Traci"s story: A good reason to get lean

May 20, 2008
By: Tim Heston

By 1994, Traci Tapani knew things had to change.

As co-president of a Stacy, Minn.-based job shop, she just had a baby and was about to go on maternity leavethat is until a certain customer, who provided more than half of the company"s revenue, found out.

They had a fit, she said. They said they needed us to work on something that they needed done involving a cost reduction. [After having the baby], I literally came back to work in one day.

Her sister (and fellow co-president) Lori remembered, shaking her head. She had the baby at 7 p.m. Sunday, and she was back at the office on Tuesday.

Traci chimed in again. We knew then we needed to fast-track a diversification strategy.

To do that, the Tapanis knew they had to sell the shop"s services, which meant it needed to do things competing companies couldn"t. To get there, the Tapanis decided to start down the lean manufacturing path.

What a difference a decade makes. During the past few years the contract manufacturer has served various sectors producing myriad products, from store fixtures to playground equipment, and implemented a continuous improvement strategy to reduce inventory, getting lean. The sisters haven"t looked back since.

Last last month I visited the Tapanis" company, Wyoming Machine, a metal fabrication job shop with origins in Wyoming, Minn., (hence the name) several miles south of Stacy and about 30 miles north of the Twin Cities. The visit came during a seven-week span of frequent travel to job shops, product line manufacturers, tradeshows, and conferences. Among all the stories I heard on the road, Traci"s stuck in my mind, probably because of the new boss in my life: my 15-month-old daughter. As an overanalyzing father, I tried identifying the value streams in parenting. My conclusion: Parenting is all value, the stream an ocean.

OK, that"s a tad deep, even for an analytical guy like me. But Traci"s story made me think of lean manufacturing, and about work life overall, in a new way.

On the surface, lean manufacturing might seem decidedly inhuman. Jargon phrases like value stream maps, pull production, visual management, and others do a good job at explaining the concepts, but they also tend to cover up lean"s humanity, so to speak. At companies I"ve visited, lean empowers the individual to make a change, make his or her job easier, and, as an added benefit, eliminate waste. The more employees take initiative to change things for the better, the leaner a company becomes. It can"t happen with technology alone. People can change things; equipment can"t.

Lean"s efficiency also keeps a company competitive and healthy while, ideally, allowing its employees to work reasonable hoursimportant things for those working for the most valuable thing of all: their family.

I have a feeling Traci Tapani was thinking this after traipsing into work less than 48 hours after giving birth. Not surprisingly, that spurred her to make a changeand I"m sure it"s a change that both she and her family do not regret.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314