The story of GKN Sinter Metals' Germantown, Wisc., plant was an ugly one in 2008.
On-time delivery was 69%, overall equipment effectiveness was 50%, and the facility, which produces engine components, was on hold from garnering new business from two of its OEM automotive customers, while official customer concerns exceeded 50. The profit return on sales was in the negative digits.
Unquestionably, something needed to be done.
Thus began the lean journey of the Germantown facility and its workforce.
A Slow Start
Wayne Meyer became GKN's third plant manager in three years at the Germantown plant. He'd been at the facility for two years and was promoted to plant manager with a singular directive from above: Fix the plant. "And please ask for the resources you need" to make it happen, Meyer adds.
The facility's change effort began with assembling a leadership team with the appropriate mindset – people who were optimistic about the ability to improve conditions, could see a way forward and who could help impart that optimism to a less-than-believing workforce.
Meyer said initial conversations included exploring what good organizations look like and conducting a gap analysis to identify what needed to change to reach a target condition.
Moreover, the Germantown plant took advantage of the lean tools and training that GKN had already developed, but which had – in the past –been implemented in fits and starts in Germantown.
By any measure, the early going was slow, Meyer says, due in part to the automotive crisis that nearly brought the industry to a standstill starting in 2008. GKN was not immune.
"It was awkward timing all the way around," Meyer admits.
Nevertheless, driving employee involvement on the shop floor became an early effort, including dedicating daily and weekly time to working on continuous improvement projects, seeking results and, importantly, providing the tools needed to make those improvements happen.
Additionally, teams composed of five to nine people led the improvements, as opposed to top-down directives, Meyer said.
"Nobody promised it would be easy, and at first nobody believed we could do it, particularly the workforce," he says.
That began to change as the plant began showing positive results along the way, and as the workforce realized the plant leadership wasn't going anywhere.
Lean momentum began picking up in 2011, and in 2012 the Germantown facility began introducing the kata concept.
"We had established stable teams and business. What I was after was a workforce of solution makers versus problem finders," Meyer says.
A level of critical thinking among the workforce still was missing, he says.
A self-professed "lean geek," Meyer said he is constantly looking for new materials and ideas to explore. During a holiday, he read Mike Rother's book, "Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results," and discovered what he calls "the missing piece in lean."
What followed for Meyer was a three-day course in which he gained further exposure to Rother and kata, and learned techniques that he brought back to the Germantown plant to select people, who then became coaches. And so on.
"It was a snowball effect," Meyer said. "Not that it was flawless. We went slow and grew our coaching muscle over time."
What is Kata?
The "Improvement Kata" according to author Rother, "is a set of practice routines for learning to work scientifically when you pursue goals in complex systems." The "Coaching Kata," he continues, "is a practice routine for teaching the Improvement Kata."
Meyer describes the Improvement Kata as a deliberate practice of daily continuous improvement and deliberate learning. Rather than random acts of improvement, the Improvement Kata drives improvements toward a specific goal, he notes.
Discipline and routine are two additional words that pepper his language when discussing kata.
Moreover, "it is much more about experimentation," he says. "It allowed team members to become more innovative in developing their own solutions."
Engagement among team members engaged in a kata project also leaps, Meyer said. In his experience, "the engagement level went from a six to a nine."
Meyer described the results of a kata project at GKN's Germantown facility. The team developed a new manufacturing process in six weeks and improved a machining process by 60%.
Where is GKN Germantown Today?
Meyer recently became vice president of operations for GKN Sinter Metals, North America, Segment 2. Not only will kata remain with the Germantown facility – the new plant manager is a kata coach – but Meyer envisions kata making its way into additional facilities.
And as for the Germantown plant, in 2013 its on-time delivery was 99%, OEE reached 74%, and profit return on sales was in the positive numbers. Additionally, the facility won new business with GM, Chrysler and Ford.