Ross Controls (Troy, MI) is an international supplier of pneumatic and hydraulic controls, such as industrial valves. The 81-year-old independent company has an extensive product line that consists of more than 5,000 items.

Several years ago, when Ross Controls discovered that it had some manufacturing inefficiencies, the company decided to investigate lean manufacturing.

Ross Controls implemented kaizen workshops at its plants in Lavonia, GA, and Madison Heights, MI. In addition, a lean learning laboratory was created to focus on the assembly area of the plants, with a special team assigned to study the process.

Achievement Dynamics (Palm Beach Gardens, FL) developed a shop floor measurement scoreboard to monitor improvements in the production processes and implemented methods such as 5S (sift, sweep, sort, sanitize and sustain). But, despite its new understanding of lean tools, Ross Controls was struggling to incorporate the tools on a consistent basis.

True lean incorporates principles, rules and tools. The Lean Learning Center (Novi, MI) provided Ross Controls an opportunity to train several of its employees to become lean leaders.

Five employees from the Georgia plant and five employees from the Michigan plant attended a five-day course at the Lean Learning Center. This in-depth workshop is based upon the premise that lean rules and principles must be internalized by employees in order to maintain success. During the five days, students were exposed to a variety of learning methods including discovery, simulation, case studies, personal planning and journaling.

The Lean Learning Center?s methods of teaching represent a distinct departure from the norm. "Adults do not learn best by listening to a series of lectures," says Andy Carlino, a partner and founder of the organization. "Adults learn through their own discovery, through experience combined with the right questions and through interaction with other adults."

On day two of the session, students were divided into groups and assigned an airplane factory simulation exercise. They used K-Nex, a color-coded plastic building system, to assemble a model airplane from more than 50 different parts. Team members were assigned subassembly tasks, such as fuselage, tail and wings. During the allotted time, the Ross Controls team managed to build only one airplane. At the end of the week—after learning lean methods, tools and applications—the group was given the same assignment.

"Under the exact same conditions, our group built nine airplanes," says John Smith, senior vice president of Ross Controls. "We spent a few hours preparing teams on how to build the plane with the lean tools we acquired from the Lean Learning Center. In addition, this exercise demonstrated to management the pressure hourly employees feel when they don?t have the parts they need to do their job.

"It?s funny," continues Smith, "at first, much of what we learned seemed like simple common sense. But, after going through the exercises, we realized that implementing common sense approaches company-wide could be quite complicated. We came away with a new sense of what needed to be done in order to carry off this lean transformation successfully.

"Most importantly," says Smith, "is that the experience opened our eyes to how lean affects the way you think about the things you do. Everyone came away from the week-long session very excited about this unique way of viewing lean."

With this new awareness of lean thinking and processes, the Ross Controls team was committed to implementing lean on a continual basis. The same group of employees also attended a two-day lean leadership course to learn the principles required to be a lean leader and a driver of lean transformation.

"This is where we learned how to pass along what we learned to others," says Sue Reicher, product line manager and acting plant manager. "We learned how to approach and work with people, and teach them how lean works, what it is and why we have to have it."

Implementing Lean

Reicher says taking lean back to the Ross Controls plants and incorporating it was a challenge, but not an insurmountable task. "The majority of the employees have bought into it," claims Reicher. "We?ve been able to instill the feeling that everyone is empowered to make changes and get things done without incorporating red tape. This is a major change for us.

"Before, everything required supervisory permission or change was dictated from upstream," explains Reicher. "Now, we use the 60 percent rule—?if you?re 60 percent confident something will work, try it.?

"However, productivity is the measurement," adds Reicher. "If someone wants to paint the floor pink, he can go ahead and do it, but if it does nothing to help morale or increase productivity, then what?s the point"?

Initially, there was a lot of hesitancy on the plant floor, primarily because of lack of past management support. But, with lean, Ross Controls? management team is the primary driver.

"Lean is not an option . . . it?s a culture," explains Smith. "It?s here to stay, and it will be taught to everyone in the Ross Controls organization.

"Education is the key," Smith continues, "but, it?s difficult to accomplish. Every activity has to be structured and measurable. We institutionalize the thoughts of lean and record every procedure in every workstation so anyone can step in and do the job. We?re cross-training employees and providing skills and education for promotion."

Reicher decided to move weekly meetings from a conference room out to the "learning lab" on the shop floor. "This opened up the lines of communication," she points out. "We used a section of the shop to teach lean, its tools, rules and principles. We applied them to that area and then moved onto others. The ideas began to flow. Everyone started to look at waste and find ways to become more efficient and productive. We welcome all ideas, but there has to be a high percentage of agreement."

"What?s really key is to improve all activities at every possible level and to measure how we?re doing," adds Smith. "It?s systematic problem solving; making everything structured and measurable. Now we can see how the rules and principles of lean are tied with the tools."

Positive Results

"The first impulse when implementing lean is to translate results into head count reduction," says Smith. "This is a big mistake. In actuality, lean offers an opportunity for more productivity. We¿ve cross-trained employees to do things that were not previously getting done, or we¿ve improved the process.

"If it weren¿t for lean, we would have been in terrible shape today," claims Smith. "Since January 2001, we¿ve reduced our inventory by 22 percent. This was then turned into cash, which has helped to maintain Ross Controls."

Since implementing lean manufacturing, savings throughout the plant have included:

  • Test area—parts from vendors tested for tolerance levels have been reduced by 50 percent.
  • Assembly—more than 20 percent reduction in floor space due to reduction in inventory.
  • Double-valve assembly area—one operator eliminated all 65 baskets in his area, then rearranged and opened up pass-through shelving to create more space and efficiency.
  • Finished goods—reduced inventory by 80 percent.
  • Work in process—reduced by 30 percent.
Ross Controls continues to hold kaizens at its Michigan facility. For example, before lean, 90 days of valve repairs filled an entire area. After holding a kaizen workshop, Smith says someone suggested this department change to "doing it like cell phone repairs," where they give out rebuilt phones rather than waiting to get a phone back. After the repair area was changed to rebuild, turnaround to the customer is now 30 days or less and total product sits on one shelf rather than filling an entire area.

The company¿s shipping department has also been positively affected by lean manufacturing. Ross Controls opened this department, which had a history of a high degree of shipping errors due to mislabeling, for scrutiny to a Lean Learning Center kaizen boot camp class. In less than seven hours, everything in the department was moved, relabeled and color-coded. The result has been a 60 percent to 80 percent reduction in errors.

Steve Littleton, Ross Controls¿ chief steward at the time of lean implementation and the first union member to attend the Lean Learning Center workshop, is a big proponent of lean. "It made a big difference to realize that management wants to know what we know on the floor," says Littleton. "It¿s great to see all these continuous improvements.

"We¿ve moved areas for accessibility, eliminated waste, and lean has saved some jobs here," claims Littleton. "And, since lean, we¿ve added two new product lines. So, we¿ve saved 20 percent of space and added 20 percent work to the product line. That¿s significant."

"Lean is a journey, not an end," concludes Smith. "We¿ve accomplished a lot through lean, but we¿ve discovered that, because everything and everyone is connected, one action precipitates another. We¿ve increased morale tremendously and opened the lines of communication. But, there¿s always room for improvement."