Winning the COVID-19 War

Matthew E. May
4 min readMar 30, 2020

Defense Production and the Power of Continuous Improvement to Stabilize Society

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States with full fury, most people had probably never heard of the Defense Production Act, a U.S. federal government law passed during the Korean War. Even fewer know of the DPA’s genesis and precursor — Roosevelt’s World War II emergency services — and why it matters.

Allow me to share some of that history and context, because at the heart of the genetic code of the DPA lies the very method that holds the power to win a world war…no matter who or what the global enemy is.

That method is now known as continuous improvement, or kaizen in Japanese. Kaizen is by no means a Japanese concept, (much less a Toyota one), as many people believe. It is one born and bred in the U.S., by the federal government. It is a story I learned while at Toyota, and one I never fail to tell when training others on operational improvement and lean production.

It all happened during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, under which we experienced both the recovery of The Great Depression and the winning of World War II. When France fell to Hitler’s Third Reich in 1940 and U.S. involvement in the European theater looked imminent, the U.S. manufacturing base needed ways to not only convert factories and ramp up production — even more than had been it had been doing to provide support to China, Great Britain, and Russia in their respective battles — but also to rapidly train people to replace the workers, many of them women, who would become soldiers.

The Department of War, at Roosevelt’s direction, formed an emergency service called Training Within Industry (TWI) to help quickly boost both production and productivity. Three programs were developed: Job Instruction Training, Job Relations Training, and Job Methods Training. Job Methods Training (JMT) taught how to generate and implement ideas through hundreds of small changes that could be made quickly on front line of production.

The term coined for the method: continuous improvement.

The focus was on improving the current work and existing equipment, because there simply wasn’t time for large-scale ideas or design of new tools. Training happened rapidly, using a train-the-trainer approach. A handful of course developers each taught two trainers, who in turn trained twenty instructors. They traveled to factories to conduct training in what were called “quality circles.” TWI trained nearly two million production personnel during the five years from 1940 to 1945.

As Donald Dinero correctly points out in his 2005 book Training Within Industry, Job Methods Training “taught workers to objectively evaluate the efficiency of their jobs and to methodically evaluate and suggest improvements. The course also worked with a job breakdown, but students were taught to analyze each step and determine if there were sufficient reason to continue to do it in that way by asking a series of pointed questions. If they determined some step could be done better by eliminating, combining, rearranging, or simplifying, they were to develop and apply the new method by selling it to the ‘boss’ and co-workers, obtaining approval based on safety, quality, quantity, and cost, standardizing the new method, and giving credit.”

Little stuff, not enough, right? You need the big swags to close the gap fast, right? No. It was a brilliant solution. Quality, cost and speed were improved on average 25% across the board. Students of history know that the superior equipment quality and production line speed figured heavily in the Allied defeat of the Axis forces.

TWI as a government service vanished after the end of the war. But the approach followed General MacArthur’s occupation forces in Japan as the U.S. began to help rebuild the devastated nation. MacArthur needed to jumpstart and stabilize the economy and respond to a number of potentially existential threats: lack of industrial capability, civil unrest, starvation, interrupted supply lines, and communist invasion from North Korea. He needed to replicate the wartime success of TWI. The government sent him TWI, Inc., a company founded by one of the original TWI service instructors.

Out of options, the war-torn society listened. Yes, listening to employee ideas was uncomfortable. Yes, tapping employee creativity was a foreign concept. But they tried it. It worked, so they kept at it, made it mandatory. It became a business habit. The word about continuous improvement spread. It became the de facto way to conduct business. Quality, productivity and innovation in Japan took off.

They dubbed the approach kaizen.

Like our converted factories and post-war Japan, the world at large now needs to survive and thrive amid a scarcity of resources which mandate a new way of thinking and conducting business.

Unfortunately, in the context of business, company-wide capability in the scientific problem solving method driving the effectiveness of continuous improvement eludes many, if not most, organizations.

The good news is that invoking the Defense Production Act recreates the war-time need to convert factories and boost production to fight the coronavirus, and we will in all likelihood see continuous improvement take root and flourish.

The most powerful and valuable resource in the world is human creativity and resourcefulness. When a critical mass of humanity is focused on a common enemy, it is unbeatable.



Matthew E. May

ScaleUp strategist at Insight Partners. Co-author, What a Unicorn Knows: How Leading Entrepreneurs Use Lean Principles to Drive Sustainable Growth (2023).