Precast manufacturers are using lean principles to run tighter ships, eliminate waste and improve output.
By Bridget McCrea
In the English language, the word lean has many meanings. Someone can lean a piece of plywood against a wall, lean a chair back from a desk or lean toward a career in engineering. Lean can also refer to an individual who is particularly fit or in good shape.
In the business world, lean incorporates all these definitions, but ultimately translates into maximizing customer value while minimizing waste. Put simply, lean focuses on creating more value for customers and doing it with fewer resources, according to the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI).
“The ultimate goal is to provide perfect value to the customer through a perfect value creation process that has zero waste.”
To accomplish this, LEI said lean thinking changes the focus of management from optimizing separate technologies, assets and vertical departments to optimizing the flow of products and services through entire value streams that flow horizontally across technologies, assets and departments to customers.
Originally developed to describe Toyota’s business during the late ‘80s, lean is all about simplifying complicated processes and removing waste, such as excessive clutter around a workstation, unnecessary steps in the manufacturing process, etc.
Paul Akers, president at FastCap in Ferndale, Wash., said he’s inundated by associations and individual organizations that want to know more about lean.
“It’s insane,” Akers said. “I get a speaking request per day from somewhere in the world. I can’t even keep up with it.”
Driving this demand, said Akers, is lean’s transition from being an extremely analytical and technical concept to one which primarily involves people. Companies used to hire outside consultants to come in and “lean out” their facilities – a strategy Akers said often failed – but now they’re focusing on building out corporate cultures and creating lean-centric training programs.
“Companies are training their people to think differently, as opposed to hiring consultants to tell them how to think,” Akers said. The good news, he adds, is that this 2.0 version of lean manufacturing is not only working, but it’s also attracting more followers to the fold. As a result, he said lean is gaining momentum across all sectors, including precast manufacturing.
Akers, who recently took a trip to Japan with a group of precast manufacturers from the U.S. who wanted to see lean concepts up close and in action, said those participants got totally engaged in the experience and are now figuring out how to apply lean in their own plants. Akers said one of the key frustrations among precasters and others is engaging their employees in lean.
“The manufacturers themselves are frustrated with a general sense of their businesses being clunky,” Akers said. “As a result, they’re seeking out ways to work more effectively and efficiently.”
Touring the facility, picking up slack
As a designer, engineer, and manufacturer of steel and aluminum access hatches, doors, covers and grates for utility applications, Jensen MetalTech in Sparks, Nev., was the first Jensen Precast venture to travel down the lean path. According to Steven Jensen, agricultural products manager and continuous improvement manager for Jensen Precast in Reno, the company began identifying areas of waste and setting up key performance indicators meant to create process efficiencies several years ago.
When Jensen came on board in 2014, he began spearheading lean strategies for other areas of the company. Armed with previous lean experience, he became the first employee to initiate and support the cause, focusing on lean principles and Kaizen, a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices and personal efficiency.
“Since then, we’ve used consultants who have come into our plants and held Kaizen and continuous improvement events,” Jensen said. “We analyzed some 5S opportunities and the seven sources of waste, and then really started driving lean on an internal basis.”
Over the last year, Jensen said the company’s Sparks, Fontana and Las Vegas plants have all been integrating lean into their processes. He said the initiative is going well and that it’s largely rooted in culture changes the average precaster might not necessarily embrace or be comfortable with.
“In general, in the precast industry, we’re just coming to the party in terms of lean,” Jensen said. “I think our industry understands the value of lean, but we haven’t been doing it for 20 or 30 years like the automotive industry has, so there’s still some work to do.”
When tasked with introducing lean strategies to frontline production workers who have been on the job for 20-plus years, questions like, “How can we improve your job?” are often met with resistance. That’s where the corporate culture shifts come into play, said Jensen, who notes that every textbook and manual related to lean addresses the challenges that companies will face on this front.
“There are going to be culture changes, but people will eventually embrace it,” said Jensen, who focuses on good and open communication throughout the process.
He advises other precasters to be patient, knowing that the process can be new, frustrating and even a bit scary for everyone who is being impacted by the transition.
“Take baby steps and understand that sometimes you may take a few forward and then a couple back; it’s just part of the process,” said Jensen, who encourages precasters to assemble a lean team to champion the effort, communicate with employees and keep the initiative’s momentum moving in the right direction.
He sees plant cleaning and decluttering as a good first step in the right direction, and said it’s the easiest and quickest win when addressing the 5S principles.
“You can always do a better job of organizing and cleaning, so use that as a starting point down the lean path,” Jensen said. “Then, once people start embracing those minor wins because now they can find their tools and equipment faster, you can expand the strategy out from there. The key is to get that initial buy-in.”
More output with the same input
At Concrete Sealants, Engineering Manager Sam Lines said the company uses lean across its manufacturing processes, and that the firm is continually adapting and changing its lean approach. One example is Concrete Sealants’ color-coding technique, through which important processes in the plant are standardized by color.
“We have 1,500 different process cards in our shop that indicate, for instance, how to run a particular item or set up a machine,” said Lines, who explained that each of those cards falls under one of eight different major setup umbrellas, each with a high number of variations. “The rest of the cards address minor tweaks and adjustments to the setup.”
Using a color-coding scheme, each process sheet is printed on paper with a color that matches one of the plant’s eight major processes. That way, when a process change is pending, the operator can quickly grab the right instructions without having to spend extra time reworking or retooling to run the next job.
Color coding also eliminates the chance that someone will read the card incorrectly and then realize that the setup is incorrect, Lines added.
“At one point, we were going back once a week to tear things down and set them up again the right way,” Lines said. “It was a major time waster that we solved through color coding.”
Lines said this is just one example of Concrete Sealants’ lean processes, and he advises precasters to embark on their own lean journeys by examining their biggest problem areas. Ask questions like:
- What are we having problems with?
- What’s taking a long time to complete?
- Where are we continually wasting man hours?
The answers will help pinpoint the areas most in need of a lean tuneup.
“If you only have X number of hours in an operation, you can only do so much in that amount of time,” said Lines, who adds that Concrete Sealants’ lean commitment has resulted in 10% additional manufacturing output with zero additional input. “What you can do is create more efficiency and, in turn, produce more output in the same amount of time.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.
Lean on Others to Achieve Success
By Ashley Smith, President, Smith-Midland Corp.
I found out about lean manufacturing about 15 years ago and began to study it and tour facilities employing it. If you’re interested in lean, let me start by saying you don’t master it overnight. If you’re looking for a quick fix or an easy win for the team, lean is not the route.
However, if you’re interested in meaningful change and improvement and are in it for the long haul, I encourage you to look into it. When we brought lean to Smith-Midland, it didn’t go too well at first because I still didn’t know enough about it or how to implement it. Eventually, we realized we needed someone experienced in lean to help us out.
After that, we began to make real progress. So my first piece of advice is to get assistance from someone with practical experience and a history of success. They need to be on the shop floor to immerse themselves in your work and to truly understand what you’re doing. We are currently doing a deep dive in one area of production, working with the people and, most importantly, learning. We now have people on the floor who take ownership of our processes and results, and who are empowered to make adjustments. That’s huge because it frees managers up to work on other things. By doing this, we learned my second piece of advice, which is that everyone in the plant needs to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and you need to thank them.
My third and final piece of advice is management needs to be involved throughout. Lean, like most things in business, is all about people and everyone needs to be invested. As we roll this out to other departments, these lessons will guide us and I hope they help you on your journey as well.