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Seasoned Lean Effort Avoids "Flavor-of-the-Month" Pitfall


If you are in the early stages of a lean transformation and are wondering what comes next, Freudenberg-NOK (FNGP) has the answer - duct tape and cardboard.

These humble materials play a prominent role in a more advanced lean tool called the Production Preparation Process (3P) in which life-sized models of machines and processes are laid out and debugged before installation on the shop floor. It's one of several advanced tools that FNGP has implemented during the last five years of a lean transformation that began in 1992. We recently talked with company managers about what FNGP did after establishing a lean beachhead - what new tools it introduced, in what order, and how the company prevented each new technique from being viewed as a "flavor of the month" fad. First, here are the major milestones in its continuing lean transformation:

1989: Partnership Begins
Freudenberg-NOK is established as the American partner in the global Freudenberg and NOK Group, the world's largest producers of elastomeric seals and custom molded products.

FNGP launches its Get Rid of Waste Through Team Harmony (GROWTTH) program, a lean conversion effort using fundamental lean tools such as quick changeover, continuous flow, 5S, and total productive maintenance. The tools are quickly implemented through kaizen workshops in which cross-functional teams make major improvements to a specific process in three-to-five days. In 10 years, the company estimates it has run approximately 9,000 kaizen workshops involving approximately 18,000 employees, customers, and vendor participants. A full-time GROWTTH manager is assigned to each product family, which is the nucleus around which most FNGP plants are organized. The manager is supported by a cross-functional support team of six to eight members assigned to the plant's GROWTTH steering committee to facilitate training, identify projects, and help with the follow-up to kaizen and six sigma workshops.

1995: Value Analysis/Value Engineering
The company introduces VA/VE to improve existing and future products. The objective is to improve Value, expressed as Value = function/cost. Function is performance or quality and cost is the overall cost to deliver the functions. Value analysis examines current products in an effort to detect and correct Value problems and reduce costs. Value engineering focuses on new products.

1998: Production Preparation Process (3P)
While kaizen workshops improve existing operations, 3P workshops "try to envision what could be" from a lean perspective right from the start of production, explained Al Nadeau, vice president of Gasket Operations.

The 3P process is used to design lean production processes for new products and to redesign processes when the design or demand for existing products change. A cross-functional team examines myriad equipment and process dynamics, such as the degrees of mistake-proofing to use, equipment layout, material and operator flow, quality, ergonomics, profitability, volume, lead time, launch date, floor space, and work-in-process levels, among other factors.

A highly disciplined, standardized process, 3P requires the team to develop multiple alternatives for each process step and evaluate each one against lean criteria. Using lots of cardboard and tape, the team develops a full-scale mock up of the process to check assumptions, do time studies, and collect operator feedback.

A philosophy of "creativity before capital," guides team members to quickly produce the best lean process at the lowest cost, explained Roxanne Benzel, Northeast region GROWTTH manager. The result is that 3P "minimizes the resources it takes to meet the takt time," she said. Not surprisingly, the capital approval process for new equipment requires a 3P exercise.

1999: The Supply Chain
Using the value-stream mapping tool, the company begins extending lean to suppliers to help them boost quality, productivity, service, increase capacity, and enhance operating margins. Participation is not mandatory, but FNGP's supplier rating system offers a strong incentive to get involved because suppliers that improve get opportunities to win more work.

2000: six sigma
FNGP Chairman and CEO Joe Day introduces six sigma as the next phase of the GROWTTH program. A statistical approach to solving chronic quality problems, the six sigma process of measure-analyze-improve produces technical improvements that are outside the ambit of kaizen workshops. For instance, a kaizen workshop will improve operator and material flow in a press cell while a six sigma project will eliminate the causes of fouled molds or gases becoming trapped during molding. The goals of six sigma include:

  • Improved customer satisfaction
  • Defect reduction and elimination
  • Yield improvement
  • Reduced cost of poor quality
  • Improved process capability

(Sigma is a statistical unit for measuring quality. six sigma means a process has no more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities.)

2002: six sigma Expands
FNGP initiates a "Design for six sigma" effort so new product and process launches are done at a six sigma level. FNGP managers see no conflict between lean and the expanding six sigma effort. "They're very complementary," said JoAnn Rotast, a six sigma black belt. She noted that a kaizen workshop often follows a six-sigma project - or vice versa - to improve a process.

Synthesizing Knowledge
Introducing such a series of improvement concepts risks having people regard them as a series of fads; each new tool becomes regarded as "the flavor of the month." Ultimately, the improvement effort loses credibility and steam. FNGP's implementation approach helped prevent such skepticism from taking root by synthesizing the knowledge from existing tools with the new ones, linking tools to business goals, and organizing them under one overarching effort.

For example, the VA/VE tool eliminates unwanted functions and costs in product design. This complements the Waste elimination impact of applying lean tools to production processes, which people learned about when GROWTTH was introduced. The next concept, 3P, incorporated VA/VE concepts into its toolkit for building quality into production systems. Building-in quality, rather than relying on inspection to catch manufacturing defects, was one of the fundamental lean concepts introduced in GROWTTH.

The latest tool, Design for six sigma, doesn't supersede the existing ones, such as VA/VE, 3P, and six sigma, but rolls them up into a system that looks at the total product and process design efforts from the start. Even though it includes "gobs of other tools," such as advanced product quality planning, design failure modes and effects analysis, and value-stream mapping, according to Rotast, Design for six sigma is regarded as a complementary discipline that builds on, rather than replaces, previous tools.

Product Line Organization
FNGP's practice of organizing plants by product families linked the tools to business objectives, underscoring that they were permanent parts of the culture, not fleeting fads.

Typical is the system at the Manchester, N.H. plant, which injection-molds silicone and other elastomeric materials into gaskets for auto engines and transmissions. The plant won a 1998 Shingo Prize for lean manufacturing excellence.

Manufacturing operations and many support functions are aligned by product families. Manchester's three product families are each managed independently by a cross-functional steering committee, Nadeau explained. Within the product families are several cells with anywhere from six to 14 presses. Cells run as little as five part numbers and as many as 30, based on customer, technology, or raw material, whatever makes sense. A salaried cell leader is responsible for each cell's performance during three shifts. Leaders generally work days, but spend time before and after their regular shift talking to second and third shift operators who work autonomously. Among other duties, leaders schedule production, collect and post performance data, respond to quality problems, and coach operators.

They also request six sigma and lean resources from the steering committee to solve problems and improve cell performance. In approving requests for resources, such as for kaizen workshops or six sigma projects, the steering committee is guided by objectives identified by the company's policy management plan. Policy management (or deployment) is a strategic decision-making tool for disseminating strategic business goals from the boardroom to the shop floor. For example, senior managers map out strategic goals, key success factors for the goals, and deadlines for achieving them. Functional departments and product lines translate these into appropriate goals, success factors, and deadlines for their areas of responsibility.

In approving requests for resources from cell leaders, the steering committees follow the policy management goals, thus tying the GROWTTH program and its tools to the reality of company business objectives.

The Lean Umbrella
But perhaps the most important measure FNGP took to integrate new tools with the old was to keep them all under the GROWTTH umbrella. This affirmed management's continuing commitment to a lean transformation. It also marked GROWTTH - and lean - as a unified system of complementary tools that build on each other rather than as a jumble of competing fads. For instance, Nadeau believes people need kaizen workshop experience before they can "walk into an empty room and create a cell" prototype out of cardboard and tape as part of the 3P process.

Sherry Gray, plant manager of the Northfield, N.H., Axle Product Focused Factory makes a similar direct connection between six sigma and lean, "I don't think we could have taken on six sigma if we didn't have the experience with lean systems," she said.

Tim Sama, a financial and business analyst, noted that GROWTTH had so infused the company culture that the six sigma effort was not seen as a substitute for lean, and Dan Weigel, corporate GROWTTH manager, said senior managers emphasized that six sigma was part of the GROWTTH program.

For example, when the company introduced six sigma, the prospective experts or "black belts" were selected for training under the GROWTTH program umbrella, which already had a certification process in place for training lean experts. Certification at the green belt (beginner) and black belt levels in lean or six sigma is open to workers and managers, which spreads knowledge and use of both concepts among functions. Soon, the company will require all salaried employees to attain at least a green belt certification in one discipline or the other. Both certification tracks remain under the GROWTTH program.

"We needed both" six sigma and lean, said Benzel, the Northeast GROWTTH manager. "That's why we put them both under the same umbrella."

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