Lean – As Practiced in Backwoods, 19th-Century Michigan

First letter written on typewriter

First letter written on typewriter

It’s a good day to celebrate lean — as practiced in backwoods, 19th-Century Michigan.

On this day in 1829, William A. Burt patented “America’s first typewriter,” according to Wikipedia.

That wording implies previous efforts in other countries, but that’s not important now.

What is important is the first letter written on what then called the Typographer.

It was composed by John Sheldon, editor of the Detroit Gazette, and sent to Martin Van Buren, Secretary of State and future president of the United States.

The letter was to announce the new invention and its potential use. But that’s not important now, either.

What is important is what Sheldon wrote:

“You will observe some inaccuracies in the situation of the letters; these are owing to the imperfections of the machine, it having been made in the woods of Michigan where no proper tools could be obtained by the inventor, who in the construction of it, merely wished to test the principles of it therefore taking little pains in the making of it.”

Not quite as catchy as “lean,” is it?

The term lean production is relatively new. It was coined in the 1990 book, The Machine That Changed The World, which outlined how Japanese manufacturers were, at the time, clobbering their western rivals.

The Toyota Production System formed the basis of Japan’s lean manufacturing. From that, sprang concepts such as Just in Time (JIT), kanban and the seven wastes*.

From manufacturing, lean leapt to startups in 2008 when Eric Ries first applied the concepts to entrepreneurship.

The concept really took off with the 2011 publication of his bestseller, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.

As Wikipedia explains it, lean is “still largely unsubstantiated.” But,

“Ries’ overall claim is that if companies, especially startups, invest their time into iteratively building products or services to meet the needs of early customers, they can sidestep the need for large amounts of initial project funding and expensive product launches.”

The lean startup concept has brought its own set of tools and terms such as pivot and business model canvass, most of which are widely employed in entrepreneurial environments worldwide.

But they all lack the charm of a letter to the future president of America that simply states the inventor had no tools to hand. Yet he pressed ahead because he “merely wished to test the principles of it therefore taking little pains in the making of it.”


* Worried you are becoming a bore at dinner parties? Then familiarize yourself with the seven wastes: Transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, over-processing, over-production, defects. Then, regale your guests with this handy mnemonic: Tim Wood!


Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



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  1. Pingback: Do I Need a Business Plan & 4 Other Questions | John P. Muldoon

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