Humility and Openness at the Heart of GE Appliances' Lean Transformation
The buck stops here” was a phrase made popular by former U.S. President Harry Truman. It means that the responsibility for something rests with you and not someone else, and this is what our leadership team at GE Appliances took to heart as we were struggling in our Lean journey. It wasn’t until we proactively embraced this philosophy that we realized how our own lack of Lean IQ or knowledge was holding us back.
After debating several potential approaches, we decided we needed intense, hands-on leadership training to bridge this important gap, and thus the Appliances Production System (APS) Immersion was created
GE Appliances began implementing Lean in 2005 at our cooking products facility in LaFayette, Georgia. Over the next several years, it spread to our other satellite plants and headquarters location in Louisville, Kentucky. After some initial overview training for all manufacturing employees, we focused on training production roles such as team leaders and Kaizen Promotion Officers (KPOs). These team members were taught the Lean tools and became predominantly responsible for the implementation of standardized work on the manufacturing floor.
In 2016, we re-evaluated our progress in each of our plants, and what we found was quite disappointing as many of our operations were struggling with sustainability issues with very little evidence of standardized work within our assembly operations. We also weren’t moving the needle on many of our key internal and financial metrics. On our GEMBA walks around the plants, to see and learn where the work is taking place, we found our leaders had a low Lean IQ. We kept asking ourselves how could our leadership team truly lead and sustain the change we needed in our factories if they didn’t have a deeper understanding of the core elements and tools of Lean. The conclusion was they couldn’t, and they never would unless we did something drastically different.
After debating several potential approaches, we decided we needed intense, hands-on leadership training to bridge this important gap, and thus the Appliances Production System (APS) Immersion was created. The course, designed for everyone from the top leaders of our supply chain to frontline leaders, has dramatically changed the performance of our plants. The course is designed with three weeks on the shop floor where each leader must improve the job or line they are assigned, thus demonstrating their standardized work and problem-solving skills. Next, each leader participates in a week-long Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) event where they learn the importance of equipment reliability and its impact on product quality and overall plant performance. This is a significant commitment from a plant manager and his or her staff to be away from their normal jobs, but after seeing the results, we remain convinced this investment of their time was critical to the adoption of Lean in our plants and taking performance to the next level.
Coming out of this training, most leaders are not the same people they were before the immersion experience. Their leadership style is different, and they are better systems thinkers. There is a renewed sense of humility and openness that things can always be improved. They also have an increased appreciation for the work and struggles that operators and team leaders go through every day. They begin to truly see the value of TPM and standardized work, and understand how continuous improvement and problem-solving play a role in better performance on safety, quality, cost and assembly yield.
At this stage, about 90 percent of our GE Appliances plant leaders and their direct reports have completed the program. We are also sending through support functions who touch the factories, such as quality, environmental health and safety, advanced manufacturing engineering and more.
The plants with the leadership teams that have gone into the APS Immersion training with openness to realizing they don’t know everything are better than they were before. To be successful with Lean, you must admit vulnerability, which isn’t a comfortable feeling for everyone. For those who do, it is making a difference in their operating performance.
Recently, our CEO Kevin Nolan went through the training, where he said he gained a huge respect for the work and our people. After working a washer assembly line during the day this past summer, Kevin put his engineering talents to use and created a new mechanism in his home workshop and at FirstBuild, GE Appliances’ state-of-the-art co-creation community and microfactory. What he designed and created keeps a heat shield from dropping, therefore improving the job for Kendrew Brown, one of the operators he worked with for a week.
Kevin’s key takeaway, like other leaders who have had the experience, is that in order to make improvements, you must understand the details. Sometimes you can’t see the problems until you get your hands dirty and become involved— then you can step back and find a solution that improves experiences for our employees and improves the efficiency of our business. The production line is where the rubber meets the road, but the decisions we make upstream have dramatic effects on the success of our production teams. The experience reinforced Kevin’s belief that our focus needs to be on helping the frontline be successful. The more successful they are, the better the products and services we’ll deliver to our customers and owners.
Beyond the performance of the plants, APS Immersion training is creating a new culture where respect is at the core and where leaders are continuously working to improve the conditions of the jobs. This type of effort goes a long way toward a positive environment where employees have passion for what they do and want to give their best to help the business win.