Getting Lean through leadership

by Dr. Glen Miller
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Lean manufacturing strategy and tactics are insufficient if a meat processor wants to continuously trim costs and increase productivity. Two key ingredients that are often overlooked or simply missing from a successful Lean recipe are leadership and teamwork. I recently had an opportunity to witness leadership and teamwork at Premio Foods Inc., a processor of Italian sausage based in Rochelle Park, N.J.

I have worked with many companies to implement Lean or some other form of process improvement for many years. All the various companies and employees have understood the basics of Lean. They struggle, however, because Lean is more than just tools in a toolbox. Lean is also a way of thinking. It works when attitudes and thoughts are consistent with the principles of Lean. The leadership and teamwork demonstrated at Premio Foods are the ingredients that create a working environment for thinking, acting and sustaining Lean.

Faces of leadership
Leadership can be described in many ways. Initially, executive leadership must visibly participate in the process. Saying “we are going to implement Lean manufacturing” is not nearly enough to begin the changes of thinking and perceiving that are so important to successfully becoming a Lean business. Visibly participating in the process means executives and managers must demonstrate “Lean thinking” in their daily actions. Just as important, executives need to don bump hats, frocks and rubber boots to actively participate in the routines of the plant. Within Premio Foods it was evident that management had been participating in problem solving and daily plant operations for some time.

My role was to coach and train workers and managers on the details of some selected Lean tools. Charlean Gmunder, vice president of operations, and Greg Brozyna, plant manager, had already prepared the other managers, supervisors and workers to work as teams. My experience working in process improvement spans about 30 years. In those years, I have had some special opportunities. The four days I spent at Premio Foods was one of those special opportunities, thanks to the people at the company demonstrating a willingness to learn, apply and try again. They demonstrated teamwork that was reinforced by leadership. Leadership and teamwork were demonstrated by individuals up and down the organization.

For example, Claudia Pinuel, industrial engineer, helped a team restructure a staging area two weeks after they had just “5-Sed” (sift, sweep, sort, sanitize and sustain) the same area. The team did a great job to start with; however, more could be done. Pinuel reminded the team that the intent of Lean was “continuous process improvement” in contrast to once and done. She and the entire team received great support from the plant manager.

After learning more about Kanban and 5S, plant manager Brozyna led the team in taking another look at the dry goods staging area and redesigned the area over again. It was far easier this time because it had been “5-Sed.” After the first 5S, there was a lot less to move out of the way and more room to stage what was needed. Another example of teamwork was in the spice room. There the purchasing lead is a key member of the team. She and others are working on a Kanban system of replenishment. The team decided the simplest and most-effective system would use a replenishment card that would travel to purchasing, receiving and back to the spice room. The whole system is so simple it has to be considered eloquent. Moreover, the team discussed the system with internal customers such as the grinding room workers that pull their own spices and the receiving department that picks up and delivers the spices. These internal customers were part of the team effort and therefore, the system met the needs of all involved.

Taking action
Here are some executive actions communicating leadership that result in day-to-day wins that sustains Lean principles and practices. Executives who fully participate in the initial phases of Lean training demonstrate they are willing to learn and want to hear and practice exactly what their managers and supervisors are hearing and practicing. Gmunder said, “In the past, I have been involved in many Lean implementations. This latest approach, however, was pragmatic and for Premio Foods, this was critical to its success. By directly involving the crossfunction teams in the problem solution, our associates felt empowered to tackle both the current problem and future issues when they arise.”

After each short Lean tool workshop, the executive, plant manager and teams went out into the plant to observe and suggest application. The executive and managers demonstrated considerable leadership by attending training and mixing in their views while respectfully listening to the views of the cross-functional team members.

According to Brozyna, the workshop on Lean tools gave Premio Foods’ supervisors and teams a common language to apply toward daily operations and tasks. “Every department is now on the same page using common terms such as 5S, error proofing, quality changeover and Kanban,” he said.

The common language has helped. The teams are empowered to solve problems and the managers and supervisors are facilitating the problem solving processes and team meetings. One example of common language and team-sponsored action is error-proofing the gas, water and air hose connections. After a workshop on errorproofing, one cross-functional team decided to have different sized quick disconnects on the various hoses. The idea will speed up certain changeover functions and error proof the hose connection.

Alberto Veliz, maintenance manager, said the workshops “made difficult topics simple to understand. After each workshop, every member of my team had many ideas for implementation.”

Moreover, Premio Foods’ teams speak Spanish and English. The teams respect this bi-lingual environment and take time for translation so all team members can be heard. Translation became a form of problem iteration and clarification. The repeating through translation with common Lean terms helped the teams become more creative and effective with their ideas and action plans.

Lean tools can be very effective, but the overall benefits are much improved when leaders promote Lean as a way of thinking. Moreover, if teamwork is part of the company culture as it is within Premio Foods, the tools are used effectively over and over again.

Dr. Glen Miller is Senior Lean Consultant for Performance Essentials, Inc. More information can be obtained regarding Lean Manufacturing at www.performanceessentials.com.  
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