One Company’s Journey
NRG Systems has been implementing Lean Manufacturing for almost 15 years. During this journey our focus has changed significantly. In the beginning, with considerable determination and effort, we successfully implemented several key Lean tools. These tools were becoming well known in industry and would be recognizable to anyone familiar with the philosophy.
- Pull system flow of product from customer order through supply chain.
- KanBan visual signals.
- Dedicated workstations maintained through 5S discipline.
- Fast moving level-loaded production.
These tools clearly had a positive impact on production efficiency and inventory reduction. We can even say the additional profits gained from the process helped fuel NRG Systems’ growth and position in the global market. Fortunately, we did not stop there. Despite significant measurable improvements to the bottom line, NRG Systems’ journey to Lean had just begun.
Though many companies believe you just need to copy the processes found in other successful businesses (can you say Toyota?), Lean Manufacturing is more than copying existing tools. Lean requires a work atmosphere where each employee constantly questions how he or she can improve his/her job. Just doing your job well is not enough, you need to make it better.
Fortunately, from the beginning NRG Systems was a company where the founders valued everyone’s’ ideas and input. They already asked their employees to answer the question, “How can we improve”? Because the company was small, everyone could be involved in identifying and solving problems. This was the company culture and employees thrived in this atmosphere.
As the company continued to grow, there was a danger that we might lose our Lean thinking culture. From 2004 to 2008, the company grew threefold. New employees had a lot to learn about the business processes and products, never mind the culture of Lean. The risk taking required to continuously improve your job and not settle for the status quo does not come naturally and is rarely defined on a resume. The company realized we couldn’t wait for people to learn these practices through experience. We were actually at risk of slowing our Lean journey or even losing our Lean culture.
Faced with this problem, the management team decided our Lean learning needed to be improved. It couldn’t be left to chance, especially when two thirds of your workforce were “green to Lean”. To address this, we developed systems to “on-board” new employees purposefully and quickly. New initiatives were designed to get all employees into the game, so to speak.
Some of these initiatives included:
- Documenting our existing Lean processes and training new employees so they knew how these systems work and why they are important.
- Sending all employees to a standard set of lean training classes to build a standard baseline of knowledge
- Establishing Lean book clubs for all employees. Experienced Lean experts in the company brought a sense of urgency and passion to this process by facilitating these book clubs. Book clubs are held during working hours, which tell an employee learning about Lean is an important part of your job. Book clubs encourage employees to learn as much as they can about Lean. Reading books about the organizational behaviors of high performing companies and discussing these behaviors with fellow employees provide permission to apply these concepts.
- Scheduling time for employees to join formal continuous improvement teams. This gives employees time to focus on their key business processes and products. Regularly scheduled meetings tells employees that NRG Systems expects them to take the time necessary to continuously improve every aspect of their job.
- Managers lead inter-department process improvement projects. Working with employees from other departments provides more input and better solutions. Employees learn to delve deep into problems with all the stakeholders to arrive at the best possible outcome.
- A formal idea program was established to insure all well constructed ideas are properly considered and implemented, no matter how small.
- All-employee company meetings include celebrating Lean successes.
- The company’s balanced scorecard includes Lean metrics
An Ongoing Journey
NRG Systems has now opened the gates to every employee to take part in this Lean journey by tapping into the creativity of all employees. Rather than a couple of leaders teaching the rest of the employees how to implement a particular Lean tool, NRG Systems now has a company of Lean thinkers. The company no longer looks outside to copy other’s ideas and tools; NRG Systems is becoming a company filled with innovators who are encouraged to create new tools and processes. We invite others to join us in this worthwhile journey.
Phil Pouech is Director of Manufacturing at NRG Systems.