Don’t let the name fool you: While Flex’s global lean competition is absolutely about selecting and recognizing the best lean and Six Sigma projects across the enterprise, it’s about a whole lot more. The contest is an answer to the question of how you build and maintain momentum for a journey that never concludes.

You celebrate along the way, according to Flex. “The lean journey never ends,” says Kong Siew Mui, vice president, Global Business Excellence. “But that journey is very long, so to continue to ignite this kaizen spirit and the energy with our people and our associates across the many sites across the world, we have this [competition] to recognize our people’s contributions, their efforts and continue to promote the kaizen spirit in them.”

Flex (which changed its name from Flextronics in 2015) is eight years into its lean journey. In December it concluded its 2015 global lean competition with two days of grand finals following many months of competition at the site and regional or functional levels. For the grand finals, teams presented live from their respective sites via videoconference, and employees across the Flex sites watched live via video streaming. The judges and additional audience viewed presentations from the Flex Pulse Center in Milpitas, Calif.

If it’s not obvious already, the competition is no casual endeavor and spans the better part of a year. In 2015 300 teams participated at the preliminary level, 74 teams competed at the regional or functional level, and 16 teams qualified for the grand finals. In addition to a grand champion, which in 2015 was awarded to the team representing the Austin, Texas, global operations, several runners-up and other category awards were presented.

Leadership commitment to the global lean competition is illustrated by their attendance at the finals. Flex CEO Mike McNamara, Francois Barbier, group president of global operations and components,  and Flex board member Marc Onetto were among corporate leaders at the 2015 event.

End-to-End Continuous Improvement

Team projects for the competition must have breadth, demonstrating end-to-end, cross-functional efforts that represent the total supply chain. Moreover, judges review projects’ financial and operations impacts, as well as customer satisfaction. As you may imagine, such robust projects are not quickly constructed, hence the typically biennial nature of the competition. Kong says the two-year interval gives teams the time they need to “nurture these cross-functional, end-to-end projects.” (During competition “off” years, Flex holds its lean leadership boot camp for company leaders.)

Judges from outside of the Flex organization also contribute to the robust nature of the organization’s global lean competition.  Lean leaders from Boeing Co., the HNI Corp., NXP Semiconductors and Shingijutsu USA participated in the 2015 grand finals judging. The external judges provide outside perspective on Flex’s lean journey as well as an opportunity for Flex to learn from other lean organizations.

By the same token, “We’re also sharing with the external judges,” Kong says, and developing a relationship “that is going to propel our company forward and put forth some sharing to the external organization as well. That is what we would like to see.”

Flex’s global lean competition is but one piece of the company’s ongoing drive to build its lean DNA—but an important one. “These celebration points,” Kong says, “continue to energize our teams.” Moreover, “It never fails to amaze us how much can be accomplished … with focus and dedication to a common objective.”