Baby Steps to Continuous Improvement

Baby Steps to Continuous Improvement

By not taking on too much, too soon, Reliable Automatic Sprinkler reduces delivery lead time by 75%.

Bringing visibility to an organization can have all the subtlety of shock therapy. It involves changing the mindset of workers, turning the tendency toward autopilot off and stimulating creativity.

But these results don't come overnight. They can take years. Which is why lean is so often associated with a journey -- because the process is every bit as critical as the result.

Consider the case of Reliable Automatic Sprinkler, Co., a manufacturer of fire sprinklers and sprinkler system control equipment. When its vice president of production, Will Franks, sought to bring lean principles into its processes, he began by emphasizing pull systems and strategically-minded Kaizen events.

Over the last three years, Reliable Automatic Sprinkler has seen its delivery lead time reduced by 75%, while its inventory totals have dropped by between 50% to 75%.

Through a series of modest, yet highly revealing projects, Franks piqued the curiosity of the company's workforce, showed the potential of lean thinking and built the foundation for a rigorous continuous improvement program at Reliable Automatic Sprinkler.

Over the last three years, Reliable Automatic Sprinkler has seen its delivery lead time reduced by 75%, while its inventory totals have dropped by between 50% to 75%, according to the company.

For 92 years, Reliable Automatic Sprinkler has been run through the Fee family, beginning with Frank Fee, who founded the company in 1918, before passing it on to his son Frank Fee Jr. in 1945, who passed it along to his grandson Frank Fee III in 1976.

Reliable Automatic Sprinkler has dabbled with lean principles since 1998, but didn't truly take off until the company moved from four scattered facilities in upstate New York down to a single plant in Liberty, S.C.

"What I found was you just couldn't do it all at once," says Franks. "The company was very old and conservative and it couldn't handle a huge rate of change. I've learned that if you try to go too fast, it becomes too disruptive and some of the other support systems can't keep up, such as IT or your supply chain. They can't turn that quickly to a new way of doing business."

Franks instituted two Kaizens annually for the first six years, slowly transforming key processes in the plant. After the move to Liberty, Franks implemented pull systems, which he says can be an instrumental tool for lean thinking, allowing companies to simultaneously improve other parts of a plant and take on key elements of lean.

Through a modest series of Kaizens, Reliable Automatic Sprinkler, Co., a manufacturer of fire sprinklers and sprinkler system control equipment, slowly built momentum on its lean journey.

A company with an overflowing inventory, he says, is like a boat sailing on the sea. The saturation of supply has a knack of covering up the rocks beneath the water -- the myriad of flaws in the processing system that are all too often ignored.

"If you lower the inventory, you lower the water, and now those rocks start to pop up," he says. "That can come in the form of supplier issues, a process control problem or a design issue. Pull systems force you to fix the problem once and for all, so it never comes back. It forces you to get better."

And so it did for Reliable Automatic Sprinkler. On a Kaizen for one of its most important product lines, the Model G sprinkler, the company transitioned its manufacturing from a batch push manufacturing operation to a one-piece flow, supported by TAKT time analysis, pull systems, 5S and a point of use materials process.

Today, Franks isn't the only one driving the lean program. He has since brought on a manager of lean manufacturing whose only responsibility is to implement lean programs and procedures throughout the plant. More importantly, hands-on operators have taken a vested interest in rethinking their work.

"You need to create that next layer of leadership," he says. "You have to push the lean journey further and further into the organization."

The concept of lean has become so prevalent within so many organizations for so many years now, that its relevancy is no longer just limited to manufacturing, as hospitals and medical centers have adopted many of the lean principles.

"It's a way of doing business and I believe the next iteration is lean enterprise," says Franks. "I see it stretching into accounting, human resources, product development and sales. Not a lot of companies have gotten to that level yet. But those principles always apply. They're tools for success."

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