Lean and Six Sigma Drive Continuing Improvement at General Cable

May 22, 2012
CEO Gregory Kenny shares lessons learned from the manufacturers long journey of change for the better.

It can be a jungle out there in manufacturing, and Gregory Kenny knows it.

In this industry, we run as if someone is going to pull us down from behind any minute, said Kenny, president and chief executive officer of General Cable Corp., during a keynote address at the 2012 IndustryWeek Best Plants conference, held last month in Indianapolis.

Kennys industry is the wire and cable industry. Highland Heights, Ky.-based General Cable Corp. develops and manufactures copper, aluminum and fiber-optic wire and cable products for a variety of markets -- and is the worlds third-largest consumer of copper, according to the CEO.

His business is extremely price-sensitive, cyclical and competitors largely develop to a common specification.

To remain competitive -- indeed, to do far more than simply remain competitive -- General Cable embraced a culture of continuous improvement well over a decade ago, first by introducing lean and then by augmenting it with Six Sigma.

The combined lean Six Sigma philosophy has buoyed the manufacturer during tough economic times and helped it grow and enter new markets, the CEO told conference attendees during his address. (General Cable has factories in more than 20 countries.)

Im a died-in-the-wool believer in the journey were on, Kenny said.

What follows are several concepts he shared during a wide-ranging speech:

Lean, Six Sigma: A Common Language

As of late April, General Cable had six master black belts, 64 black belts, 211 green belts and 290 lean technicians.

Thats a lot of firepower, and it really is a common way of speaking to ourselves and our customers, Kenny said.

Equally important, lean Six Sigma has provided a consistency of response, according to the chief executive. That means when an operator faces a challenge -- even at two in the morning, when no one is looking that operator has the tools to do the job and the knowledge about how to do it.

Theyre empowered and theyre doing it. Its a very, very powerful idea for us.

Lessons Learned Along the Way

Kenny discussed cosmetic lean, which he described as deploying the tools of lean without attacking the true problem or tying the efforts to business needs. It is a trap the manufacturer ventured into during its early continuous-improvement efforts.

People . . . thought they needed to do it to show they were change agents, as opposed to really linking the whole process together, he said. It wasnt pervasive, but it was a temptation.

In the early days, the company also got caught up in using the term lean manufacturing, Kenny said. Were a manufacturing company, but [lean] is really not specific only to manufacturing.

Indeed, General Cable has taken lean into the offices and other areas as well.

We really [took] the word manufacturing out and talk about continuous improvement across the board, he said. These are really multifunctional work teams because you really cant eliminate some of the issues you have on the shop floor unless you attack root causes up and down stream.

Also early on, the CEO said there were always 5% to 10% of people in each factory who argued that lean and Six Sigma would never work. Getting those people involved early in continuous-improvement projects frequently changed their minds, although Kenny admitted there are some employees who want only to be told what to do.

They are the exception, however, he said.

More often, he said, operators embraced the idea of running their own manufacturing cells, which operate in part like factories within a factory. "I would say 90% of our associates can't wait" to run their own factory or supply-chain logistics job, he suggested.

Kenny emphasized the importance of recognizing employee accomplishments. "Being recognized and valued is the biggest motivator. Stopping by a line as you're walking in a factory and saying, 'I saw what you did there,' that's powerful," he said.

All of General Cable's factories and functional areas are expected to drive down their costs by a couple of percentage points annually, Kenny said. The continuous-improvement mindset helps make that happen.

"We have found a lot of theoretical capacity," he said. Kenny added that plant managers now consider metrics such as return on capital and return on investment.

Twelve years later, the company continues to "seek perfection," Kenny said. The new frontier, is taking General Cable's best practices global "and doing it without ordering it, but causing people to want to be a part of it."

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