Battle of the Bulge: Some of region’s biggest businesses and organizations get lean and mean …Toyota style

Once considered the province of manufacturers, lean processes-methods designed to eliminate waste, cut costs and increase value to the customer-have been transforming operations of all kinds, making their way far beyond the world of widgets and autos, and into health care, education, non-profits and other organizations. We take a look at five in northern Michigan who have adopted and adapted Toyota's lean legacy:

Munson Medical Center

The Process: Re-engineering

What It Is: Re-engineering starts out with a clean slate and ends with wholly new systems that dramatically change performance. Many re-engineering projects take full advantage of information technologies that simply were not available when more cumbersome existing processes evolved.

The Situation: Munson Medical Center started from scratch with an expansion and complete redesign of its emergency department. But in an area the size of a football field, it simply couldn't do business the way most ERs around the country did.

Without fundamental changes, its private rooms (instead of mere curtains between beds) would have made it harder for the staff to keep track colleagues and patients. And patients could run the risk of traveling longer distances for tests and treatments.

Munson met that challenge with electronics and decentralization. The hospital has staffed and equipped "pods" to deliver services in the patient's immediate vicinity. "We defined excessive patient travel as waste," said Chuck Wyers, an industrial engineer who is director of management engineering. "And we have a CT scanner and x-ray room within the department, so patients rarely have to leave the area."

The physicians probably travel most of all. But they have portable laptops so they can order tests and give dictation from almost anywhere in the department.

In another innovation, the hospital now uses infrared badges to keep tabs on the location of patients and staff. Colored crosses representing a particular individual appear on a computer screen in real-time at a "command center."

Parallel processing was another piece of Munson's approach. "We have given the triage nurse the authority to order a complete panel of lab tests," instead of waiting for doctors to order them, Wyers said. "That accelerates the care process by 30 to 45 minutes." The tests frequently happen near the same time the physician meets with the patient.

One result of these and other measures: Munson Medical Center now has a facility fully capable of handing the 43,000 patients who arrive at its doorstep each year. Its patient satisfaction is now in the 90th percentile among hospitals of its size nationwide.

National Cherry Festival

The Process: Continuous Improvement

What It Is: Continuous improvement involves the constant monitoring and improvement of processes, frequently with help of new tools and ideas of employees doing the work. The improvements often make the process faster and more flexible.

The Situation: Three years ago, the National Cherry Festival realized it needed to modernize its management processes and began an on-going effort to re-engineer them.

One goal was to mobilize more and younger volunteers-the lifeblood of the eight-decade-old event. Another was to put a range of management data at their fingertips.

Back then, festival computers lacked an effective network and used different versions of common office software. As a result, it could take days to compile a report.

"After defining the processes, roles, responsibilities and policies, the new system was configured to better manage informational and communication needs over the Internet," said Rick Kiehle, CEO of Traverse City-based Garrison, a company specializing in the improvement of organizational performance.

The system involved both a volunteer portal and an event management portal. With them, the staff was able to answer questions about the festival's needs for various supplies within minutes. In addition, with better management of its data, the festival was able to boost the number of volunteers from about 800 to nearly 2,000. One important tool was an automated system to generate invitations to a volunteer sign-up event.

Tim Hinkley, executive director of the National Cherry Festival, said the systems help the organization raise funds, increase productivity, make better decisions and save money with better controls on spending.

"It's a good compilation of data," he said. "We have been able to slash expenses because we have a better handle on what we should be spending and who is spending it." The Cherry Festival also uses the systems in the budgeting process.

Northwestern Michigan College

The Process: Hoshin

What It Is: Invented by computer-maker Hewlett-Packard's Japanese subsidiary during the 1970s, hoshin combines a focus on long-term objectives and daily execution. It involves the four key steps in lean production-plan, do, check, adjust-but with a special effort not to neglect the last three.

Organizations generally do a good job on the planning part but fall short later in the process. They can make huge gains by simply paying more attention to the follow-through. That's why NMC's DarrellRogers calls hoshin a "deployment focused planning model."

Situation: Lean processes are being deployed in about a dozen areas at NMC, but few touch the student as directly as the standardization of instructor orientation and training. Historically, the academic departments have performed well in this area, so now NMC is carrying those standards over to non-credit enrichment courses.

The hoshin process is strengthening the academic departments' follow-through as well, making it more consistent and robust, Rogers said.

"NMC isn't different from many other organizations," Rogers said. " In the past, we have developed some very, very well thought out plans. But at times, those are not necessarily followed up with specific actions by specific individuals at specific times."

One key benefit is that hoshin is closely aligned with NMC's accreditation process-an issue of huge importance to the college. "One outcome is that we no longer have to do accreditation activities separately or build a case for accreditation. It is built-in."

Students benefit because the whole hoshin process starts out with what they-the customers-value, Rogers says. Better training for instructors means that students learn more and get more satisfaction from their courses.


Process: Employee Involvement

What It Is: A basic tenet of lean, encouraging worker input and pushing decision-making down to its lowest levels has proven a vital part of production since Toyota recognized and capitalized on the tremendous resource its employees represented. But a foundation for this involvement has to be laid. In particular, organizations need to create a common understanding of lean processes and then prepare and motivate people.

The Situation: AlcoTec, the world's largest producer of aluminum welding wire, has embraced lean production and regularly introduces innovations at its main plant in Traverse City, but new strategies need wide support to be effective. Moreover, their implementation should not upset regular operations.

As a result, AlcoTec measures the attitudes of the people carrying out its strategy. This process employs an anonymous survey to determine employee attitudes before a strategy is adopted. It assures that management understands "how the people think and feel about the job they are doing," Kiehle said. "We can measure process through output and system processing cycles and accuracy. But how do we keep a pulse on the people side of the business where change has to happen?" The people side of business is where change has to happen."

For this purpose, Garrison has developed a "work-climate alignment" survey that examines attitudes toward leadership support, customer focus and a host of other issues.

Kiehle stresses that it's crucial to understand the attitudes of managers as well as rank-and-file employees before adopting a strategy. If a survey uncovers obstacles, the company can address them.

For example, a recent survey found that many employees were interested in greater responsibility. But it's not easy to add higher-level supervisory position in a small plant. So managers responded by creating new mid-level team leader positions.

The survey "is a mechanism to get all employees' input into the strategic process," said Jennifer Ewing, human resources director at the AlcoTec plant.

The survey is administered anonymously each year before AlcoTec's strategic planning session for the subsequent year. "Results from the survey are tallied and current year metrics are reviewed as well as comparisons to past years," said Kiehle. "This rigor is what helps AlcoTec successfully implement lean concepts throughout the organization."BN