Improving processes, reducing waste

A world-renowned expert in manufacturing practices and lean production visited Webster City last week. Ritsuo Shingo spent two days working with Vantec Inc. employees and leadership to help further the firm’s efforts toward continuous improvement.

The son of Shigeo Shingo, a Japanese industrial engineer who was considered to be the world’s leading expert on manufacturing practices and the Toyota Production System, Ritsuo Shingo has been in the United States since April to attend the Shingo Conderence held in Washington, D.C. Now, he’s traveling the U.S., visiting 18 manufacturing facilities to help strengthen lean processes. Vantec Inc. of Webster City is the only Iowa plant he will visit. He spent two days last week working intensively with management and workers to improve lean processes.

Vantec Inc. offers custom injection molding services and produces plastic molded parts for customers throughout the world.

What is lean manufacturing? It’s a systematic method for the elimination of waste within a manufacturing system, involving quick problem solving, fast-improvement of processes and training people, according to Tanya Doyle, Vantec’s Chief Operations Officer.

Sherri Hotzler, Chief Executive Officer at Vantec, said the lean concept is one that must be embraced by management and staff alike.

“Lean and continuous improvement won’t work in a business trying to build that culture if all the leadership isn’t on board or leading the transformation,” Hotzler said. “Shingo-san’s preference isn’t to say ‘transform a culture,’ but to build or implant that culture, which takes years.”

Hotzler said she had visited Toyota in Japan and had toured several manufacturing plants there, but having the Shingo visit the Webster City plant to look at processes was “extremely important.” Watching and studying processes and asking questions can provide the key to eliminating waste, she said.

But Hotzler said building that lean culture can take years.

“Toyota has been at this for 40 to 60 years,” she said. “To be competitive in the world market, I strongly believe you need to continuously improve.”

Part of the solution

Vantec’s workers are an important part of working toward that goal and were deeply involved in working with Shingo to find solutions to fix or improve processes.

“They know the job better than any management person every will,” she said. “They have the solutions.”

Hotzler said the workers are encouraged to share ideas on a continuous improvement board.

“We need to help the employee succeed when there’s a problem,” Hotzler said. The firm is actively working to empower employees to change or fix what bothers them and make the plant a place they want to work.

“Leadership has to be humble and open to hearing what can be improved and do something about it to serve the people of the company, help them succeed, and make their jobs easier,” she said.

Raising the skill level of all workers is one way to help eliminate down-time and delays.

“We want everyone to be able to do everything for a machine. If a machine goes down, they do can do the change-overs or some of the regular maintenance,” she said. “Then they don’t have to wait. Waiting on anything is waste. We want to serve the customer and have what they need when they need it.”

Once a supplier for Electrolux Home Care Products, Hotzler said processes and products have changed at the plant since Electrolux moved to Mexico.

“Our content is different today,” she said. “Before we would run the same parts – millions and millions – with 10 to 12 truckloads a day to Electrolux. Now, our complexity has changed with more customers and more changeovers.”

She likened what the teams of workers do to a pit crew on race car.

“Come in, change it over quickly and then back to production again,” she said.

Taking care of employees and helping them grow goes beyond the plant floor. An old training room is being changed up to offer a recreation room with treadmills and other amenities. Hotzler said they also provide healthy, fresh fruit for employees.

More jobs opening

Vantec has six new presses at the plant, four of which are just being installed.

“We’ve been awarded a new job that will have to run 24/7 and we need six people on the job around the clock,” she said. “So, just for that alone we’re adding 44 jobs.”

“I think it’s good for the community, to bring in a resource like this,” said Doyle.

Shingo is not the first lean production expert to visit. Paul Akers, the author of “2 Second Lean” and “Lean Health” and Karl Wadensten, an operational excellence coach, led a group of 35 members of the Young Presidents Organization on a gemba walk through the plant. A gemba walk is defined as a personal observation of work – where the work is happening. The two were also keynote speakers at the Iowa Lean Consortium Fall Conference.

After Ritsuo Shingo left Vantec last week, he moved on to visit manufacturing plants in Salt Lake City and San Diego. He said he found many good things in his visit to Vantec. But there’s always room for improvement, he said.

“Wherever I go, it’s the same. Watch closely and find possible improvement areas. You can improve the quality, productivity and safety,” said Ritsuo Shingo.

“To be competitive, you should do everyday improvement. It never ends,” he said. “Always improve.”