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The Pursuit of Lean. A Journey That Never Ends.


by Al Wasinger

 – Vice President of Operations, Victory Energy

Everywhere you look across virtually all manufacturing operations you’ll find that lean is a core strategic initiative.  You can’t competitively exist in the manufacturing world without subscribing to some form of lean initiatives.  It’s a proven business tool that impacts both the top and bottom lines of a business.  It’s that important, the lifeblood of a company.  But why is it so hard to implement and sustain?  Bottom line, living lean each and every day is flat out hard.  The quest for advancing lean never ends.

At Victory Energy, lean thinking and behavior has made a significant difference in the way that we manufacture boilers, heat recovery and burner products.  It hasn’t happened overnight.  We’re well into our seventh year of lean upgrades with incremental gains being made continuously. Process improvements take time to be implemented.  Employees have to buy in by changing ingrained mindsets that lean is disguised as a way to reduce workforce.  Management needs to be fully committed to making it succeed.  Falling back to the way things were previously done is easy.  The early phases of lean implementation can be painful and time consuming.

Having been involved in lean manufacturing for years, I have learned that there are key criteria that must be factored into implementing lean initiatives:

The Value of Consistency and Repeatability

The real value in lean is about consistently excelling at every step of a process.  Our employees get increasingly better across all phases of boiler production.  They become experts at the process for which they’re responsible.  They truly own it.  Although cross-trained to accomplish other manufacturing tasks, the ability to deliver repeatability leads to a far better boiler product.  Consistent focus on reducing waste through continuous improvement efforts that provide a streamlined, repeatable process are the key attributes that are derived from lean thinking and acting.  These actions have led to the ability to double our boiler output and reduce man hours by 30%.  Metrics substantiate that lean works.

Bottom up Buy-In. Top down Commitment.

These two paradigms work in tandem as you can’t have one without the other.  In many companies, middle management and employees lead the lean revolution.  They see the value in making a better product and become the ultimate stakeholders.  On the other hand, many times senior management is the driver behind lean as the impetus is to reduce costs, increase quality and realize better throughput within the plant.  From my experience running different manufacturing operations, lean only works when everyone has truly bought in.  Where the majority of lean programs fail is the lack of true commitment and behavior change.  You can’t fake lean.  You’re either on board or you’re not.  Buy in is critically important. Lean is a lifestyle change, not a 30-day diet.

Educate Them. Own It.

Lean can’t be done in a vacuum with Excel spreadsheets that only management sees and reviews.  There needs to be continual education about the impact for where and how lean is making a difference in the business.  It needs to be visually apparent where all can see and immerse themselves in it.  At Victory Energy, we visually map total job status progress on each job against completion.  Green is good.  Red is bad, and it gets everyone’s attention straight-away.  This holds true not only on the manufacturing floor but in the office with our transactional processes as well. Employees need to feel a sense of ownership and empowerment to drive lean on their own levels.

Lean as a Way of Life. A Continuous Journey.

Lean is not a program that can be implemented and forgotten.  It goes beyond talk and a 30-day implementation schedule.  It’s hard work and setbacks abound.  There is no end date for lean.  It is evergreen in nature.

The quest is about being incredibly consistent and focused with repetitive continuous improvement efforts that manifest in reduced man hours, increased capacity and quality.  Our Pulse Line continues to produce boilers that rely on the overriding principals of lean.  As lean gets more ingrained in our culture, the zeal to be continuously better becomes infectious across the company.  Everyone is always searching for the next implementation of lean at every stage of the process.

Bottom line, lean works.  The results are manifested in many different ways.  It is only as good as you make it.  The beauty of lean is that it never ends, it’s a continuous journey to be better than you were yesterday.