How Plant Managers are Pivotal in an Effective Lean Process Concept Implementation

Massimo Risi, VP, Global Head of Lean Manufacturing, VS&E–MAYCO
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Massimo Risi, VP, Global Head of Lean Manufacturing, VS&E–MAYCO

Many years ago I was a young Plant Manager in a huge Production facility in south of Italy, belonging to a well-known OEM. At that time the Company had decided to start a journey towards Lean Manufacturing and a Japanese University Professor, a guru in Lean Processes, had been hired to assess our facilities.

 “An effective improvement plan may only be realized through the involvement of every single”  

The plant where I was working was chosen as the first one in the group to be visited, so I had the “Professor” coming one day to my office. I didn’t have a clue of what he had in mind to ask me, which check list he was going to use, but I prepared all the numbers and graphs ready to answer to any question. 

The “Professor” entered my office for a quick espresso and ignoring all the folders I had on my desk, he requested to go directly to the shop floor.  

So, leaving all the paperwork I prepared on my desk, we went towards the Final Assembly building and he asked to me: “Mr. Risi, how many forklifts you have in your Plant?” I looked at him and before answering, I thought: “why a Professor comes from Japan to ask me how many forklifts I have? Shouldn’t we be speaking about Productivity, or Quality?”  

But finally I gave him the answer, the number exceeding 100, and he raised his eyebrows and exclaimed: “Too many! Disaster, Big Disaster!!!”—leaving me midway between a shocking surprise and the question: “how else should I feed the line with components?”.  

In the years that followed, I had a great collaboration with the Professor and many concepts became clearer to me, including the comment about forklifts it became very clear to me how using forklifts jeopardizes the one-piece-flow concept, creating complication to the workplace layout and increasing the level of non-value-added activities for the operators. 

This episode remained vivid in my memory, being an example, in my opinion, of a plant manager who was not able to see all of his plant’s losses and their root causes. In all the various experiences I had in my work life, this became evident as an absolutely pivotal point: if you’re aiming to implement a lean process in your facilities and make it as a real way of life, the plant manager and his team have to be able to comply with each of the following points:  

  • Be completely committed to improve performances through a change of their mindset 
  • Be open minded to admit that they have losses in their processes 
  • See where the losses are 
  • Drive management in defining a very detailed data collection system 
  • Involve employees in an improvement action plan, following an established priority list  

Let’s go in order. 

  • The first reaction you have, if you propose a Lean Manufacturing approach to a plant manager, might be defensive: “My people really have no time for this, even if I know it’s important” or “You don’t know how Lean we already are”. In these cases the plant manager is a roadblock. A proactive plant manager instead, is a very strong Leader, able to convince himself first and then his management team that the improvement journey is a never ending story and that, by definition, there are opportunities.
     
  • Based on my experience, if you ask a plant manager, who has not been trained on Lean principles, which is the percent of Total Production Cost that he considers to be a Loss in his facility, he will most probably answer a number close to 15percent. If you then begin to ask how this number has been calculated and which are the items/areas where he has the most evident opportunities, you may discover that the number he offers you is a guesstimate based on the knowledge he has of his own process and, also, on the willingness to show an admittance of some existing losses in his organization. A plant manager is sincerely in difficulty if he has to admit that his processes have huge losses and this is because his is honestly convinced that his daily commitment and that of his team is strongly focused on improving every anomaly they see and reacting to every failure that happens. 
     
  • In the following graph there is a representation of the frequency of the problems that a plant manager has to face in his daily work and their amplitude. 

 Now let’s consider that managers are people who feel a high level of responsibility for their role and this is normally seen as a strong attitude to face all problems that may come out of the blue even taking this as a personal challenge. So they have a great memory of the big problems and focus their attention on them, up to the degree that under a certain alarm level, a failure is considered normal, acceptable and even inevitable. If you make the experiment of asking them which are the five most important problems they are managing, they will clearly make reference to the most harmful episodes of last three months, completely ignoring the losses under the alarm level. Only after a very detailed analysis of their processes, jointly with their Team after being educated on using Lean analysis tools, will they discover an unexpected Loss Pareto that will give them the right priorities. 

  • Once the management team accepts the need of a better Loss analysis, Data Collection becomes the key. But I’m not referring to the mere list of Key Process Indicators that the team weekly reads to check if they are on track with targets. I’m referring to the capability to measure failures and losses with a level of detail that has to reach each of the work stations. The capability to properly weight them and create a list of priorities has only one solution: dollarize correctly every Loss and define their impact on the balance sheet. In this phase, plant manager’s deep diving of the criteria that his team is using to collect data is crucial. 
  • An effective improvement plan may only be realized through the involvement of every single employee/operator in the company. plant manager Leadership will be strained to the limit now, having the task to make everyone in the company change their mindset, understanding losses, being able to identify root causes, attacking them instead of apparent phenomena, and finally find solutions using proper problem solving tools. He has to be able to create an environment that is stimulating people participation in projects with a healthy competitive approach and respecting them with the recognition they expect. 

 Plant Manager plays a real Pivotal role and his footprint in the facility is always evident. With his (mandatory) commitment and his capability to follow the steps listed before, it becomes tangible that an effective application of Lean principles is possible, with a concrete impact on Safety, Quality, and Cost. 

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