Continuous Improvement: The Never-ending Story

WIKA Instrument has been on a lean journey for nearly 10 years, with no finish line in sight. There is no end in sight for lean's benefits, as well.

WIKA Instrument Corp. has been on a lean manufacturing journey for a significant length of time. Indeed, the manufacturer of pressure, temperature and level measurement instrumentation is approaching its 10th anniversary along this path.

Its a timeframe that might make one think WIKAs continuous improvement efforts are nearing completion. Thats not the case, however.

When it comes to continuous improvement, you are always closer to the beginning of the journey than to the end, says Rick Reed, WIKA Instruments director of continuous improvement and quality.

Reed says those words sum up the philosophy of WIKA Instrument President Michael Gerster. He is 150% for it and is our biggest proponent and our biggest spokesperson, Reed says.

A visit to WIKAs 210,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Lawrenceville, Ga. -- which produces products in both high-volume, low-variation production cells and low-volume, high-variation settings -- showcases many of the lean tools the company employs. They include visual management, 5S, electronic kanban replenishment, production cells, in-line quality checks and order sequencing.

Lean has brought with it improved employee morale, better use of floor space and improved productivity, Reed says. Indeed, the improved productivity allowed the company to absorb a significant amount of business growth in 2000-2001 without the addition of a new building, which was an alternative the company had been exploring.

WIKA also has been implemented lean on the business side of operations. It claims improved expedite processes and order entry as among the benefits.

The manufacturer spreads its lean message in a variety of ways, Reed says. It begins during orientation for new employees and is reinforced during start-of-shift meetings and classroom training. Cross-functional kaizen events, both one- to two-day events as well as week-long efforts, provide further opportunities.

About 65% of employees have participated in the week-long events, and the percentage is even higher for the shorter events, Reed says. The week-long event typically includes instruction about the lean methodology at the start.

Reed says about 80 kaizen events have been scheduled so far for 2011. And the week-long events are beginning to be conducted on shifts other than first. (The shorter events, typically focused on a specific challenge, already are conducted on multiple shifts.) For example, WIKA just completed a week-long kaizen on second shift. The objectives included reducing work-in-process inventory and improving productivity, with attention given to improving cell layout and one-piece-flow techniques.

WIKAs continuous improvement efforts dont stop with lean, however. The company launched a Six Sigma effort in the fourth quarter of 2010 and has trained 11 green belts. Two green belt projects and one black belt project are under way at the plant.

Why add Six Sigma? Certain challenges are better addressed with problem-solving techniques other than lean, or in addition to lean, suggests Reed. Sometimes you need a bit bigger tool box.

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