Paul Leao, director of continuous improvement at Ariens Company, shares insights about the manufacturer's lean intern program during the 2014 IndustryWeek Best Plants conference.

Operations: Ariens: Growing Lean Leaders from Within

July 9, 2014
Ariens' lean intern program nourishes the company's lean culture and helps develop its next generation of lean manufacturing leaders. Plant-floor employees participate in the lean internship program.  

The words "lean journey" say it all. You typically don't hear about manufacturing companies embarking on a lean "stroll" or dedicating the afternoon to becoming lean.

It's a bigger effort, a culture change. It takes time to move a company and its people from here to there. Even more, without constant nourishment and leadership, culture erodes and lean gains disappear.

Ariens Company knows this. The Brillion, Wisc.-based manufacturer of lawn-care and snow-removal equipment has been on its lean journey for more than 15 years. In that time the company has learned that growing its own people is one sure way to sustain and transfer its lean culture across the enterprise.

Lean internships is one way Ariens makes that happen.

"We Want Explorers"

Ariens' lean intern program is a six-month program for plant-floor workers, aimed at developing lean zealots and cultivating lean leaders. Paul Leao, director of continuous improvement at Ariens, describes it as the "backbone" of Ariens' lean leadership development.

He shared details of the manufacturer's lean intern program during the 2014 IndustryWeek Best Plants conference.

In brief, the lean intern program takes plant-floor workers away from their regular jobs for six months and immerses them in an intense learning environment. They learn two things, Leao says: lean and leadership.

Potential interns must apply for the position and be approved by facilities' continuous improvement managers. In choosing, managers look for active lean participants who demonstrate leadership ability and show growth potential.

"We want the explorer," said Leao. "We want people who want to be there."

Ariens is clearly serious about the program, which is highly structured. Interns sign a contract with a six-month commitment. During that time, the interns are removed from their normal jobs and are unavailable to perform them, although their wages remain with the home value stream. They are assigned to a continuous improvement manager, who acts as a mentor.

Training is Rigorous

Interns' training includes kaizen event participation (eight event minimum); one-on-one training in the form of daily mentoring, coaching and training; required reading (two book minimum); and the Ariens Oval, which Leao likened to the Ohno Circle. The Ariens Oval is about stopping and observing.

"You will be amazed at what you find out," Leao said.

Interns also are responsible for 5S audits -- not performing them, necessarily, but taking ownership of them and making sure they get done. This teaches teamwork and leadership, Leao says. They also must engage in a significant project that demonstrates a culmination of their training.

Moreover, contracts are not signed and then forgotten. They are reviewed at the start, at the midway point and then at the internship's end. Additionally, the internship program provides participants with a calendar and tools to manage their time. The calendar indicates kaizen-event weeks and illustrates where interns should have progressed in their training at the end of each month.

PMs with Paul

PMs with Paul is -- or was – a weekly meeting among Paul and the interns. (The meetings occur in the afternoon, hence the "PM." This component of the lean internships has transitioned to PMs with the continuous improvement manager.

The meetings work this way: The first half hour is informal, with interns sharing how their week went, as well as discussions about leadership.

The next 15 minutes is devoted to conversations about lessons learned and a book review. Interns must participate vocally.

"We can't have silence," Leao says. The interns are neither prisoners nor on vacation, but explorers, he emphasizes. "You have to be learning."

As an aside, he described the actions of a "vacationer": They show up without even a pencil. "We want interns to take copious notes. It likely will end badly if they don't," he says.

Additional components of the PMs include updates on progress, a look ahead, pop quizzes and training outlines.

As of early May, some 112 factory-floor workers had gone through the training; all but four graduated. Graduates are encouraged to pursue open positions if they see one they want; moreover they are highly sought after within the company.

"This is a great method to safeguard your culture and transfer your culture," Leao concluded.

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