Lean thinking helps companies react to COVID-19 needs

Some regional companies are shifting gears during the COVID-19 shutdown. Lean operating skills are helping with that shift.

“Lean definitely helps during challenging times like these,” said Richard Wolin, the regional vice president and director of northern lower Michigan operations for the MMTC and the director of training services at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC).


For 12 years and counting, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (MMTC) has helped regional businesses understand the value of lean thinking, or minimizing all types of waste while maximizing customer value.

“The whole concept of lean is to drive waste out of an organization, and not the kind of waste we usually think of – like trash or scrap – but things like wasted time, wasted equipment, wasted motion of people, too many steps in a process that aren’t really required…” said Wolin, who launched the Northern Lean Learning Consortium in 2007 and was also one of the Michigan Lean Consortium founders.

Lean operations cut costs while increasing capacity, he said. “…(I)f, for instance, you’re working on a task and three people have to check your work, every time someone touches that process, you’re adding labor costs to it. If you can do it in fewer touches, or get it right the first time, you save a lot of money,” he said. “The core benefit of embracing lean is that businesses increase capacity, or are able to do more with the same footprint, the same staff and the same equipment.”
Benefits for companies that practice lean operations include faster internal communications and more flexibility because of employee cross-training.

“They don’t need to wait until the end of the month to say, ‘Oh gosh, our sales are down by this much.’ Instead, they know it on a daily or weekly basis,” said Wolin. “And they also have people cross-trained more, because that’s a part of lean, so they’re able to shift people to different functions. You have more of that kind of flexibility if you have a well-trained staff that’s good at problem solving and good at figuring things out from a process level. They can take new problems and jump right in, instead of sitting around and saying ‘What are we going to do?’”

Past participants in MMTC’s 96-hour, hands-on Lean Champion program have emerged as “success stories” since the COVID-19 shutdown began in March, Wolin said.

TentCraft’s drive-thru testing shelters.

“TentCraft is making drive-through shelters for COVID-19 testing. Petoskey Plastics is making hospital gowns for McLaren Health Group and others. SMI is making ventilator parts,” he said. “They all have lean champions on their teams. And when we’ve reached out to those companies to see what we can do to support them, they’ve said to us, ‘Thank you; these tools are making it so we can react more quickly.’”

Wolin is the leading proponent of the lean methodology in northern Michigan and has been for years. Along the way, he developed the “Active Learning Model” – the curriculum that many businesses throughout the state have used to learn and implement lean skills – and created the Lean Champion program in northern Michigan. The program has since trained 456 credentialed lean champions at regional organizations, from TentCraft to Cherry Republic to Coldwell Banker Real Estate.

The Lean Champion program, by using Wolin’s Active Learning Model, not only helps participants understand the theories behind lean, but also gives them a chance to see those concepts applied in a variety of different business environments. There are 12 full-day sessions, usually held on the second and third Tuesdays of each month. The twist is that, instead of classroom learning, each month’s training days take place at different host companies. Each host company acts as a sort of interactive learning environment for the participants, who spend their training time learning key lean concepts and working to apply them in real time.

“When the participants in the program are learning about a subject, they are actually working on that subject at a company,” Wolin said of the Active Learning Model. “The next month, they work on a different set of topics at a different company. It’s not just hands-on learning; participants also get to think about how to use lean in a variety of different settings.”

Originally, the northern Michigan Lean Champion program was conceived solely as a training opportunity for manufacturers. Later, Wolin and his team designed a “Lean Office Champion” program designed to teach similar concepts for a different type of work environment. The message, Wolin says, is that any business can benefit from trying to be leaner.


According to Betsy Williams, senior business development advisor for the MMTC, how businesses choose to utilize the Lean Champion program varies from one organization to the next. Some only send owners, executives, managers, or front line supervisors through the program. Others have all their new hires get the Lean Champion certification, to make sure all team members have the lean mindset. Sometimes, companies even contract with the MMTC to run Lean Champion “bootcamps” internally.

The MMTC always encourages businesses to send at least two employees through the Lean Champion program at a time, offering a “buy one, get one half price” promotion on class entry. The incentive was initially in place to fill extra seats in the class, but proved to have real benefits for how well participants mastered the core concepts.

“As part of the program, everyone that participates picks a project at their company that they are going to work on throughout the class,” Wolin explained. “For example, a participant might find an operation in their company where the business has too high of a production defect in a particular product. Their project would be to reduce that defect to minimize waste. We started to see a pattern where, when companies sent two or more people through our program at once, those participants did a better job on projects and implementing lean policies. They were able to work together and support one another through the program.”

Like everything else, the Lean Champion program has been put on hold by COVID-19. MMTC was in the middle of three separate courses – two for the Lean Manufacturing Champion program and one for the Office Champion program – when the pandemic closed down businesses and roadblocked the Active Learning Model. Williams says that the MMTC is trying to come up with a “creative” strategy for finishing those classes. The most likely contingency is simply to delay the remainder of in-progress courses to a later date, when getting back into businesses for hands-on learning is a feasible option.

When the Lean Champion program does resume, both Wolin and Williams say they suspect they might see increased demand, simply because of how lean practices can benefit businesses in times of significant uncertainty and economic strife.