It’s sometimes difficult to get people working in the public sector to relate to the philosophy of business improvement variously known as systems or lean thinking.  The answer to the question “Where did this come from then?” involves, amongst many other things, reference back to the Second World War, the occupation of Japan, American teachers like W Edwards Deming, and the Toyota Corporation.

It can seem like a million miles away from, say, being a social worker in rural Scotland or a police officer in Bristol.

Throw in one of my lesser known heroes of improvement – the US Piggly Wiggly Corporation – and the disbelief can be complete.

Piggly Wiggly (let’s call them PWC) was founded in 1916 and has been through a number of ownerships and transformations.  Today it is a US grocery chain with 600+ franchise stores across 17 states.  But tucked away in its history are a number of innovations, for example (although disputed by some) the concept of the self-service grocery store.

The “improvement” link comes from the fact that by the 1950s they had developed an inventory system in their stores where stock was only reordered once it had been bought by customers.

The story goes that a Toyota delegation led by Taiichi Ohno, largely responsible for developing the Toyota Production System, was visiting the States in the 1950s to learn from the Ford Motor Company.  Alas, the waste they saw there did not impress.  But they also visited PWC and realised their inventory system could make their own car manufacture more efficient.  From that evolved the just-in-time manufacturing system, with components arriving on the production line as they were needed, no or minimal stock held, and the whole pace driven by customer orders.

I’d love to know how they came across PWC and the translations of Piggly Wiggly provided for them.  The possibilities remind me of a Spanish friend keen to improve his English who said to me “You say pussy cat? Can you also say pussy dog in English?”

PS – just-in-time applies to public services as well as retailing and manufacturing…

My thanks to Alan V for enlightening me about PWC and to Wikipedia whose article on Piggly Wiggly filled in some of the details