Daman Products Co. Inc. President Larry M. Davis says his company's embrace of lean principles has transformed the Mishawaka, Ind.-based manufacturer of hydraulic valve products by spurring productivity, eliminating waste and encouraging teamwork. He's passionate about the positive change lean has brought to his company. He's equally passionate about teaching those same lean principles in schools to produce a better-educated, more productive graduate.
IW: What prompted this determination to begin a dialogue about teaching the lean approach to students in kindergarten through high school?
Davis: At the root of this is an intense desire to serve our customer base . . . We started our lean journey in 1997 and, aside from a few bumps in the road, have not looked back since. The lean process has really been enlightening for us.
Us trying to hire people into that culture is difficult. Last year we were turning over 30% of the [new] people we hired. They'd come in, they'd leave somewhere between two months and 12 months later.
Lean is all about making things more effective and more efficient. So, hiring people, putting them through an extensive training program, having them leave, only to replace them and go through the process again was highly wasteful. We wanted to change that. That was part of going to the school systems and [saying] what we're getting from the school systems is not very effective.
IW: You say your lean efforts have made your firm more effective and brought passion back to the process. What do you propose the educational system do with lean?
Davis: People who have been with us two years or longer leave at the rate of 2%. That's a pretty stable group. They enjoy what they're doing. And we started to think, if we can get passionate about serving our market in building manifolds, what if the school systems started to look a little more like what we do? And could we in fact export some of the things we've learned about teaching our own people into the school system? We're teaching people things that are not only good for us, they are good for them as people. We're teaching them soft skills-how to run meetings, how to give and take feedback, problem-solving techniques. Those are things that are universally applicable whether you are building manifolds or running a hospital. It's good stuff. You won't find that in the schools, other than possibly part of a class. Soft skills should be embedded in the curriculum.
Daman Products Co. President Larry M. Davis
We also found our people learn best when they had a tangible, real problem they had to solve. Bring them together and teach those soft skills around that tangible problem so that as they're learning these new skills they're not even aware they're learning them. If you can get schools to that level where everybody is engaged in what's going on, and learning is almost an afterthought, that would be pretty powerful.
What if 5S was taught to every freshman, whether they are going into the job force after they graduate or they're going onto college? It's useful in the garage, it's useful in the kitchen and it's useful in our tool crib. It's a universally applicable job skill and life skill.
It would be awesome to teach process improvement. Process improvement is everything we do around here in this company [and] at home. But we as a society don't think in terms of process. And in the lean environment, that's all you're doing is thinking about processes: what the little pieces of the processes are, what can be taken out, what's waste, what's not, what's redundant. And putting them back together in a way that makes more sense.
IW: You suggest that teaching these 'soft skills' could help address both your hiring issues and reduce the high-school drop out rate. How so?
Davis: I think the issue is about passion. I think what's taught in schools is boring. Those dropout rates aren't just stupid kids. They are smart kids dropping out because they're bored. And that has monumental social costs attached to it.
What if what I've talked about is taught in the schools? Now as a nation collectively we're engaging our kids in their education, and they're graduating with these skills. They're going on into businesses where they can help improve the processes; they're starting their own businesses with a whole new set of skills that are much more productive. If we could do this throughout the country, we could improve our effectiveness as a nation overall. That's a lofty thing. But it starts by putting one foot in front of the other.