At lawn and garden equipment manufacturer Ariens Co., CEO Dan Ariens holds employees accountable for their lean efforts by conducting regular "gemba walks" and monitoring reports. The Brillion, Wis.-based company began its lean transformation in 1999 shortly after Ariens took over as CEO of the family-owned business. Ariens Co. was a batch-driven manufacturing environment that paid employees based on piecework, Ariens recalls. The company's philosophy was based on "have a hunch, make a bunch," Ariens says.

Ariens familiarized himself with some lean concepts by reading a 1996 Richard Schonberger book on World-Class manufacturing. Ariens quickly learned consultants couldn't transform the company's culture, so he hired an internal team of leaders to drive the necessary changes. Ariens Co. whittled down batch sizes and burned through a six-month stockpile of finished-goods inventory through sales incentives and production-line shutdowns. It also reduced lead times, improved cash flow and quality, and experienced a culture shift once employees realized their influence on change.

Rather than producing parts in batches, the company's plants now produce kits of components that are selected based on the next production-line process. The change has helped cut cycle times that may have taken one month in the pre-lean days to one hour, Ariens says.

Ariens led the cultural transformation with a dose of blunt honesty. "In the early 2000s I used to say all the time we're either going to change the people or we're going to change the people in this business," Ariens says. "That means if you're going to be an important contributor to our business, you're going to need to learn the lean tools—whether it was in a plant, engineering group, accounting or customer support. If you didn't become an advocate for lean, we were going to find someone who was."

The cultural change fostered an innovative environment that led to new product development and ultimately growth. The company expanded from two plants in 1999 to five facilities, including one in London, by 2011. Now that lean is part of Ariens Co.'s core business strategy, its current focus is on continuous improvement. As the CEO, Ariens says he's the "visionary and chief motivator" behind the continuous-improvement program.

"Once we move the stake in the ground forward on continuous improvement, I have to be the guy who holds the stake in place and not let it slip back," Ariens says. "That means holding people accountable to continue to sustain the improvements and then energize people around pushing the stake forward for the next level of improvement."

Before the company expanded to five plants, Ariens walked the plant floor every two weeks to monitor progress. These gemba walks, the lean term for observing value-creating activity, became less frequent as the company grew. But Ariens says he still performs gemba walks each time he visits a plant and plans to conduct quarterly walks at the company's two Wisconsin facilities.