The Wright Brothers: Lean Thinkers

I visited the memorial to the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, N.C., while I was on vacation last week, and came away with the impression that Orville and Wilbur understood at least a few lean principles.

Their famous first flight of a motorized airplane occurred in December 1903 – the same year that the Ford Motor Company was incorporated, but a decade before Henry Ford launched the mass production assembly line.

The Wright brothers did not focus on processes or removing waste from processes. They probably didn’t know much of anything about increasing throughput or capacity. They made and sold bicycles, so they may have known something about creating value for the customer, though perhaps not in lean terms.

But I believe they did understand, at least to some degree, root cause analysis and continuous improvement.

For example, gliders had been in existence for some time before the Wright brothers added a motor. And designers of gliders understood that the upper portion of a wing needs to be curved to create lift.

The Wright brothers refined the concept. They experimented to determine exactly how the wing should be curved to produce the maximum amount of lift.

Also, when the brothers found that their glider wasn’t responding to its controls as well as it should in some initial flights about six feet off the ground, they analyzed the situation and determined that by flying higher they achieved better control.

The Wright brothers were scientists, inventor and entrepreneurs. They also embodied the spirit of lean.

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