7 minute read

Cooperation for Lean

Cooperation for Lean

Q&A with Professor Robert Van Til, professor of Lean Studies, Oakland University

By / Jordan Whitehouse Photos courtesy of Oakland University

For some, the term “lean manufacturing” is an innocuous one describing techniques that cut waste in a production system. For others, however, it strikes a more fearful note, denoting the elimination of jobs. But is that really true? Does lean imply that jobs are at risk?

Not if decision-makers are doing it right, says Tracy O’Rourke, a lean instructor at UC San Diego and San Diego State University. “Lean is not about getting rid of people; it’s about getting rid of waste,” she wrote in a recent GoLeanSixSigma.com article. “People are an organization’s most valuable asset. Employees are not a waste, but often their time is spent on wasteful activities.”

Robert Van Til agrees. He’s a professor of Lean Studies at Oakland University. Use lean to fire people, he’s said, and you not only lose your most valuable asset, but also the buy-in from those who are left.

Simply put, says Van Til, lean is a good thing for sheet metal contractors because it can lead to improved efficiency and lowering costs. For craftspersons, it can mean more ownership of their work,” Van Til says. “In a true lean environment, everyone’s input is valued, and improved performance of the business will result in a more stable job.”

We recently caught up with Professor Van Til to hear more of his thoughts on lean manufacturing—what it looks like, what its challenges are, and how labor and management can work together to make it happen successfully. Here’s what he had to say.

Let’s start with some basics. Are there lean practices specific to sheet metal manufacturing?

Actually, there are not specific lean practices for any business. But each business will find more or less value in applying various lean techniques and tools. At its heart, lean is about developing and maintaining a company culture in which everyone contributes to serving the customer. If what you are doing doesn’t serve a customer, such as making a product the customer wants to buy, reducing the price while maintaining or improving quality, providing better customer service, or

Robert Van Til, professor of Lean Studies at Oakland University, teaches students that lean is not about job reductions but rather about developing a business culture where everyone contributes to improving customer satisfaction.

complying with regulations to ensure a safe product, etc.—then you need to question why you are doing it. And “a customer” is not just defined as a person or company buying your product. A machine operator is a customer of your maintenance team.

So in a practical sense what would lean techniques look like within a sheet metal manufacturing system?

Pretty much like they would in any other manufacturing system—operators, supervisors, maintenance personnel, and anyone else involved in the system working together to identify things that do not add value and trying to eliminate them. But you need to do this on a systems level with everyone involved. It’s easy to see faults in individual components of a system and try to improve them, with the result being no improved performance of the system itself. Most people have experienced some type of system where most of the individual processes work well, but there are long waiting times between the processes. For example, you have a long wait to check in, but the check-in process works well once you get there. You then move from check-in to the next process, and arrive at it after another long wait only to find the next process also works well. An important part of lean is making changes that result in improving system performance.

What are some of the keys to implementing successful lean practices?

Getting the business culture right. Being an engineer, this is a tough one for me. But top management has to make the culture right and maintain it. Start with small projects, give everyone the time to learn lean techniques and tools, and celebrate successes.

What are the big challenges associated with implementing lean?

Staying the course. Getting management to truly lead the transformation and maintain it. Also, not expecting big

changes overnight. Small improvements over time lead to more and bigger improvements. Fad diets can have great shortterm results, but then old habits kick in and the weight comes back. Like long-term health improvement, developing and maintaining a lean culture requires a change in lifestyle.

What about the challenge of overcoming the association between lean and job losses? How can that be done?

This is where top management buy-in is a must. Unfortunately, there have been many times when the title of “lean” was used to try to justify job reductions. This is not what lean is about. It’s about developing a business culture where everyone contributes to improving customer satisfaction. How do you get that buy-in so that management and labor are working together to get the benefits of lean?

It’s up to management to develop—and maintain—a lean culture. To me, that’s what it will take to get labor buyin. It can be done. I’ve seen many companies where it’s happening. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen many companies where management’s determination to develop or maintain a lean culture just wasn’t complete and the company went back to the old way of doing business with everyone complaining about the “flavor of the month” syndrome.

Obviously lean isn’t a cure-all. But why is it as important as you say it is?

Lean alone will not necessarily result in continuing success for a business. You still need innovation as well as the ability to identify and respond to disruption. However, having a true lean culture—with all employees contributing ideas to improving performance and customer satisfaction—is an excellent foundation for encouraging innovation. ▪

Jordan Whitehouse is a freelance business journalist from Vancouver, British Columbia, who writes for magazines, newspapers, and online publications throughout Canada and the United States.

Partners in Progress » August 2019 » 13

Unger expanded the program over the next ten years, signing similar agreements with the Hart Career Center in Mexico, Missouri, and the Nichols Career Center in Jefferson City, Missouri.

“Nichols Career Center serves a large area,” explains Jake Crismon, director of marketing for Local 36. “It’s across the street from Jefferson City High School, but smaller public schools send students there as well. They bus them in so more teens can participate in the program. The sheet metal classes are always full.”

The articulation agreement with Nichols Career Center made Jefferson City’s newspaper this spring. “We can’t believe how much publicity the agreement is bringing us,” Unger says.

Thousands of people who have never thought about sheet metal read the News Tribune article, learning about industry wages and how Local 36 helps young people move into solid careers.

Students working in the Nichols Career Center’s HVAC class are motivated by a connection between grades and future pay.

Local 36 is grateful for the opportunity to educate the public about the sheet metal industry, but for future recruitment, strengthening relationships with school leaders is even more important than a good newspaper article.

Historically, many school leaders have not been aware of career opportunities in the trades, so they believed all students needed to prepare for college.

Robby Miller, president of SMACNA Central Missouri Chapter, served on the Mexico school board for several years. While on the school board, Miller saw the costs of neglecting the trades. “Many students aren’t interested in college,” he says. “Those kids can get lost in the system and end up without a career. Most of them are not aware that they can make a good living working with their hands. Exposing students to the building trades early is critical for helping them choose the trades as a career.”

Because the JATC has closer ties with the public schools, school leaders are learning that they can trust Unger to prepare kids for success. “Now the career centers in Missouri are directing more high school-aged kids to the trades,” Unger says. “They are letting them know about the options.”

Missouri State Tech

Harvey Buhr, president and owner of Industrial Enterprises Incorporated in Jefferson City, Missouri, saw an opportunity to expand the articulation program into Missouri’s college system. Buhr works closely with Missouri State Tech as a member of their drafting advisory board. “I’ve been on advisory boards for State Tech for years, so I know faculty members in all of the building trades,” he says. “I wanted to see a partnership between the JATC and State Tech, so I invited the faculty to meet with a union rep.”

Thanks to Buhr’s initiative, State Tech is now finalizing articulation agreements in HVAC, welding, and drafting. “I think articulation agreements help all of us,” says Ben Berhorst, State Tech department chair for HVAC Technology and Industrial Electricity. “It helps the union connect with young people, and it helps me recruit new students when I visit schools.” He recently doubled the size of State Tech’s HVAC program to meet industry needs. “I have no problems placing my graduates,” Berhorst says.

“Graduation doesn’t guarantee anyone a job,” Buhr says. “They have to pass the same rigorous test everyone takes to be accepted as apprentices. But State Tech graduates have already dedicated two years to learning the skills. They tend to have the solid work habits and good attendance records that will help them succeed in the sheet metal industry.”

Depending on their grades, State Tech students will be able to earn up to 2,000 hours of JATC credit. Like high school officials, Berhorst is enthusiastic about the added incentive for students. “I think it’s going to make the cream rise to the top in the classroom,” he says. “I see the students pushing themselves a little harder to get the maximum bang for their bucks.” ▪

A Colorado native, Sheralyn Belyeu lives and writes deep in the woods of Alabama. When she’s not writing, she grows organic blueberries and corrects misspellings of her name.