Lean On This

One company's experience and lessons learned from implementing Lean in its warehouse operations


Once they saw how well these tools worked, they didn’t have to be sold on the merits of using them; the merits were plain to see.

What kinds of projects have your Lean teams addressed – and which have yielded the highest dividends?

To date, our company has completed more than 440 Lean projects addressing just about any activity that can take place in a distribution center, including: space utilization, case picking, rhino crating, unloading, receiving, paper flow, labeling, clerical activities, parcel productivity, corrugated disposal and assemble-to-order.

Our current project record-holder ($1.6 million in savings) addressed a Value-Added Services process for a major retail customer that streamlined the flow of product. However, bear in mind that this is an extraordinary case. If you instruct all of your teams to swing for the bleachers and try to replicate such a success right out of the gate, you may miss out on a lot of other smaller opportunities that could eventually add up to big savings or improvements, too.

Did you ever encounter any resistance to your program? If so, how did you address it?

You’ll always come across skeptics when it comes to continuous improvement programs, especially if an organization has already spent considerable money on sending people to training and then failed to see them apply it – or if people have been with your company long enough to remember similar programs that came and went with little result.

The key, I think, is to get some program-related points on the board early so that people realize your initiatives aren’t just a lot of talk. For example, during the early years of the program, we encouraged our teams to focus on quick wins and incremental improvements. Within the first year, we had saved $302,000, and those results were enough to inspire a lot of people and demonstrate that the tools really worked.

It’s also important to make a quality program as quantitative and measureable as possible. There need to be clear goals set for the program and deliverables expected of it. And there needs to be clear and frequent communication about your organization’s progress in attaining them.

And, of course, you can always enhance acceptance with the help of financial incentives. Bonuses, prizes and ties to compensation all have an uncanny way of motivating many people.

Your company’s continuous program is almost five years old now. Is it hard to maintain results and keep enthusiasm for it alive?

It probably would be if we’d merely launched the program, trained a few teams and decided our work was done.

But our company has always operated on the philosophy that even continuous improvement programs need continuous improvement, so we’re constantly looking for ways to keep ours fresh and interesting.

Sometimes that’s meant introducing new disciplines when it looks like teams are ready for them, which is why we added Six Sigma and JDI to our efforts in 2010. Other times it’s meant increasing training options (we’ve just begun offering some sessions via the Web), upgrading systems so project information could be shared more easily or creating some sort of internal publication to help keep people better informed.

We’ve also begun rolling out the program to other corporate functions and other geographies. In fact, one of our most successful team leaders is in the process of launching it in Asia.

The bottom line is, there’s always a way to make the concept of improvement fresh and interesting. And, as you can tell from our savings, millions of reasons why companies should.

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