The trucking industry is frequently cited as one of the leading contributors to carbon emissions in the United States, but when the Environmental Protection Agency began insisting on dramatic improvements in the late 1990s, they went straight to the source: diesel engine manufacturers. As it turned out, one of the most unlikely companies would emerge as a world-class leader in the "clean and green" movement: Cummins Inc., under the leadership of chairman and CEO Tim Solso.
Cummins had been experiencing chronic quality problems and high warranty costs for a long period of time, Solso remembers, so when the EPA stipulated in 1999 that the five diesel engine producers needed to implement new cleaner standards by 2002, it didn't seem likely the company would be able to meet that deadline. However, Cummins had a secret weapon that helped it succeed where its competitors failed: Six Sigma.
"We were able to convince our senior leadership team that we needed process improvement if we were going to solve our quality problems, and Six Sigma became one of our main platforms for change," Solso explains. Initially launched to improve quality and eliminate waste, Six Sigma helped transform the company; Solso estimates Cummins saved over $5 billion in the first decade of the century, while helping its customers save close to $1 billion, primarily through Six Sigma studies into improving fuel economy.
That transformation also helped Cummins ultimately meet the EPA's 2002 deadline for fuel emission reductions -- "a very close call," Solso admits -- while its competitors were hit with financial penalties for missing the deadline. As a result, Cummins emerged as a leader in cleaner engine technologies, attracting business from emerging markets such as India and China. That global expansion paid off during the Great Recession, when international sales helped Cummins weather the domestic slump in new truck sales.
When prompted, Solso says his legacy at Cummins will be as "a leader who brought others together to create an environment of success." A winner of numerous awards throughout his 40-year career at Cummins, including Six Sigma CEO of the year in 2007, Solso has stayed busy since his retirement at the end of 2011 through his membership on various boards of directors (General Motors, Ball Corp.) as well as his humanitarian efforts with such initiatives as Earth University, a Costa Rican college that teaches sustainable, agricultural and environmental stewardship to youths from rural villages.
"These kids go back to their villages and change their world one student at a time," he says.
Editor's note: Shortly after his induction into the IW Manufacturing Hall of Fame, Tim Solso was named non-executive chairman of General Motors.