A skilled welder isn’t born fully fledged. Neither is a superior athlete or an excellent attorney. They train. Mastering a language takes instruction and then practice, practice and more practice. So does playing the piano with any skill. Why should mastering lean be any different?

Few would argue that it should be. Indeed, Eric Lussier, vice president, Steel Business System, for Steel Partners, is adamant that training is key to developing a sustainable lean culture. “Culture is the only thing that is sustainable,” he says. “That is why we have such a heavy emphasis on training, to build the culture.”

But how much training, who needs it, for how long, and what kinds of training are just a few of the questions that begin to bubble up once a manufacturing organization decides to take the lean leap. They are important questions. As Jim Rowland, vice president of St. Louis-based Watlow notes: “I believe an organization is an organism. If you’re not continually feeding it, if you’re not continually trying to grow it, it’s going to die. And that’s what happens with most lean organizations.”

Watlow, on the other hand, has embraced lean for more than a decade, and at Steel Partners’ Handy & Harman, the lean implementation spans some eight years. These organizations share training lessons learned along the way.

Blocking and Tackling

Lussier is a big believer in lean and continuous improvement as drivers of business success. The vice president speaks thoughtfully but enthusiastically about building communities of problem-solvers, rooting out waste, total associate involvement and, of course, the tools of lean: 5S, strategy deployment, value stream mapping, and many more.

“If I have 100 people on the floor, I want 100 people working on making improvements and problem-solving,” Lussier says.

Launching a Lean Transformation

Jon Armstrong, executive vice president at Simpler Consulting, offers these bits of wisdom to manufacturers embarking on a lean transformation:

1. “We believe companies and individuals first need to know why before they know how. It’s important to start with the principles.”

2. “It’s very tempting to go too fast, too soon.” Resist the temptation. “It takes a degree of discipline and patience to build the acquired capabilities.”

3. You need a coach. The temptation by companies is to say, “This looks easy from where I’m sitting. We don’t need a coach.”

4. You can’t delegate improvement. “You have to roll up your sleeves and participate.”

5. Don’t stint on dedicated resources.

Building a culture of lean is his aim at Handy & Harman, a business of Steel Partners and a diversified industrial organization comprised of nearly 10 businesses and more than 30 manufacturing sites. In general, the companies that comprise Handy & Harman don’t have common customers, common suppliers or common processes. Where they unite is under the common umbrella of the Steel Business System, with its foundation of lean as a management philosophy.

“[Lean] is how we become competitive as a company. To me there is nothing more important,” Lussier says.

Lean training at Handy & Harman is robust. It includes formal lean 101 training for all employees, which is part of new employees’ onboarding; weeklong lean leadership training and lean learning kaizens. “Our approach focuses a lot on blocking and tackling basics, but it’s the best way we have found to deploy the continuous improvement framework of lean across our diverse companies,” Lussier states.

The lean 101 training is just as its name implies – basic. In four to six hours of primarily classroom training, employees are introduced to the Steel Business System, as well as 5S, visual management, basic problem solving and kaizen as a concept. The goal is to show new employees, early on, “that we’re focused on lean and here’s the way we look at it. It’s part of our culture, part of our DNA,” Lussier says.

Be Prepared to Roll Up Your Shirt Sleeves

The weeklong lean leadership training is typically for salaried personnel. Lussier describes it as a survey course that provides broad exposure to many classical lean tools, including kanban, cell design, standard work and strategy deployment. “I don’t expect people to become an expert in set-up-time reduction or kanban from the class,” the vice president explains. Instead, he says, the goal is to make students more aware of tools that exist to help them solve problems in their area of influence.

“Ultimately,” he says, “it’s not really about the tools; it’s about the problems you are solving.”