A case study in lean manufacturing and Six Sigma

June 12, 2002
By: Gary Conner

You never know who in your company might be a diamond in the rough, waiting to shine. Giving everyone in your company the opportunity to take risks and learn from their mistakes is the best investment an employer can make.

Lean manufacturing can be defined as "getting more done with less"; namely, less waste.

One of the greatest forms of waste is not capitalizing on the power of a focused group of people to solve problems.

When addressing trade associations, I'm often introduced as an authority on the subject of lean manufacturing and the winner of the Shingo Prize for a book I authored. But instead of considering myself a lean expert, I consider myself a lean case study.

How so? Well, I'm simply the product of an environment that encouraged creative and engaged thinking from employees at every level.

My dad was a welder who broke his neck in a bridge collapse. After dropping out of high school to help support six brothers and sisters, I found myself working in the lumber mills of Oregon.

I do not relate this to seek sympathy—it is simply a matter of fact. And while I would have rather had a choice in the matter, I felt that I did what the situation required at the time. I felt that I had few choices.

I also felt that I had limited opportunity to improve my position in the lumber mill. In my heart I knew that I had more to offer, but no one was asking. When I offered, no one listened.

In 1982 I was knocked off a 14-foot-high log haul conveyor, breaking my jaw and sustaining some other serious injuries. As I recovered, I went back to school, earned my GED, and took some blueprint reading and math classes.

With the ink on my GED still wet, I applied at Neilsen Manufacturing Inc. (NMI) in Salem, Oregon, around 1983. I spent the next few years operating metal cutting and bending machines.

The place seemed like any other family-owned sheet metal shop. However, Tom Neilsen, the owner and president, surprised me early on by asking me and my co-workers for our ideas. He shocked us when he actually listened.

Customers like Tektronix and Hewlett-Packard were demanding that we deliver to them just in time. Not just deliver, but manufacture and deliver just in time. We were bleeding to death, pretending to be a small-lot manufacturer. Tom was looking for answers. It surprised me that he asked the employees to help him look. He even took a couple of us to Japan to see how companies like Toyota were applying a new approach to manufacturing.

He asked tough questions, and he challenged our team to try new things. He coached us to brainstorm solutions that since have made NMI somewhat of a West Coast phenomenon. He encouraged free thinking and helped us develop what must have at the time seemed to be half-baked ideas.

My working life was changed fundamentally by the opportunity to think out loud in a safe environment. Permission to try an idea is the greatest gift an employer can give an employee. It also holds the greatest potential for return on investment that an employer can hope for.

If I have become an expert at anything, it is because I had mentors who demonstrated the ability and willingness to lead people rather than direct them.

Since my days at NMI I have had the chance to work as a consultant with more than 50 companies and thousands of people nationwide and have facilitated more than 300 kaizen events (kaizen is the Japanese term for continuous improvement). My career is the culmination of many years of preparation using the concepts I learned at NMI.

In both my personal life and business, I have tried to use all of the lean manufacturing and Six Sigma techniques I've been exposed to. I've used Shewhart's plan-do-study-act cycle to map out my business plan. I've used Toyota's single-minute-exchange-of-die (SMED) approach to streamline my workshops. I've also used participant feedback and kaizen to improve my training and facilitation skills.

I am 100 percent convinced that there are thousands of potential living case studies out there waiting for their opportunity to contribute. These people are unmined diamonds, and there is a good possibility that they don't even realize their own worth. Their leaders must help them unearth their unique abilities and gifts.

I've had the privilege to share the things I've learned with many project teams, and one constant that I recognize in every team is this: People want to be strong contributors. They want to be respected. They want to be viewed as competent and capable.

Take it from a living case study—lean manufacturing and Six Sigma are tools that can help companies achieve remarkable results. In the hands of a skilled manager, these same tools can help people achieve the same kinds of remarkable growth and sense of contribution.

If they're well-mentored and their need for self-esteem is satisfied, people can have extraordinary and positive impacts on their families, communities, companies, and even industries.

Gary Conner

Contributing Writer
Lean Enterprise Training
145 Mystic Mountain Drive
Sparks , NV 89441
Phone: 503-580-1156
Award-winning author Gary Conner is president of Lean Enterprise Training.

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