One company’s journey to boost productivity through lean

Lean is a systematic, continuous improvement program designed to eliminate waste from an organization while producing product at the consumer’s rate of consumption. Visual Marking Systems started using productivity data to measure the dollars of revenue per employee, and for 15 years, our productivity grew at 5 percent per year.

Yet, for the next five years, we flattened out and had gone slightly backward. To combat this, we started a Better, Faster and Cheaper program to create new productivity improvement ideas. However, we weren’t obtaining the results we had hoped for with this particular program. 

Then I met Brian Furlong, a lean expert and author of “The Elusive Lean Enterprise.” His presentation on lean had impressed me. In fact, VMS was using many of the lean tools already without calling them lean. Each tool had been formerly implemented by senior management without complete employee training. We had the right tools in place and a talented staff; we were just missing the educational portion of lean. 

I introduced the idea of lean to the senior management staff at our strategic planning meeting. 

Their first reaction was, “Why do you think this new idea will work?” My answer was that we were stagnant on productivity and we needed to shake up the troops with a fresh approach to continuous improvement. I had two senior managers out of six who had some knowledge and experience with lean. The rest needed convincing.

My first step was to contract Furlong to help install the lean Enterprise concept at VMS. We chose 16 champions to have the initial lean education from Furlong. These were people we felt would be open minded while learning a new program and could lead the rest of the company. The initial training was an all-day Saturday session led by Furlong. He supplied an open book, multiple-choice test that everyone took after the training session. 

They were required to pass with at least a 70 percent. After passing, the 16 people took their new lean training to their staffs and co-workers with an incredible sense of urgency and newly empowered authority to make lean a part of the VMS culture. We created a lean Enterprise central area that displayed our daily, monthly and yearly data with complete transparency.  

Next, we created a Lean University training program in which I personally took the role of lean professor. Each employee received a lean book, and we had multiple one-hour training sessions for the entire company. After completing the training, we required them to take the lean test and pass with at least a 70 percent.

We began Kaizen events with our trained staff and decided to use VMS terminology rather than the Japanese terminology, as we already had many lean tools in place. Through these and other steps, over the course of two years, lean became a part of our culture. We had to convert the naysayers and those set in their ways into lean thinkers. Teamwork became the norm, and productivity improved 5 percent annually once again.

Dolf Kahle is CEO at Visual Marking Systems Inc.