Lean into it: Group connects companies focused on reducing waste, increasing competitive edge

REGION – You might not be as lean as you think. We're not talking waistlines and pant size here. This is about the extra pounds your company is carrying around-paper-laden office processes, workflow slowed by redundancy and customer service compromised by inefficiencies.

The elimination of waste from a system, process, or workspace is the tenet of lean philosophy. Rooted in manufacturing, lean thinking has started to take hold in other industries all with one goal in mind: achieving a competitive edge by reducing wastes and improving quality and service. Those wastes include excess inventory, waiting, non-utilized talent and product defects.

Bruce Stephens, plant manager at Skilled Manufacturing, knows firsthand what lean thinking has done for the company, whose primary business is manufacturing components for the auto industry. Stephens credits the adoption of lean practices with lower employee turnover, higher quality products, streamlined front office and accounting processes and even client diversification. The company landed its first customer in the aerospace industry "because of our lean activities," Stephens said.

While a small number of local companies, like Skilled Manufacturing, have gravitated toward lean over the last several years and integrated some of its practices into their operations, this area's business community now has a Lean Learning Consortium dedicated to arming organizations with the training and tools to be as lean as they can be.

The Lean Learning Consortium is a natural next step for Northwestern Michigan College's Training and Research, which offers assessment, coaching and training services designed to boost workplace performance. Having provided lean training in the community for several years, Director Richard Wolin said establishing a group of companies that could learn from each other was the next stage for lean education.

The consortium's first training groups are just getting underway, with plans for additional groups starting in April. Membership is annual with two different training tracks available: the Lean Learner and the Lean Practitioner. While Wolin and his staff are the facilitators, the consortium also has a steering committee of professionals with experience in lean practices in manufacturing, insurance, healthcare and education.

Consortiums like this are very rare, Wolin said. He knows of only three others in North America. The initial interest by area companies has been much higher than first anticipated.

"We have a fair amount of innovative, entrepreneurial companies here," said Wolin. "Companies that are really excited to find better ways to compete globally."

Stephens brings eight years of on-the-job lean experience and certification from the University of Michigan to the group and is glad to see the consortium attracting companies outside of manufacturing.

"It's neat to see other industries getting on track with lean," Stephens said. "There isn't a business or organization that couldn't benefit from it."

Lean 'see and do'

Lean is best learned by seeing it in action and hands-on experiences, and the consortium's training programs give participants the opportunity to tour other members' facilities and view lean "best practices," as well as the tools to apply lean to their own specific businesses. Through the Lean Practitioner program, members have the chance to work on "rapid improvement events" in each other's workplaces and in their own.

"It's an opportunity for us to all work together and improve the competitiveness of northern Michigan," said Patricia Malone, controller for the soft body armor division for BAE Systems Products Group, which owns Second Chance Armor in Central Lake.

"The waste of human potential, in my opinion, is the most critical of the eight wastes," Malone said. Employing people more fully is what really excites her about lean.

"Human potential is the last competitive advantage," she said.

A common misconception is that becoming more cost-efficient can mean cutting jobs. Rather, the focus is on getting rid of all non-value added work-not employees, Wolin explained.

For Boride Engineered Abrasives, this consortium is an opportunity to take their lean "chops" to the next level. President Larry Tiefenbach said Boride is in its infancy of adopting lean principles.

"We know enough to know we want to know more," Tiefenbach said, adding that staff has been struggling with what to do next to continue to improve efficiency. "We've been fairly successful with it. It's obvious how important it could be."

Tiefenbach said the more participants there are in the consortium and the greater diversity of businesses, the better the sharing of information will be.

"Companies like knowledge centers," he said. "They are a good thing to have in the community."

Hagerty Insurance has been working to integrate lean principles into its processes for nearly three years, said Annette Roman, senior manager of client value operations. She said the challenge is in the cultural transformation that comes along with lean, and then sustaining that culture. That's where Roman sees the consortium playing a critical role-offering a supportive network and a forum for sharing information.

"You learn what is best for your company just by doing and from learning from other companies," she said, adding that the empowerment of employees is a critical piece of what makes lean work. "We've made some small improvements, but we're just getting started."

To learn more about the Lean Learning Consortium and how to become a member, visit www.nmc.edu/training-research/llc or call 995-2218. BN