John Muir: The Original Lean Advocate?

Before Toyota, before Henry Ford, there was… John Muir?

Muir, of course, is well-known as a naturalist and environmentalist, who fought for creation of national parks in the United States and founded the Sierra Club.

Beyond that, I knew little about him. I learned a little more recently when I began watching the marvelous new documentary television series by Ken Burns about our national parks. As I watched the program, which discusses Muir in detail, I was surprised to hear a passing reference to the fact that, as a young man, Muir was an inventor, worked in a factory, and found ways to improve production.

After a little research online, I came across an article on the website of The Canadian Friends of John Muir. Written by Bruce Cox, the article describes Muir’s experience in an area of Canada known as Trout Hollow, near Meaford, Ontario.

Muir lived with William H. Trout and his family, working from 1864 to 1866 at a sawmill and factory Trout operated with his partner Charles Jay. Cox writes that Muir found ways to significantly increase the factory’s production of rakes and broom handles.

In 1866 William H. conceded when he had done all he could to improve the tool manufacture, "Muir easily took it further". Peter Trout, in his unpublished memoirs, put it this way: "My brother William H. was an inventor, but for original ideas, he was nowhere with John Muir."
To be specific, Muir succeeded in improving the machinery by paying close attention to the organization and sequence of all the steps in the production process. This is how it was arranged. Logs were elevated above the factory floor, slabbed and rounded, and cut into proper lengths for handles. Then in an assembly line they were fed down to be turned on a lathe and stacked in inventory. William H. recounts;
He began with our self-feeding lathe for turning rake, fork and broom handles and similar articles, which I considered nearly perfect; by rendering this more completely automatic he nearly doubled the output of broom handles. He placed one handle in position while the other was being turned. It required great activity for him to put away the turned handle and place the new one in position during the turning process. When he could do this there would be eight broom handles turned in a minute.

Putting the steps of production in the right sequence? Eliminating waste from the process? Creating an assembly line? Shades of Henry Ford! That sure sounds like a lean approach to me.