The Intermodal Shipping Container. A standard way of moving goods by ship, rail, road and even airplane. This might seem obvious now, but having a standard size container for shipping products big and small, that could fit on a train or a truck, or be easily stacked and loaded onto cargo ships, with standardised fittings to allow for rapid loading and unloading anywhere in the world, has only been possible since the middle of the 20th century, and all thanks to freight hauler entrepreneur Malcom McLean and engineer Keith Tantlinger.

Prior to the standardisation of the container, cargo would require huge amounts of manual effort to load and unload, and be packed and unpacked into different sizes and shapes of container depending on the ship, the port, the country, the truck, the train and always different methods of connecting and stacking things to cram the most in.

Standardising on a size that would fit everywhere it needed to go, on any type of vehicle, reduced loading times from weeks to hours – an extremely good example of reducing the waste of wasted time! It also made it much easier to use space more efficiently, and ships could even be designed around the container size multiples.

There were lots of obstacles to overcome in getting this change through though, on a global scale for it to work, and vested interests especially – unionised dock workers in particular tried to thwart their plans, because it would reduce how much work they had and make them more efficient.

But what made it’s inventors truly rich, was a simple application of lean thinking, or indeed common sense, and yet somehow not obvious to most freight haulers of the day, was that after you shipped something one way, you have to ship it back again empty, in which case you’re paying a lot of money to ship thin air.

So it was that the ironically-named McLean took advantage of the opportunity to ship military supplies from American to Vietnam for use in the war there, and then return the ships via Japan to pick up Japanese products to bring back to America, just at the time that Japanese became the centre of world manufacturing and the leading exporter of mechanical and electronic products. In the military, he also found a customer who’s biggest concern was speed and efficiency, and who had the political might to force change upon those who were stuck in their ways.

Several years later, and without any more wars taking place in Asia, Chinese entrepreneur Zhang Yin noticed that while ships were full going from China to the USA, their containers were empty going in the opposite direction and apart from being an obvious sign of the decline of American manufacturing years before their politicians noticed, she smelled an opportunity that made her China’s wealthiest woman. She researched what could possibly go in that space that China wants but the US does not, and she hit upon the one thing American’s are really good at producing – Trash! By setting up a recycling business in China, she was able to not only get paid on both sides of the deal by being paid to take away people’s paper and cardboard trash, and then ship it at discount rates by buying up otherwise unusable shipping capacity, she then recycled it in China into cardboard to be used for shipping products back to America, effectively creating a kind of perpetual motion machine, or at least, a perpetual money printing machine!

Both McLean and  became insanely rich because of this simple application of lean thinking, what opportunities to apply lean thinking can you think of that will make you rich?