Best Practices -- The Buddy System

Lean manufacturing network unites Toronto companies in their pursuit of enterprise excellence.

The quest for world-class performance does not have to be a solitary journey. Manufacturers in some regions have been reaping the benefits of local networks and consortiums for years. Such groups provide large and small companies with a rapid-response team for tackling immediate problems, a forum for exchanging best practices and training materials and even psychological support. While participants sometimes pay an annual fee to support the cost of one or more full-time staff people who coordinate seminars and other events, lead benchmarking efforts and write newsletters, the passion and commitment of a few individuals also can provide the glue to hold such a group together. This is the case for a lean manufacturing consortium in Toronto. What started as a loose affiliation of five manufacturers has grown into a group of 12 members that's powered entirely by employee representatives. Part of the original impetus, says Richard Evans, director of lean enterprise for Messier-Dowty Inc. (Ajax, Ontario), which makes landing gear for small and medium-sized aircraft, was that some of the manufacturers were tired of paying money to various industry organizations and not receiving much of a return on their investment. The group of manufacturers -- a diverse lot that includes divisions of Eaton and Kraft, as well as smaller companies -- got started three years ago by hosting practitioner visits every Thursday to benchmark against one another, particularly to see how others were applying lean tools such as 5S and standardized work. "All problems have been solved by somebody. All you have to do is find the company who will share the solution," says Evans, who refers to this as his R&D strategy, short for "rob and duplicate." Although the members openly share ideas, the group's guiding principals state that no one will steal employees from other members and that any information exchanged remains confidential. The consortium does not have a Web site or even a logo, but it continues to expand and refresh its programs, including an annual "Share Showcase." Members send teams to this weekend barbecue event where they present their best application of lean manufacturing techniques, which are judged by their peers. Winners receive prizes. Member representatives needing help with a particular challenge also can post their problems in a weekly e-mail newsletter. Benefits can show up in unexpected areas. Following a demonstration to the group, Messier-Dowty leased sign-making equipment and taught several employees how to use it. They now support the facility's efforts to create a more visual workplace and the firm saves up to 90% on sign costs. In addition to idea sharing, representatives of participating companies often facilitate multiple-day, rapid-improvement events at other members' facilities. Leading continuous-improvement efforts within any company can be a lonely and difficult job. Evans says that talking to his peers within the group helps to re-energize him. The diversity of the companies, none of which compete in the same markets, does nothing to impede the flow of ideas. To the contrary, it underscores how similar manufacturing operations really are. "Everything we talk about is exactly the same across industries, even if the volumes are different, 150 per year or 10,000 per week," Evans confirms.

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