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‘Semi-Stealth’ Strategy Turns Top Executives into Believers

An Article From the Archives:

“How do I get leadership to buy-in to Lean?” We get asked this question a lot. We often advise managers to start a project and show leadership the benefits they can get from a Lean initiative. Because, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a demonstration has to be worth so much more! In this month’s article taken from Productivity Lean Manufacturing Advisor, December 2004, we learn how one organization followed this advice and started at the bottom in order to convince those at the top.
 

You want to transform your company into a lean enterprise, but you don’t have top management support. What do you do?
 
Quietly and thoroughly map the processes of one value stream, enlisting floor-level support along the way. Determine precisely which steps of those processes are value-adding. Clearly identify the benefits that can be achieved by eliminating waste. Then present your findings at a management meeting where you dazzle your superiors with your well-documented report.
 
“We were trying to stay below the radar until we were ready to present,” says Russ Kalbfeld, who used just such a strategy at Sunstar Butler, a Chicago maker of toothbrushes and related products. “We felt if we could keep it at a low level, getting a lot of enthusiasm, then we could sell it to the next level up.”
 
Kalbfeld succeeded. Lean is becoming an integral part of the way business is done at Sunstar Butler, which now has a senior engineer who works primarily on lean projects, a lean steering committee and a three-year strategy. The number of work cells is growing, employees are trained in lean methods, and the director of manufacturing will only support new operations if they are lean.
 
Equally important, in at least one product line Sunstar Butler has reduced lead times dramatically and achieved 100 percent on-time delivery for two years, with same-day ser­ vice on 20 percent of the orders.
 

One Step at a Time

Sunstar Butler is a 700-employee company with annual sales of about $150 million. About 85 percent of its products are made at its Chicago facility. Kalbfeld is director of engineering at the company, reporting to the vice president of operations.
 
About six years ago, problems were evident in the company’s line of custom imprinted toothbrushes. These toothbrushes feature the name and phone number of the ordering dentist on the handle, along with a personalized logo. Imprinting is free if the dentist orders at least 12 dozen, and he or she can choose from more than 30 types of toothbrushes.
 
Dentists were unhappy with Sunstar Butler because they were being quoted delivery times of eight to 10 weeks for the toothbrushes but weren’t receiving them for 12 to 16 weeks.
 
Kalbfeld had some experience with lean implementations from a previous job, as well as some training in just-in-time manufacturing through APICS. He believed that Sunstar Butler was a “perfect place” to apply lean principles.
 
But higher-level executives knew little of lean. His boss, the vice president of operations, was “the only one that semi-supported” his efforts, he says, and when it came to other top people, ” we knew we were going to have to sell them on this.”
 
So Kalbfeld began building support. Initially, his only cohorts were one of his senior engineers and an intern he hired in 1999. His charge to the intern – who was given a little lean training and who Kalbfeld says had good industrial engineering skills – was to “take an order that is shipping today and find out what happened, and why it took as long as it did.” In other words, the intern was working on developing a value stream map.
 
The manager of the packaging department came on board, but stressed that not all problems were within his
department. ” When we looked at it, he was right,” Kalbfeld concedes. “The process took 12 to 16 weeks, and he was getting things done in a month.”
 
The customer service department was involved, at the user level. “We went to customer service people and said, ‘can you give us a few hours?’ They were so open to it, it was amazing.” Sales was brought into the effort, and members of Kalbfeld’s team actually went out on sales calls to gather information. Marketing was also involved.
 
It wasn’t actually designed as a consensus-building campaign. Kalbfeld comments: “When I think back, I would like to say yes, we had this great strategy. But the vision I had was to create a value stream map. The side effect of that was, we developed this internal support that became very strong.”
 

Winning Everybody

The mapping process took six months. It culminated in a meeting with the Sunstar Butler operating committee, consisting of the president and all vice presidents.
 
“We did a very visual presentation, what I call the horizontal bar chart,” says Kalbfeld, referring to the final value stream map, which wrapped around the meeting room walls, showing every segment of the 12 weeks it took to fill an order for the custom-imprinted toothbrushes.
 
Accompanying the map was a short line showing the actual value-adding time contained in those 12 weeks: two hours and 47 minutes.
 
“The VP of sales almost fell out of his chair,” Kalbfeld recalls. “He said, ‘you’re telling me we can do all that in two hours and 47 minutes?’ The VP of operations wouldn’t go that far, but he said we could probably get it done in four to five weeks.”
 
“At that point, we won everybody.”
 
And so, Sunstar Butler began its lean journey, with actual implementation of improvements getting under way.
 
As is often the case in a lean transformation, “I can’t say we found any one major catastrophic problem,” Kalbfeld comments. “It was a host of little things.”
 
For example, 50 percent of all incoming orders automatically went on to a credit hold while they were reviewed by the accounts payable department. “We lost several days just doing that.”
 
There were other inefficiencies in the way orders were processed. Toothbrushes that had been imprinted would wait in a holding area before going on to packaging. Orders involving several different products would sit with just one product until the other products were obtained.
 
Many improvements were implemented. Several manufacturing cells have been created. A kanban system was established that streamlines the processing of multiple-product orders. The effort has begun to encompass other products, beyond the custom-imprinted toothbrushes, and Kalbfeld estimates “we’re probably 30 percent done.”
 
Today, the current average lead time on the imprinted products is five days.
 
The lean efforts are expanding. Improvement projects are targeting more products, and the new steering committee and three-year strategy are bringing it all together. “Our director of manufacturing is very strong on making sure this will continue,” says Kalbfeld.
 
He concedes that his approach might be called “semi­ stealth,” and while the initial effort took six months, he is glad that it did.
 
“My boss certainly knew what we were working on, and how we were trying to go about it, but he didn’t want to present it until we were ready,” Kalbfeld recalls. “That was a good choice. If we presented too early and did not have all the facts, we could have lost that sale.”

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