How to Develop Lean Leaders at Every Level

May 31, 2011
Swagelok deploys a systematic approach to rolling out strategy, goals and continuous improvement.

There exists a game known as telephone, grapevine and by several other monikers. In it, the first player whispers something to the next player, who then shares it with the next, who then whispers it to a fourth player and so on. By the time the message has been passed from player No. 1 to the final person, it typically has been mangled and become riddled with errors.

So much for the powers of recall.

A mangled message may be funny when it comes to game-playing, but when it comes to spreading company strategy and continuous improvement goals across the enterprise, a mixed message is the last thing any company wants.

That includes Swagelok Co., a Solon Ohio-based manufacturer of fluid system solutions. To combat the potential for mixed messaging, the company has developed a formal approach to rolling out (or cascading) its strategy across all of its sites and even to the work center level.

While the overall message is the same, the details vary.

For example, at the plant level Swagelok's annual operations plan is tailored to the "uniqueness of each site location," but all of the variations share similar goals and objectives, explains Michael F. Neff, Swagelok vice president of operations. Those include addressing the same key categories of safety, quality, products, cost, and organizational and personal development.

Employees at the work center level, for example, will view the same categories and same goals as the corporate level. What differs is their "piece" or participation in making the overall goals happen.

The cascading goals and strategies are prominently displayed as well. Neff, who presented his company's lean deployment strategy during a recent Web conference and at IndustryWeek's 2011 Best Plants conference, showed several examples. They include a variety of visual display boards that, again, are tailored for to their specific location but which still contain overarching categories of interest.

He also discussed various review mechanisms designed to keep the plan on track and to create accountability, including layered process audits, shift start-up meetings, plant management team meetings, continuous improvement committee meetings, and manager and supervisor summits. Some of these mechanisms occur hourly, while others are weekly, monthly and even biannually.

Continuous improvement is central to Swagelok and is, in fact, one of its core values. As such, the manufacturer deploys its continuous improvement initiatives with the same care it applies to rolling out its goals. The company has both a vice president of continuous improvement, with lean leaders who report to that title, but also lean leaders embedded in each manufacturing group, explains Neff.

Lean leaders train, coach and mentor other Swagelok associates.

Interestingly, Swagelok also has developed a matrix that illustrates the level of continuous improvement skills it prefers for multiple job positions. The skill levels range from "no knowledge or skill" to "training level, fully proficient, best in class."

When it comes to continuous improvement, plant managers are expected to excel, the matrix shows.

"If the lean leaders work for leaders who don't think lean and don't make good judgments thinking about lean, you can undo a lot of really good work," Neff explains. "So the requirement is our managers have to be extremely proficient in lean themselves to drive the improvements and know how to deploy the lean leaders."

Swagelok held some 236 lean and continuous improvement events in 2010, with some 1,800 associates participating in the events, Neff said.

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