QUESTION: We've had some success introducing lean concepts into one of our facilities. While we are not perfect by any stretch, we figure we are good enough to take some of our learnings into another facility. It doesn't seem to be catching on, despite trying to repeat exactly what we did in our first plant. What might we be doing wrong?

ANSWER: First of all, kudos to the reader for finding ways to improve the operations and for taking the initiative to share success stories with sister plants that can also benefit.  Unfortunately, I don't have enough information to know whether the reader is part of a living, breathing, continuous improvement (CI) journey, is just a good employee trying to improve the company, or a director/VP of manufacturing with multiplant responsibilities.  With the lack of context I'm going to assume the latter in my response.

My experience is that every plant is different.  (While this is true, it often becomes a paradigm that is nearly immovable as an excuse for not doing CI.  "It'll work in that plant but my plant is different" nonsense.)  Yes, many plants may make the same products, but each operation has its own history in terms of the succession of its leaders, their styles and their expectations, often over extended periods of time.   In W. Edwards Deming's words, superior senior leaders are those who have a "constancy of purpose" in their long-term expectations under the umbrella of the voice of the customer, the work force, investors, suppliers and all other constituents.

I would suggest that we could have plants equipped with exactly the same machines, with exactly the same product set and volumes, plants with exactly the same infrastructure of systems, utilities, etc., and any number of other "sameness" that we could think of. But....the plant with the best leadership on a sustained basis:

  • in terms of having a clear vision of the desired future state,
  • having a path to achieving and sustaining manufacturing excellence,
  • delivering a formal comprehensive communications plan,
  • a formal comprehensive training process and,
  • a cultural commitment to create and sustain an involved work force

will out-perform the other plant every time.

It's all about leadership. It's ALWAYS all about leadership!

So back to the question.  Something like having the mindset for CI or even having the mindset to help improve the operation with hourly associates is alien to most.  In sites not being led with expectations of participation and without being equipped to do so won't just "catch on."  A visitor from another plant who reaches out to help, as in this case, won't have much impact unless the leadership invites this person into the facility enthusiastically and engages their own team to help and, ultimately, take ownership of "the new way of doing things" here. 

Once your pilot is successfully completed, it's like starting a grass fire."

That's why directors and VPs of manufacturing/operations are absolutely critical in this process. These right-minded leaders have the authority to make things happen and can remove the obstacles that present themselves.  When individual contributors try to make changes on their own without the necessary support, the improvements are fleeting because processes and soft infrastructure aren't in place or robust enough.  Therefore, the improvements are not sustainable.

Here are some suggestions to the senior leaders who are trying to introduce change into other plants that's already been successfully implemented by one plant:

  • Create a vision statement for all plants to understand and adopt as their own.This along with education, training and communications will create the necessary alignment of plant managers.When introducing yourself to the plant managers, (while also collecting their inputs and Q & A), make it clear that their alignment to think, work and behave differently and to lead the process in their operations is required.Then help them with the education, training, communications they need to be successful.
  • Create the path to excellence. (I've used my 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence for this.) You may have your own process for managing CI, which is great as long as it is well-defined, comprehensive and integrated.
  • Make certain that individual improvement projects/kaizens, etc., are treated as "pilot" projects when it's likely there will be broad application elsewhere in the business.Invite the key players at other locations to come and visit, communicate with the improvement team, see the pilot in operation and discuss the process used to get from point A to B.Document the updating of standard work so it can be shared with others rather than reinventing the wheel.Offer your assistance to visit other plants and help them get started in their own plants.
  • Each location doing pilots now has the ability to take their learning into the rest of their plant and become self-sufficient first then be available to help others later.Think of the power of this process if you have 10 plants sharing their best practices through their pilots.This compresses the timeframe for the improvements and spreads them across the company at a much faster rate than is otherwise possible.(For example, compare this to the pace a company can change if the plants are dependent upon a handful of corporate resources to conduct their pilots.Doing it the way it's described here develops the talent locally and breaks the dependence on having to rely on external resources.)
  • The use of pilot projects allows you to make mistakes and learn from them on a small scale so as not to hurt the business.A pilot is deemed to be successful if critical deliverables have been met based on the original project charter.Once your pilot is successfully completed, it's like starting a grass fire.Take the new model of how to operate, one at a time, into all applicable processes and plants and watch the grass fire spread.If you're lucky you won't be able to stop it.

Larry Fast is founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of "The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence: A Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence." A second edition is planned for release in 2015. As Belden’s VP of manufacturing Fast led a transformation of Belden plants in the late '80s and early '90s that included cellularizing about 80% of the company’s equipment around common products and routing, and the use of what is now know as lean tools. Fast is retired from General Cable Corp., which he joined in 1997. As General Cable's senior vice president of operations, Fast launched a manufacturing excellence strategy in 1999. Since the launch of the strategy, there have been 34 General Cable IndustryWeek “Best Plants Finalist awards, including 12 IW Best Plants winners. Fast holds a bachelor's degree in management and administration from Indiana University and is a graduate from Earlham College’s Institute for Executive Growth. He also completed the program for management development at the Harvard University School of Business.