The Idea Driven Blog

A Journey of Discovery: TWI and the Origins of Lean

A Journey of Discovery: TWI and the Origins of Lean post image


In late winter of 1989 Alan Robinson and I were working on an article dealing with the power of front-line ideas. Alan had recently returned from Japan where he had been given exceptional access to a number of Japanese manufacturers, and had been able to study their processes in depth. His research had convinced him that part of the key to the manufacturing efficiency of these leading Japanese companies was in the large number of ideas they were getting from their front-line employees. At the time, the phenomenon of workers offering lots of ideas was commonly considered a Japanese cultural anomaly. But Alan disagreed, and I agreed with Alan. My experiences in leading turnarounds of troubled foundries taught me the huge help ideas from the people actually doing the work could be.

While in Japan, Alan had encountered some recently translated work that referred to a program called Training Within Industries (TWI) which was being credited for helping Japanese companies kick start their economy after World War II. TWI had been introduced by the US occupational authority, and several references sited that it played a role in encouraging companies to listen to front-line ideas that focused on process improvement. We began looking into TWI, and found lots of great material dealing with its use in the United States to help ramp production up in preparation for the country entering WWII, but we found nothing referring to how it was transferred to Japan after the war. We even contacted a high-level pentagon source of Alan’s, but all to no avail.

Then one of our research assistants came across a single paragraph article in a 1951 Wall Street Journal titled “Industrial Democracy Goes to Japan.” The paragraph stated that a gentleman from Cleveland, Ohio named Lowell Mellon had set up a management training program in Japan. The piece contained very little information about the nature of the training, but did identify Mellon’s company as TWI Inc..

So, how do you track down Mr. Mellon 38 years later?

On a whim we tried long-distance directory assistance for Cleveland, and much to our surprise we were given a number! We called it and asked for Lowell. He wasn’t there, he was in Japan! At 92 years old, Lowell was being honored in Japan and would be returning the following week. Pay dirt, we had the right guy!

When we contacted Lowell the following week, and the first words out of his mouth were “I have a garage full of material from our setting up TWI in Japan. I was wondering if anyone would ever be interested in it. I was about to through it away.”

Road Trip!

Three days later we were on the road to Cleveland from the University of Massachusetts where we were both teaching at the time. We spend an extended weekend talking with Lowell, and pouring over his garage archives. The local copy shop made a bundle off of us that weekend.

From our work with Lowell and his documents we were able to piece together the interesting story of the transfer of TWI to Japan after the war. Through JIT (job instruction training) we were also introduced to the need to establish standard work as a baseline for improvement; from JMT (job methods training) the importance of ongoing process improvement; and from JRT (job relations training) the critical role of respect for and the involvement of front line workers.

Our research also led to an unexpected discovery. The originators of the Toyota Production System linked key foundational elements of their approach directly to their TWI training. Ironically, the origins of our modern lean approach to management trace back through Toyota in Japan to a training program sponsored by the U.S. government to help a depression ravaged industrial base gear up for World War II.

To read more about TWI and its role in Japan, see:


Dean Schroeder and Alan Robinson will be featured keynote speakers at the annual Lean HR Summit and TWI Summit, both being held May 8-9, 2014 in Nashville, TN. Visit or to learn more about these events. To get a 10% discount on the registration fee to either Summit, as well as a complimentary copy of The Idea Driven Organization autographed by Dean and Alan, enter Promo Code “IDEADRIVEN” in the registration fee and book purchase areas to take advantage of these offers.


Dean Schroeder
Dean Schroeder
Dean received his Ph.D. in Strategic Management from the Carlson School at the University of Minnesota, an M.B.A. from the University of Montana, and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from theUniversity of Minnesota. He currently serves as the associate dean and director of graduate programs in management at Valparaiso University in Northwest Indiana.

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