Lean Enterprise Goes Large

April 3, 2009
AT GKN Wheels rolling out lean management has not been straightforward in an industry where customer demands have changed relatively little over the years.

GKN Wheels, a producer of large, off-highway wheels for manufacturers of construction and agricultural plant and machinery is adopting systems and quality standards previously only seen in the automotive industry, as part of its commitment to lean management.

According to Tom Wonus, plant manager at GKN Wheels in the U.S., the introduction of lean methodologies has been a critical factor in introducing efficiencies. "The management team's experience of the automotive industry has been especially useful in helping to deliver lean thinking at GKN Wheels. For example, automotive manufacturers have been familiar with the principles of visual management for many years but it is still relatively new to the off-highway wheels market. By implementing some simple and effective visual management processes on site, we are delivering our customer orders more accurately, reliably and to a higher standard than ever before," Womun explained.

With two manufacturing centers at Armstrong and Estherville, Iowa and Wichita, Kansas as well as the North American Technical Center in Woodridge, Illinois, GKN Wheels has been making bespoke wheels for off-highway vehicles for more than 10 years. Part of a worldwide engineering company, GKN Wheels' operation in the U.S. is one of five global manufacturing centers.

When Wonus joined GKN in 2001 he immediately recognized that manufacturers of off-highway vehicles were on a similar journey to that already travelled by automotive OEMs. Having spent time spent as a manager in the automotive supply industry, with Daimler Chrysler, Ford, BMW and others he knew the process. He said that GKN Wheels responded quickly by putting in place a company-wide commitment to lean principles, known as 'lean enterprise', which has succeeded in re-orientating the business closer to its customers and continues to deliver efficiency and service improvements.

Rolling out lean management has not been straightforward in an industry where customer demands have changed relatively little over the years. Without the drive to significantly improve on delivery times or simplify ordering processes, there is little impetus to deliver process improvements. However, as the globalization of the off-highway industry accelerates and competition grows, off-highway vehicle manufacturers are increasingly looking for ways to improve efficiency and deliver value to the entire supply chain.

Underpinning the focus on lean, each GKN Wheels manufacturing site has its own Site Continuous Improvement Leader (SCIL) to implement lean thinking locally. In the U.S., there are four SCILs, one for each of the core value streams -- specialty wheels, small wheels, large agricultural wheels and large wheels for earth-moving plant and machinery.

Before implementing changes, a value stream mapping exercise of the entire production process was completed -- from receipt of the customer order, through to delivery to the customer's shop floor. In 2009, there are plans to strengthen the company's commitment to 'lean enterprise' further by providing higher level training for plant managers and their teams, which will enable them to play an increasingly effective role in supporting the take-up of lean principles across the business.

As part of its commitment to lean, GKN Wheels' U.S. manufacturing sites have introduced a single point scheduling system that makes use of electronic data interchange (EDI) technology. The system allows customers to share their production schedules with their wheel supplier, so that orders can be processed automatically, ensuring on time delivery. This streamlined customer interface is particularly useful in the manufacture of off-highway wheels, which require a longer production lead time because they are produced to a bespoke design and finish.

"This single point scheduling system gives us a real-time overview of our customer's demand and allows us to plan ahead, so we can fulfil their requirements reliably and efficiently, while keeping finished stock inventories as low as possible. It creates a 'pull system' right through the production process and back into our supply base, helping to optimise efficiency.

"We can also provide customers with a regular analysis of our delivery schedule adherence, showing all variables, such as last minute order changes. This information is potentially valuable, helping GKN and its customers to identify and address scheduling issues," said Wonus.

The majority of the orders are made by major producers of construction or agricultural machinery in the U.S., Europe and Asia and the product range is much wider than at most other off-highway wheel manufacturing sites. This extended product range presents particular challenges when rolling out lean management practices but has meant there is greater opportunity for production teams to find new ideas and solutions.

The success of the 'lean enterprise' initiative to date is evident in the pioneering approach to the introduction of visual management systems, which have helped to improve the accuracy of order fulfilment by optimising production line management at the same time as maintaining stock levels.

"Visual management systems are not complex and make good common sense. In the case of our earth mover value stream, it consists primarily of a system of color-coded signals, indicating the downstream priorities to each work center. Green is ok, amber requires close monitoring and red needs immediate action. Using this system means that teams can replace stock based on actual usage while never letting stock levels hit zero. Keeping a tight control of stocks and scheduling also allows us to be flexible to last minute schedule changes," explained Wonus.

Similarly in the area of despatch, GKN Wheels has introduced robust visual management systems, which allow workers to identify individual orders so they can be picked off easily and verified prior to despatch.

Lean practices also allow GKN Wheels to be more responsive to unexpected customer demands and this is helping to strengthen customer partnerships. In many cases we can achieve shortened lead times in return for long term purchasing commitments. The customer benefits from greater flexibility and reduced stock levels, without the fear of stock outs and we gain from greater predictability of customer requirements. This is a real advantage to our customers both in up and down markets."

Lean leaders at GKN Wheels remain focused on continuous improvement and believe that the efficiencies that such methodologies can deliver are especially valued during times of economic hardship. The globalization of the off-highway vehicles market is driving quality standards throughout the industry and lean management practices are becoming a key differentiator.

Tom Wonus concludes:

"We are stepping up our commitment to 'lean enterprise' and see it as a key factor in maintaining and growing our market share. Our customers expect the highest quality products and service standards, and we aim to achieve this, every time," states Wonus.

Brett Griffiths is the Engineering Director for GKN Wheels. GKN Wheels Division, part of the GKN OffHighway division of GKN plc, is the world's leading provider of wheels for off-highway vehicles in the construction, industrial and agricultural sectors. With seven global manufacturing plants in the UK, USA, Denmark, Italy and China, GKN Wheels designs, manufactures and distributes wheels to end users and OEMs around the world. http://www.gknoffhighwaysystems.com/

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