Toyota is commonly credited with being the birthplace of modern Lean. One of the key proponents there, Taiichi Ohno, is commonly thought of as the father of modern Lean.
While that is mostly true, there is more to the story. The Toyoda family owned the company that provided the fertile ground for Ohno to succeed in. Sakichi Toyoda was even the inventor of innovative looms that are the foundation of jidoka, or automation with a human touch.
But many of the concepts of Lean go far earlier than Ohno and Toyota. Henry Ford made great strides in creating flow, albeit rather inflexible flow. Eli Whitney made quality and standardization possible with his work on interchangeable parts. In truth, though, both of these men actually used existing ideas and improved upon them. For example, the Venetian Arsenal is widely credited as being the first true assembly line, producing ships.
Other Lean principles popped up throughout history as well. Windmills and water wheels were early examples of separating people from machines, the precursor to jidoka. The wheeled cart was an innovative example of early wastereduction.
But the earliest recorded example of something that used a continuous improvementmindsetwas the stone scraper used by early man. They undoubtedly put the PDCA cycle to use to come up with a better way to clean hides. With each pass through it, they found progressively better ways to do the job. The early cycles might have taken generations, but the PDCA cycle predates Deming by thousands of years.