James Womack and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finally confronted the auto industry with the bad news: The Japanese had figured out a better way to build cars, and the rest of the world was in denial.
With co-authors Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos, Womack published The Machine That Changed the World in late 1990 to deaf ears.
'I thought we had failed,' he recalls. 'I thought it was going to be dismissed as one more Toyota book that nobody wanted to read.'
But then the 1991 recession hit, and suddenly Detroit developed an interest in reading. Some 50,000 copies of the book were sold. And the phrase that was coined in Womack's office - 'lean manufacturing' - became the battle cry of the 1990s.
Ironically, Womack had been pounding the drum on lean production techniques for nearly a decade. Critics dismissed him as naive, arguing that there were more tangible factors behind Japanese efficiency than he - a Cambridge professor who took the subway to work - had understood. There was the favorable yen, they argued, cheap Japanese labor and 'hidden workers' whom he had neglected to count.
Now running a nonprofit 'lean' consulting institute near his home in Brookline, Mass., Womack says he still gets phone calls almost once a week from people telling him that Machine changed their lives.
In 1996, Womack and Jones co-authored another book on the same principles, Lean Thinking. That book has already sold 100,000 copies in hardback, just in English. It also is selling well in French, German and Portuguese, although the Japanese version is not, he reports.
'There's a higher level of interest by far in lean thinking in the United States than in Japan - and these are their ideas,' he says.
'This lean stuff will win out in the end,' he predicts. 'It isn't the perfect answer, but it's the best we've been able to figure out.'