is a manufacturing state and needs to advance its technology constantly to maintain global competiveness. In keeping with the lean philosophy, Toyota wanted to learn and share knowledge, which is the basic mission of UK. It’s a natural fit.”


Working with Toyota, the UK College of Engineering established the Lean Systems Program to provide training in the Toyota Production System. Starting in 1996, the program began to offer certification in Lean Systems, featuring former Toyota employees as instructors. Leadership training was also first offered that same year, with the creation of the Lean Executive Leadership Institute.


The Lean Systems Program got off to a running start, with major milestones coming fast and frequently:


In 1997, UK hosted the first International Lean Manufacturing conference, featuring a keynote address by Mikio Kitano, president of Toyota's Kentucky manufacturing operations.


In 1998, the Toyota Fellows Program was created to provide a unique opportunity for students who want to help shape the future of manufacturing. Led by UK College of Engineering faculty, with staff instructors from the Lean Systems Program, the Fellows program combines traditional classroom learning with a variety of experiential hands-on projects.


In 1999, the Painting Technology Consortium was formed. This research partnership grew organically from collaborations begun in 1993 between the College of Engineering and

Toyota on a series of research and development projects, largely focused on improving efficiencies in Toyota's body-painting operations.


In 2002, UK awarded an honorary doctorate to Fujio Cho, in recognition of the instrumental role he played in forging the partnership between the university and Toyota.


In 2007, the Lean Systems Executive-in-Residence Program began, with Ken Kreafle and Rich Alloo as its first appointees. That same year Toyota provided $1 million matched by the state to create IR4TD, which continues to pursue painting research and other industrial research and development projects.  


In 2010, the Graduate School at UK approved the Lean Systems Graduate certificate program. That same year, the Lean Systems program became part of IR4TD.


Over the two decades since Cho's letter, the Lean Systems Program at UK has grown into a successful and fully self-funded program. Through the Lean Certification Program, the Lean Executive Leadership Institute, and a variety of different custom-tailored training opportunities, an average of 1,500 attendees from about 75 different companies are served by the program each year. 

Clients represent not just manufacturing industries, but also health care, transportation, nonprofits and other service-based enterprises from all around the world. Trainees have included executives, engineers, managers, doctors, and accountants, among others.


“The Lean Systems Program has been truly fortunate to experience the benefit of Dr. Cho’s vision, and has developed and flourished,” Uminger said. “Overall we are fortunate and humble to be in a position to truly make a difference and contribute to society.”

The program's 20th anniversary will be formally observed Oct. 28 with a special program jointly coordinated and sponsored by UK and Toyota. Held in conjunction with the Fourth Annual Lean Users Conference, the celebration will include a reception and dinner with special speakers, company displays and a video.

Saito says the program will continue to find ways to grow and improve. 


"When we started Toyota-sponsored lean and R&D programs, Toyota president Cho gave us his advice: ‘Do not rush, but keep in mind a steady gradual progress over many years to come,'" Saito said. "We’ve kept his advice in our hearts, but never thought we could reach our current status. The Lean Systems Program itself has served over 20,000 people from 48 states and 33 countries over 20 years. We couldn’t have accomplished that without practicing continuous improvement. But we can’t stop here, and will continue our journey for the benefit of Kentuckians, the state, the nation, and the world.”


MEDIA CONTACT: Keith Hautala, 859-323-2396; 


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