ZF North America has standardized best practices throughout its production facilities and improved communication flow on the plant floor. Learn how the company did so at this year's ATExpo, later this month.

ZF North America has standardized best practices throughout its production facilities and improved communication flow on the plant floor. The company is a leading manufacturer of automotive transmission, chassis and driveline components. Its product line includes actuators, clutches, differentials, steering systems and suspensions. ZF is based in Germany, but has more than 20 manufacturing sites in North America.

The company's sales and service organization began searching for an improvement initiative in 1999. "One of the things that prompted the search was our inability to keep pace with pockets of improvement year over year," says Tim Corcoran, vice president of ZF Sales & Service North America (Vernon Hills, IL). After 3 years, "there was good acceptance, but nothing sank in," Corcoran recalls. In 2002, the organization decided to take a different course of action.

After attending a lean leadership boot camp, Corcoran took a fresh look at his company's strategy. "We were missing important pieces, without which we couldn't see the big picture," he points out. "Lean tools are just the beginning. You also have to know how and why to use them."

During the next 14 months, ZF employees began deploying new lean methods. But, something was still missing. "That something was an integrated approach and the leadership it takes to direct it," says Corcoran. "This is when things really started taking off for us."

Corcoran will be participating in the Lean Barrier Busting session at this year's Assembly Technology Expo in Rosemont, IL. The 3-hour session on Tuesday, Sept. 26, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., is organized by ASSEMBLY magazine and will feature insights on several lean manufacturing success stories.

Despite the early twists and turns, ZF's lean journey has been paved with real success, thanks to integrated lean thinking and a totally new way of looking at things.

"When it came to evaluating concepts and tasks, we had to shake ourselves free of the past habits and start completely from scratch," says Corcoran. "But, it's paying off on many fronts.

"By structuring our activities, clearly connecting customers and suppliers, understanding and simplifying flows and improving upon them by experimenting at the lowest possible levels, we cut 1,000 different processes down to about 300," adds Corcoran. "The self-assessment and optimization process has become very important for increasing customer satisfaction, motivating staff and optimizing our work."

Last year, Corcoran and his team identified 122 areas for improvement in nine major target areas. "Our quality policy used to be 50 pages long and was cryptic at best," notes Corcoran. "Today, it is easy to read, meets all ISO requirements, is fully integrated into our operating system and fits on four pages.

"We've come a long way in a relatively short amount of time," Corcoran points out. "We're an organization with a shared vision, working within a structure of simple, yet optimized activities and processes. For us, lean is the only game in town."

Corcoran will be one of several participants in the Lean Barrier Busting session at the 2006 Assembly Technology Expo. The 3-hour session on Tuesday, Sept. 26, also features Joe Blanck, vice president of operations, strategy and manufacturing excellence at Schneider Electric (Palatine, IL); Jim Kass, director of operations at Allen-Edmonds Shoe Corp. (Port Washington, WI); and Jamie Flinchbaugh, partner in the Lean Learning Center (Novi, MI) and author of ASSEMBLY magazine's monthly "Leading Lean" column. The event will also feature a panel discussion and Q&A session.

The Assembly Technology Expo is the world's largest trade show for assembly tools and technology. It is attended by more than 12,000 manufacturing engineers, design engineers and plant managers from a wide variety of industries, including aerospace, appliance, automotive, consumer goods, electronics, industrial machinery, medical devices and telecommunications. ASSEMBLY is the official sponsor of the annual event. To register for the Lean Barrier Busting session or find out more information about the Assembly Technology Expo, click www.atexpo.com.