Workers unite Featured

12:00pm EDT August 26, 2003
Change is hard enough for those making the decisions, but it's often even harder on those who have to live with the changes.

This is especially true in manufacturing, where the line between management and labor is very distinct. And even in these economic times, many employees don't completely understand the need for process change.

That's what Ron Bercaw, director of operations at Keithley Instruments, tried to combat after the company's management decided it was time to revamp its traditional manufacturing process toward lean.

"We are trying to be a growth business, trying to compete ... but for 56 years, we've done the same thing," says Bercaw.

Bercaw knew that a fundamental part of the lean process was contingent on employee input and buy-in, but he was also aware it wasn't going to be easy.

"At first they don't really believe you," Bercaw says about introducing lean principles and training. "They see the plant as successful, and they didn't necessarily see the reasons to change."

Bercaw says the first step in selling the idea of change is to do it from the top down and do it as early in the process as possible.

"You need a tremendous degree of trust," he says. "You need to address what it is going to be like and that it is going to be exceptionally painful."

To move from traditional to lean, the company went through process mapping and looked at what work was needed to transform the organizational structure.

"We divided up the employees and put in a new cell manager, and then we held a draft. You literally draft the employees," says Bercaw.

Once the cells were staffed, there was a significant amount of unlearning that had to happen, and some employees needed to be taught basic communication skills.

"It is very common in traditional management to assess blame and for employees to dodge blame. Some cells develop an esprit de corps, but for others it may take longer. Sometimes you even have to change managers," says Bercaw.

Besides the 20 to 40 hours of formal training employees went through, there are informal settings designed to elicit employee feedback and critique.

"The most effective was the employee roundtable," says Bercaw of the hour-and-a-half meeting he had with employees.

But he stresses that the process is an ongoing one.

His one regret is not involving individual employees in the benchmarking process so they could see how it works in other manufacturing facilities.

"I think what you have to do is keep pulling them in, different employees, and you ask them in different ways and come at it in different directions," he says.

Bercaw admits that even with open communication, there are times when the cells have to be re-evaluated and employees moved around. On average, in lean implementation, there is a 5 percent to 15 percent employee attrition rate.

The process never ends.

Says Bercaw, "We dedicate at least one staff meeting once a month to things like, 'How do we improve morale and balance the other needs of the business?'"

Morale and overall labor relations need to be monitored at all times, because with change comes some level of fear.

"You need to be honest and work through the labor relations issues," Bercaw says. "You want you employees on your side, and you want to evolve the HR part and the lean part at the same time." How to reach: Keithley Instruments, (440) 248-0400

Leaning toward lean

According to a survey by Stiles Associates, conducted at the EASTEC Advanced Productivity Expo, more manufacturers are showing an interest in lean design.

Eighty-three percent of respondents were familiar with lean manufacturing, and more than half of those responding were in some stage of developing a lean culture in their company. Fifteen percent have fully integrated lean and 41 percent have begun the process.

The top reasons for implementing lean:

* 28 percent of respondents cited cost savings

* 23 percent cited productivity improvements

* 12 percent said competitive pressures

Greatest benefits realized:

* 16 percent cited customer responsiveness

* 10 percent said increased speed to market

* 9 percent spoke to a reduced product development cycle

Greatest obstacles to going lean:

* 27 percent cited resistance to change

* 21 percent blame problems on ineffectual leadership or a lack of lean leaders

Respondents also identified other industries and sectors that could benefit from lean principles.

* 62 percent think high technology could benefit from lean implementation

* 59 percent said health care

* 58 percent said automotive

* 57 percent said consumer products

* 49 percent said telecommunications

* 44 percent said banking