Commitment Key To Lean Manufacturing Transformation

I & W Industries, LLC was formed in 1998 when W. Dodd Russell and his two partners, Jerry A.

I & W Industries, LLC was formed in 1998 when W. Dodd Russell and his two partners, Jerry A. Carlson and Brian Girard, purchased the assets of a then-struggling manufacturing company. Today, I & W Industries is a successful manufacturer of small-diameter fabricated tubing sold to the automotive industry.

I discussed I & W’s lean manufacturing program with W. Dodd Russell, the company’s president. He described his experiences, which he hopes will help other manufacturers looking to improve their operations.

How did you learn about lean manufacturing techniques, and when did you begin to think seriously about implementing them? 

“When we started the company, even though we acquired equipment and a sufficient number of employees, we realized a complete revision of daily operations would need to occur. I began researching lean manufacturing concepts and felt they held many of the answers I was looking for. I decided to enroll in the University of Kentucky’s Lean Manufacturing Certification program because selling our employees on this approach to manufacturing would require a thorough understanding of all of the concepts involved. Going through the University of Kentucky program was the best thing I could have done, as the training I received from experts in the field has been a constant resource for me to draw from.”

What did you do first? 

“We formed a planning team to get input regarding the company’s strengths and weaknesses. We accomplished this through an assessment distributed to all management personnel. The results showed that nearly everyone shared the same vision for the company, and, regardless of their vantage point, employees were really all on the same page. Due to our size, we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford expensive consultants or customized training, so we worked with the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center’s Northwest Michigan office and hired an engineer to help develop our own lean implementation program. We started training small groups of employees and held meetings to discuss our plans and develop a sense of group cohesion.”

Describe some of your successes. 

“Some improvements to date include:

  • Implementation of computerized statistical process control has reduced paperwork time by 65 percent per line.
  • Five work cells [were] rearranged to operate more efficiently, which has resulted in an increase in throughput of approximately 25 percent.
  • People now record downtime and the reasons and work as a team to fix problems.
  • Plant floor employees are involved in the redesign of the production lines, resulting in productivity improvement of 30 percent.
  • Teams are cross-training, which has increased line resource availability by 20 percent.
  • Kanban systems have been implemented and have decreased in-plant leadtime by 20 percent.”

What were some difficulties you encountered when trying to implement improvement strategies? How did you overcome them? 

“Our introduction of lean concepts was met with resistance. No one understood how it would make the company better. After all, they already knew how to make parts and had strong relations with their suppliers and good productivity. I decided to purchase 20 copies of James Womack’s Lean Thinking and distribute them to the management staff, announcing that it was required reading for all of those intending to stay on with the company. And read it they did. In fact, one employee read the entire book over the weekend and came into work Monday morning so fired up that he ended up getting into arguments trying to preach its benefits to all who would listen! Once everyone had read the book, I called them together to plan our strategy for implementing lean manufacturing.”

Do you have any advice for other companies seeking to improve their processes? 

“Don’t be reluctant to spend money training people. Our commitment to training made a huge difference in our ability to implement lean manufacturing. Another key is to take care of the people on the shop floor. Help them solve their problems and encourage them to look out for one another. The success of lean manufacturing depends on the efforts of all involved; to overlook individuals is to overlook the most integral players on the team. We are only as successful as the people around us. That’s really been our focal point and reason for our success. Finally, don’t give up; although the task of lean implementation may seem arduous, your efforts will be met with even greater rewards.”