You don’t need to be Toyota to do lean well

By Shaun Stephen.

One of the most frustrating excuses you hear in the manufacturing world for tolerating inefficiencies is ‘we are too small to fully embrace lean — we’re not Toyota.’ More often than not, those same companies are struggling to maintain margins and suffer from less-than-stellar health and safety records.

When I first joined Alumicor, we probably fell into that same category. Our safety performance was inadequate, we had lots of work in progress (or, WIP) cluttering the floor, and inventory levels were beyond our production needs.

At the time, our answer was to build more space. But, tens of thousands of square feet later, we were no further ahead, and it became abysmally clear that something had to change. So, we took our first steps along the road to continuous improvement (CI).

Our lean journey, however, is not one of unabashed success or radical, overnight transformation. Instead, it’s a story of commitment, perseverance, incremental movement, and plain old-fashioned hard work.

We started roughly a decade ago with the basics. A critical element to maintain a high standard of safety is workplace organization; and, the fundaments of 5S became our tool of choice. From there, we built in colour-coded, cellular manufacturing and introduced metrics to track the indicators most important to us, including safety incidents, defect rate, on-time delivery, productivity, and inventory accuracy.

We had made enough strides that we felt comfortable applying for the AME Manufacturing Excellence Award. And while we didn’t become a finalist, the exercise helped us identify other far-reaching areas of opportunity, such as ways to enhance our pull systems.

The biggest leap forward came one year later, in 2013, when our business was purchased by a Minneapolis company called Apogee, which brought resources to support us in our lean deployment. After four years on their roadmap, we have increased our productivity, reduced our space requirements, significantly bolstered quality, and — most importantly — minimized injuries. Our 40-45 employees — split 70-30 shop-to-office staff — now outperform benchmarks set when we were running two complete shifts compared to one.

The linchpin, by no surprise, has been better engaging our people. I remember touring through a local plant many years ago; and, talking to the team there, it became apparent that their program was employee-driven from the inside, out. We wanted to replicate that.

Fortunately, we had some strong factors already playing in our favour. For starters, we traditionally hadn’t been bogged down with a lot of turnover in our factory (and still aren’t). And, we’ve been lucky along the way that our group on the floor has really taken ownership of what we do here on a day-to-day basis. Sure, we’ve had a few resisters to change, yet most people have been quick to jump on-board.

There are three main drivers, I think, that have allowed us to sustain that culture.

The first is leader standard work (LSW). Our LSW is centered a lot on managing daily improvements — doing gemba walks, talking to employees, understanding and addressing bottlenecks, flexing our labour force, and doing a lot of documenting, so we can understand why problems arise. Some of that was probably done in the past. Making it a formalized process, though, has been a game-changer for helping flow that focus down to team leads and supervisors.

The second hones in on visual management. We have a lot of signage in our plant that speaks to meaningful metrics — for example: how many quality defects we have in a certain week opposed to the more abstract cost implications of quality failures. We have a card-based total preventative maintenance system, too, where each cell outlines what activities should be happening each month and what needs to be outsourced. And, we have a centralized CI board that shows us in real-time where we are at on existing kaizens and A3s, as well as what’s coming down the road.

Finally, we’ve made a purposeful effort to connect our employees to both CI and corporate performance in ways that resonate with them.

That starts with the managers (and hence our diligence to LSW). We need our leaders to be able to communicate to employees what is in it for them. The more cost-effective we can be, the more we sell. The more we sell, the more consistent of a workforce we can maintain. The more stable our workforce, the happier our customers are, the more enjoyable our work environment is, the more investment is turned back into the company, the larger the profit share, and so on.

We’ve started celebrating and troubleshooting, together. We have monthly town halls, recognize accomplishments on monitors placed throughout the facility, and have institutionalized the practice of daily huddles.

And, we’ve put in place the right incentives. We have a pretty robust visual skills matrix — actually, it’s more like a wall — that contains employee names, job classifications, and job duties. Green labels are then put by their names to indicate what type of work they are signed-off to do. Those abilities are subsequently tied back to the pay grid, which puts a monetary value on cross-training and helps the worker to see the value back to the company.

No high-priced consultants. No complex technology. Just common-sense lean.

Whenever I am asked how companies like ours should get started on their own journeys, my advice is to pick one or two tools first and focus on becoming great at executing on them. Don’t overwhelm people. Operational excellence is all-encompassing — you will create more internal champions by rolling up your sleeves and demonstrating results than by inundating them with new information and systems.

Remember: You really only need to be you — you don’t need to be Toyota. 

Based in Winnipeg, Shaun Stephen is the vice president and regional general manager of Alumicor in Western Canada — a leading supplier of architectural aluminum building envelope products.