Lean Manufacturing Creates Culture of Improvement

Lean Manufacturing Creates Culture of Improvement

This piece was originally published in the March 2017 issue of electroindustry.

North American manufacturers have been part of the lean movement since 1990, when James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos published The Machine that Changed the World, documenting the advantages of Japanese manufacturing methods over the mass production model pioneered by Henry Ford.

During the past 25 years, we have learned that lean manufacturing cannot be a directive from the top down and that in order to successfully create and sustain a continuous-improvement mindset it must be built into the culture of the company. For this reason, Atkore has spent the last six years focusing on the development of a continuous-improvement culture.

Corporate culture is defined as the shared values, traditions, customs, philosophy, and policies of a corporation. In order to create that culture, our executive leadership team had to determine our corporate aspirations and how we manage the business to achieve those results.

The answers to these questions formulated a central mission, which is to be customers’ first choice for electrical raceway and related mechanical products and solutions. They also shaped the company values of accountability, teamwork, integrity, respect, and excellence.

These values and their associated behaviors create a culture and a work environment in which all parties

  • take responsibility for modeling the appropriate behaviors;
  • win as a team and make the team better through their own actions;
  • use best practices to drive personal and organizational achievements;
  • challenge the status quo;
  • aim for breakthrough results;
  • create transparency, keeping lines of communication open; and
  • celebrate wins.

Aligning Team Efforts

Every employee is expected to be a leader in the company, pointing out opportunities for improvement and challenging current processes to remove activities that fail to add value.

To support all of this, Atkore established the Atkore Business System (ABS), which is the foundation for how the company operates as a business. Specifically, it is based on excellence in strategy, people, and processes. It is tied together with lean daily management (LDM).

Over time, each department determines key performance indicators (KPIs), such as 5S (sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain), delivery, quality, and cost. KPIs are measured during Gemba walks, which Mr. Womack defines as going to where the action is. It affords company leaders, managers, and supervisors a means of supporting overall continuous improvement and process standardization while insuring alignment of the efforts of all teams.

Employees are responsible for indicating whether they have met or missed their KPIs. If metrics have been missed, an analysis known as “5-why” is performed. This technique, which explores the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem, is used to create a Pareto distribution diagram of root causes and countermeasures. A Pareto chart clearly illustrates what needs to be resolved by arranging variables in a bar graph that places the longest bars on the left and the shortest on the right. Regular report outs help create a culture of accountability and continuous improvement.

Strategic initiatives are also identified as part of the annual planning process and are deployed through the strategic deployment process (SDP), which is based on the Japanese concept of hoshin kanri. SDP ensures that the strategic goals of a company drive progress and action at every level. To become a strategic initiative, a proposal must be cross-functional, build capability, require the involvement of senior leadership, and drive breakthrough results. These initiatives, which now reside on an x-matrix with assigned black-dot owners, are then vigorously worked with the use of action plans and countermeasures to drive to completion. While some initiatives may remain on the x-matrix for a year, others may take multiple years, given the complexity of the breakthrough.

Delivering Improvement

A great example of the ABS at work is Atkore’s manufacturing kaizen funneling process, which is based on the Japanese concept of kaizen. A kaizen event is a specific continuous improvement project. Each manufacturing facility has a process by which salaried and hourly employees can submit ideas for a kaizen event to remove non-value-added activities from the manufacturing process. These ideas are then reviewed by leadership teams and prioritized in order of which will have the greatest impact on the business. Plans are created for each kaizen event to define the scope and help increase the odds of success.

Hundreds of kaizen events are held per year. After each, 30-, 60-, and 90-day reports ensure that the progress made during the event is sustained. The goal of each kaizen event is the continued reinforcement of lean process thinking within the organization, until actual events are not necessary for continuous improvement to occur. Improvement becomes part of the company’s cultural DNA.

Another example is how Atkore decided to address problems with delivery, which is a key component to the success of the company’s mission statement to be the customer’s first choice. Upon identifying this performance gap, delivery became a strategic initiative and was added to the company’s x-matrix.

A cross-functional team was formed with subject matter experts from each business unit and operations area sponsored by an executive leader. This took considerable collaboration and commitment between demand planning, customer service, and operations to develop the crucial elements of planning and working the order.

Standard work was developed along with an audit process to ensure sustainability, and metrics were created to measure performance based on customers’ expectations. It took a couple of years, but now with sustained performance, this initiative became a part of the LDM. Every day begins by reviewing sales, inventory, operations, and planning, along with customer service and planning KPI Gemba boards. Failures are placed into Pareto charts to identify countermeasures. Weekly cadence calls are held with all business units, including demand planning, customer service, operations and distribution facilities. These ensure engagement and alignment across the organization and accountability by all team members.

Embracing Improvement

 The ABS and the use of lean processes are applicable not only to manufacturing facilities; it can be applied to any aspect of a business.

Atkore’s finance team realized the benefits of embracing this mindset. It looked at each transactional area of responsibility (e.g., accounts receivable, accounts payable, and financial reporting) and created standard work for each team to follow. They removed non-valued-adding processes, set key metrics for measuring improvement, and assigned ownership for the results. All of this led to improvements within the business and has allowed their teams to focus more on value-added opportunities, serving the customer, and enriching their work experiences.

Atkore’s transformation with continuous improvement has been a journey, not an event. It has become a part of the company’s culture, driven by the company’s focus on the business system.


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