When companies look at their operators as the most valuable assets in controlling product quality, the bottom line can improve … along with everything from culture to efficiency.

Lean manufacturing practices are nothing new. But companies are still learning ways to implement best practices in their own settings. A fully empowered workforce with clear roles and goals and a method to pursue continuous improvement provides an exponentially higher return on labor investment. Lean manufacturing, at its core, is all about the men and women who work every day on a non-stop operation. Customized performance systems like 5S or Six Sigma can provide a path to success for any organization.

1. Laying the groundwork. 
5S is based on the Toyota Production System (TPS) in which the five S’s are: sort, set, shine, standardize and sustain. TPS’s value stream mapping is a lean-management method for analyzing and designing a series of events that take a product or service from its beginning through to the customer. Six Sigma is a disciplined, data-driven approach and methodology for eliminating waste in any process. There are many frameworks for implementing Six Sigma methodology.

Modernized by Henry Ford with the Ford company and TPS, these lean manufacturing practices drive organization and performance. Implementing a lean program begins with baseline measurements and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These are the quantitative life blood of lean practices and establish the foundation of a process. KPIs include safety, quality, service, cost and culture.

Rowdy Brixey, president of Brixey Engineering, Strategies and Training, recommended asking: What is broken or what is running outside of the process tolerance?

“Take out the big hitters and then work your way down,” Mr. Brixey said. “Root-cause problem solving, clean to inspect and preventive maintenance follow-ups are all good tools, but the main thing is to get out and look. The equipment will share its story with you.”

Flowers Foods, Thomasville, Ga., uses a combination of local KPIs and specific projects to measure results.

“There are many factors that affect these,” said Robert Benton, supply chain officer, Flowers Foods. “For each bakery, we design a plan dependent on the bakery’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Flowers Foods’ continuous improvement team works with its bakeries to provide them with tools and methodologies developed from 5S, value stream mapping, and Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control (DMAIC). DMAIC is the problem-solving methodology behind Six Sigma.

Roskam Baking Co., Grand Rapids, Mich., starts with a process called centerlining. Brandon Heiser, chief operating officer, said the company goes through each process to determine the theoretical maximum output of each piece, then determines the ideal speed. Going faster to increase throughput is a natural inclination for an operator, but it can be counterproductive. Drawbacks include product variation, increased waste and reduced precision.

“The hard part sometimes can be convincing people to believe that things can and should run more smoothly on a consistent basis because when they’ve dealt with a problem for a long time, they convince themselves that poor performance is normal,” Mr. Heiser said. “When you can get people to believe improvement is not only possible but necessary, it is amazing what can be accomplished.”

At Hearthside Foods Solutions, Downers Grove, Ill., the Hearthside Performance System (HPS) was developed by Dwayne Hughes, vice-president of supply chain. HPS was based on the 5S and Six Sigma models and built on four principles: a mission-based integrated organizational design, a continuous self-improvement system, a committed and educated workforce, and a customer-value focus.

“We realize continuous improvement is a journey; therefore, we first establish baselines for each individual plant to establish the starting point for the journey,” Mr. Hughes said.

Once baseline data and KPIs are collected, goals can be established to drive improvement.


2. Creating lofty, yet attainable goals
Reviewing historical performance compared to theoretical maximum outputs creates best practices and known best performances. A lean manufacturing system helps inch historical performance close to the theoretical maximum. Mr. Hughes said improvement goals vary, but they always follow a strict set of rules.

“A successful system must be easy to use,” Mr. Hughes said. “It must be grassroots yet also leadership driven.”

At Hearthside, prominently displayed charts are color coded in red or green to simplify where areas of production have met or fell short of established goals. At the entrance to each of Hearthside’s 24 plants, a board displays updated information on all lines, processes and projects.

“Everyone sees how the entire plant is doing on a daily basis,” Mr. Hughes said. “We measure and track everything. If we don’t measure and track it, we cannot improve it. It is a cornerstone of the system.”

Reasonable goals must also push the system toward the theoretical maximum, and the steps to get there must be measured. Mr. Heiser warned that setting a goal too high can work against a system rather than motivate people.

“It goes back to that old adage of setting smart goals that are specific, measurable, realistic, attainable and timely,” Mr. Heiser said. “Even in a world-class operation, you want to set a goal to improve.”

Operational leaders should drive for improvement but also realize sustainable improvement takes time and usually doesn’t involve a “quick fix,” he added. Through Roskam’s continuous improvement process, the company often challenges its standards to eliminate non-value-added work and lower costs by either eliminating product waste or non-value-added labor waste. If a goal for product waste is less than 3% and the line’s standard is 5%, meeting the goal requires gradual steps down over a period of time.

Leadership steers continuous improvement, but a crucial part of driving lean manufacturing is involving and empowering every employee.

3. Developing workforce experts
Hearthside develops subject matter experts (SMEs) through a formula that aligns the company’s Top Five objectives, an employee’s baseline knowledge and the Learn/Do/Teach program. Hearthside practices “cross-pollination” between facilities, an important intra-plant practice, Mr. Hughes said. Through visiting other bakeries, employees and managers learn new skills that they can eventually teach their employees in other facilities when necessary.

Through HPS University, its company-wide training program, Hearthside develops internal instructors to launch initiatives in multiple sites and build the pool of SMEs. The company also developed a reward system that recognizes people who improve operations.

The HPS “House” is built on eight pillar concepts. Each pillar has at least one owner SME who, in addition to his or her regular job, communicates best practices for that pillar across the facility and, in some cases, across the organization.

Roskam uses operational flow diagrams to simplify the process and relies on 5S techniques to map the production floor so every operator knows where everything goes. Line operators must feel comfortable and confident in a lean manufacturing process to improve it. Roskam builds this confidence by simplifying its lines. Because skilled workers are hard to find, the company is creating a working environment that requires fewer special skills.

“Taking out the complexity and stress of the process is critical,” Mr. Heiser said. “The simpler we can make our lines to operate, the better. But we still have to train, coach and motivate.”

For these methods to work, employees must believe in the system.


4. Getting the team to buy in
Putting a system in place is one thing. But having a team that believes in its core concepts is key. Without the people, 5S and Six Sigma would just be a bunch of colorful charts and arrows on a wall.

To create a culture around HPS, Hearthside took an island-to-nation approach. The company started with a small department, began a 5S program and then shared it with multiple facilities to demonstrate what “good” looks like. From there, the concept spread and now holds the entire organization up.

“People are our most valuable assets, and we display this everyday through our at-glance-programs, reward systems and commitment to train, and we celebrate when we promote within our company,” Mr. Hughes said.

Flowers Foods found the best way to influence its teams was through communicating successes. Mr. Benton said that once employees experience improvements firsthand, they are sold on the initiative.

“The bakery teams know there is support available to help them overcome obstacles and provide resources to improve performance,” he noted.

Mr. Heiser said one of the biggest successes he has seen at Roskam has been employees at all levels getting engaged with — and enjoying — the improvement process. To truly engage a team, Mr. Heiser found, managers first must connect them with the value of reaching a certain goal and help them understand that what they do matters.

“Anytime you can quantify reaching a goal with a dollar amount or improvement to the bottom line, it makes a difference,” he said. “It’s one thing to just say you’ve reached your hour’s worth of work, but it’s another thing to help them understand why that’s important to the company.”

Watching a 5S culture develop within an organization is special, Mr. Brixey said. With a good lean manufacturing system, empowered operators become the voice that drives efficiency improvements on a line, and everyone takes ownership of the company’s success.