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Sustaining Lean

It is inherent in human nature to get excited about anything that is new. But, as time goes on, the excitement fades and exuberance seems to go by the wayside. This holds true for the manufacturing world, too. When implementing a process improvement initiative such as Lean Transformation, once the big gains are over

It is inherent in human nature to get excited about anything that is new. But, as time goes on, the excitement fades and exuberance seems to go by the wayside. This holds true for the manufacturing world, too.

When implementing a process improvement initiative such as Lean Transformation, once the big gains are over how does a company keep the momentum going and avoid falling into the “flavor of the week” trap?

This is the situation Ross Controls found itself in when they sought to continue the advances they made in Lean manufacturing. Luckily, the manufacturer of pneumatic valves, controls systems and safety products for the fluid power industry, has the benefit of lean advocate and leader John Smith, Ross Controls' COO, to keep the lean initiative rolling.

In 2001, Ross embarked on a company-wide lean effort by sending 10 employees from its Madison Heights and Lavonia, Ga., manufacturing facilities to the five-day Lean Experience program at the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich. This in-depth workshop taught the employees about the importance of going beyond lean tools and principles into embedding lean into the company culture.

These employees came back enthused and ready to hit the ground running. Early successes included:
        • 20 percent reduction in assembly floor space due to inventory reduction
        • 80 percent reduction in finished goods inventory
        • 30 percent reduction in WIP
        • 60 percent to 80 percent reduction in shipping errors.

But, now, five years into the lean process, Ross must continue to sustain the lean process.

“It is an unfortunate fact that most companies are unable to sustain the gains made during their lean journeys,” said Andy Carlino, Lean Learning Center partner. “In fact, less than 37 percent of lean improvements and training actually produce meaningful and measurable results unless there has been a complete corporate culture change to lean thinking.”

Smith added, “Sustaining lean is very difficult. And, let’s clarify what sustaining means – it is NOT maintaining what you have, but sustaining continuous change. People need to understand that lean is a way of thinking, it’s a life changing event. It’s not the tools, the rules or the principles. It’s all of that added together.” 

Lean is not something you can see, although both Carlino and Smith say you can develop an organization that views the world through a lean lens.

“If you really believe in lean, you believe in self-directed workforces where supervisors take on a new role," said Smith. "They become coaches, accommodators, facilitators. When I began lean at Ross, I eliminated 50 percent of the supervisory roles. This doesn’t mean all of the people were laid off; some were put to use in more efficient ways.”

Keeping the Gains

Although many lean journeys start out with very tangible double-digit gains, as companies move further into the initiative, the improvements tend to become incremental.

“We started out with 14 percent to 20 percent productivity gains,” said Smith. “Now we have dropped down into annual productivity increases of 7 percent, which is very respectable. But, what you find is that your improvements become a whole bunch of small changes that are sometimes so subtle that someone has to point them out to you.”

“There is no one lean solution that fits every company. It is a very individualized plan. But, one thing that is crucial is measurement and accountability, a way to assess your progress,” Carlino commented.

In Ross’ case, any employee that has supervisor responsibility or above is required to run a specified number of kaizens or lean activities per year. Their performance (and, thus compensation), is measured on meeting these goals and objectives. Additionally, each person in that group has received lean education at the Lean Learning Center and each new person that comes on board attends the Lean Experience class at the Center.

“We are also doing a lot more visual management now,” said Smith. Visual management is the application of any visual aid or device that promotes safer, more efficient, and less wasteful processes. The goal in using visual management is to create “status at a glance." Visual management also helps create a standardized work environment by providing instructions, directions, reminders, etc. on how the work is to be done and what is expected.

One such tool started by Ross in 2001 was its Shop Floor Measurement Scoreboards – one in the assembly area and one in machining. The scoreboards monitor improvements in the processes and they implement methods such as 5S (sift, sweep, sort, sanitize and sustain).

“But, we had to give new life to these,” said Smith. “People became numb to them. So, we revitalized these by changing some of the material and by updating them as soon as new information pops up, rather than waiting for a specified amount of time.”

Key to involvement in this process is that the posting is done by the person who has “first touch” on that information. It doesn’t get fed up the chain to three or more degrees of separation. With this approach, each person becomes much more engaged as an integral part of the process.

“When each person knows they are contributing something meaningful, then your company is lean," said Smith. "I mean, if your job doesn’t have meaning, then why would you have that function?”

Connecting the measurements

Smith says one of the crucial things they’ve done is to change their measurement system. Ross’ four key areas of measurement include productivity-per-person, inventory-to-sales ratio, total cost-of-sales, and on-time delivery. Within each of these measures, Ross sets specific targets.

“We were measuring certain activities prior to lean,” said Smith, “but, we weren’t tying them all together. We now have a Global Metrics Team that creates our measures, whereas before each department set independent goals for its function and was not able to see how they impacted another group.”

For example, Ross’ marketing manager put together a distributor “report card” as a tool to help in sustaining lean.  He developed this independently as a way to make his job more accountable and measurable. It also made his job easier by putting the measurement point at the earliest place where improvements can be seen and made – with the distributor.

“People may not initially recognize something like this as a lean tool,” commented Carlino, “But it is; it is a result of embedding a certain way of thinking into the company culture.”

The Human Factor

“Shifting areas of responsibility it where it can get tricky,” said Smith and he cited an example from the shop floor. “We have schedulers on the floor that tell the machinists how many parts and what models to produce each day. I want to shift this responsibility to the machine operators. Why? Because the scheduler may not know which tools are needed to run each part, whereas an operator knows he can run certain parts together because they share the same tooling and this saves time.”

To make this sort of change, Smith says you need to make sure the scheduler does not feel threatened and to help them understand why this change makes sense. With the operator, you need to assure them that they have the capability to make this decision. You have to come up with High Agreement, meaning that the people closest to this activity should agree about what and how it should and can be accomplished.

Words of wisdom

If Smith has one thought to share with leaders about to embark on a lean journey it is this: seek out the informal power – the group of people that understand the way the company truly functions versus the formal power – the corporate structure that d

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