GE Appliances factory line GE Appliances

Actions to Manufacture Lean Leadership Across Your Organization

Five simple steps manufacturing leaders and employees can use to begin solving problems together.

At GE Appliances, we are on a journey to transform our organization from a lean manufacturing company to a Lean Enterprise. As Lean Enterprise Leader, it’s my job to help all associates think about how we succeed best together. More than 24 years of factory and engineering experience has taught me that when we come together across departments and job functions, we can solve problems in entirely new ways, often in a fraction of the time and consistently less cost.

A Lean Enterprise is much more than manufacturing. It’s engineering, technology, marketing, sales, production and distribution working in close concert to improve products and processes, and every employee is a part of this enterprise. Of course, it’s not easy or expedient to get everyone excited and on board for the ride, which is why lean must live in the attitudes and actions of leaders each day.

If you are a leader who is looking to inspire greater cross-functional collaboration and a more laser-focused use of resources throughout your company, consider the following approaches we are embracing at GE Appliances. We hope this learning helps to inspire your own lean journey!

1. Go see for yourself

Although data and metrics are very important for monitoring the health of any company, lean demands that leaders “go see” with their own eyes by involving the people closest to the work. In fact, what draws many people to lean is the social aspect and how it includes all associates regardless of their role. Everyone is an expert about one aspect of the business or another, and lean enables these many different points of view to be pulled together to see a bigger picture than any one individual or data set could provide. When leaders are acutely attuned to what is happening day in and day out, and when associates feel respected—because first and foremost, they feel understood—it sets the stage for a cooperative, cohesive environment to take root.

2. Point-learning points the way

Our Roper plant in LaFayette, Ga., had been practicing lean for a long time, and we started to bring associates from other plants to Roper to learn. More accurately, they were brought there to “do” because hands-on experience is the best education. We used our plant to host Action Workout sessions, where small groups of associates teamed with a work owner, whether that was one of our controllers, line operators or factory mechanics. Together, and over the course of a week, each team would start with a big problem and break it down to a simple understanding—for example, where does a good part go bad, and why does that happen exactly? The rest of our time was spent brainstorming new techniques and ideas to fix the issue. As we brought in more associates for more workouts, it was amazing the amount of point-learning that was taking place, and how associates could go back to their own plants with this knowledge and make an immediate impact. You can always take a class or attend a training session, but until you try it, you don’t truly understand it.

3. Cross-functional collaboration is key

We are now using Lean Enterprise thinking to create stronger, consumer-focused definitions for our appliance concepts. Traditionally, consumer surveys and data have guided the creation of new ideas and styles, but today we are trying a different approach that puts more emphasis on “winning designs.” For instance, during one Action Workout, we assembled a cross-functional commercial team made up of senior managers, industrial designers and sales personnel who spend their days with customers on the appliance showroom floor. Together, we debated the results from the consumer data and took time to go see the product on the floor. By doing so, we arrived at a higher level of ideation in concepting a new market-leading design. Every person came to the workout thinking he or she had the answer for what the design should be—and we all left united and focused on where we will go together with our new appliance strategy.

4. Empathy is essential

Some leaders think they have all the answers while some will provide the quickest, easiest answer that satisfies their team. I have observed that the best leaders take time to truly listen to associates, rather than simply waiting for their turn to talk. Laborious debates around conference room tables and long email threads rarely solve real problems. Effective leaders engage multiple team members to understand the many viewpoints of a problem, then go to the source where the problem is occurring. As we say in manufacturing, where does a “good one” become a “bad one”? The best leaders have empathy, ask thoughtful questions and don’t mind getting their hands dirty to get things done. 

5. Break through barriers together

On our journey, we are learning how to better communicate between functions and beyond email, meetings and PowerPoint presentations. For instance, there are times when a “go see” approach is just not practical, like when we are working through problems in distribution that involve multiple warehouses across many states. Recently, we wanted to show a cross-functional team where the waste in this manufacturing-distribution value stream was located, so we simulated the daily flow of one of our dishwashers, including the sales orders that triggered the demand. We used toy building blocks to bring our demonstration to life, which proved very effective and allowed a diverse group of leaders to quickly understand the many complex issues at hand. The resulting dialogue and debate were extremely valuable in creating collective team-think about the gaps preventing us from reaching our ideal state. It’s deceptively simple, but drawing pictures or creating simulations where a group of people can huddle together generates in-depth discussions and creative ideas.

While we are still in the early stages of our Lean Enterprise journey, the energy our efforts are already generating hint at even bigger things ahead for GE Appliances. By aligning associates and leaders behind a common mission to create passionate product owners, any business can begin to attack problems in ways that aren’t possible when we face challenges alone, siloed off from other job functions and subject matter experts. It can all add up to a lean-thinking enterprise that operates with greater speed, clarity and camaraderie to the benefit of consumers and the bottom line. 

Marcia Brey is lean enterprise leader at GE Appliances, a Haier Co. What is your organization doing to make lean a company-wide rallying cry? Comment here or connect with Marcia on LinkedIn to continue the conversation!

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