Uncommon common sense Featured

12:11pm EDT August 29, 2005
Jim Davis lives for lean.

“You really can’t turn it off,” says the president and CEO of Guardian Automotive, a 4,200-employee tier-one automobile supplier.

During a flight, Davis might crook his neck around to the seat behind him and lob a “lean” comment to a co-worker — a passing remark on driving metrics, boosting inventory turns or quality control. He might even notice ways the flight beverage service or cabin procedures could be more efficient. Once one is in a lean frame of mind, the world is plump with places to trim fat.

“People on airplanes want to move away because you overwhelm them with your passion,” Davis says, joking that since joining Guardian Automotive in 2002 and driving the company’s initiative to fully integrate the automotive trim and glass operations in North America, he wakes up thinking lean and dreams of ways to incorporate it in every aspect of the business.

Lean focuses on eliminating all waste from a manufacturing process, and Davis takes this process seriously.

“We need to recognize what were the best practices in each part of the business and what each business could learn from the other,” he says.

And Davis means every part of the business — the office, mailroom, boardroom, shop floor — every crevice of Guardian Automotive’s operation is systematic and pragmatic, thanks to CSM. That’s code for common-sense manufacturing, an acronym Davis adopted for what most companies know as lean manufacturing.

“We love that term for lean because a lot of our shop floor relates to common sense,” Davis says, adding that every business — even those without production lines or shop floors — can benefit from a little CSM.

“It’s amazing how uncommon common sense is. Everything has a process — all work can be done in steps, whether one step or multiple steps, multiple people and multiple locations.”

And ultimately, the people make the process, and reorganization requires buy-in at every level, from supervisors to the shop floor to office personnel. These demands jive with Davis’ managerial mantra: Trust thy employees.

“A mindset and a nurturing of the organization are necessary,” says Davis. “Letting people know that no one won and no one lost.”

So far, Davis’ philosophies are working. This year, Guardian Automotive increased business with Big Three automotive companies and has secured new domestic accounts from companies that set up U.S. production facilities, he says.

The auto manufacturing team is now a lean machine — critical in an industry crunched by economic pressure to produce high-quality products at best-market prices.

Different strokes
Davis knows an overcooked concept when he sees one, which explains his preference for the term CSM rather than “lean.” Take “synergies,” a favorite word in production vocabulary. Davis is reluctant to use the term but acknowledges that before Guardian Automotive integrated its trim and glass operations, the automotive business unit wasn’t “focused as one.”

“We weren’t taking advantage of some of our — that overused word,” he hesitates, “synergies.”

When he joined Guardian Automotive, the company had jumpstarted its first efforts toward an initiative to join two tier-one auto manufacturing divisions: glass and trim.

Before the integration, glass and trim were independent appendages in the automotive parts segment of the parent company, 19,000-employee Guardian Industries, known for its float and fabricated glass products and building products for the commercial and residential construction industries. These two profit centers make up about 75 percent of the overall business, automotive is roughly 25 percent.

They had different human resources departments and dedicated supervisors. Glass and trim had their own engineers, administrative staffs and purchasing agents. Guardian Automotive needed to mesh these pieces and parts into one cohesive operation — a trimmer set-up — so salespeople wouldn’t separately approach original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for business.

“Any time you get into an integration of business like this, it requires more than putting up a sign that says Guardian Automotive,” Davis says, understanding the challenges associated with change from his management experience at Federal Mogul in Southfield, where he was vice president of chassis operations, overseeing functions for all business units in 11 plants.

Davis doesn’t dance around production and efficiency details that need a face-lift, whether the shortfalls are in the shop or buried under paperwork in the office.

“When we analyzed the business, we knew we needed to combine our purchasing departments into one and take advantage of combining volume and, with that, provide more leverage for deals,” he says. “That is just one example.”

Guardian’s integration effort came on the heels of a 1996 acquisition of American Molding in Warren, in which Guardian inherited a trim operation. Today, Guardian Automotive’s headquarters is housed in that Warren facility, and with this business, it has 25 percent of the grill market — an auto part at the mouth of a car that earns plenty of face time, Davis says.

“That product is right out there in front of the car and in your face, and it is a huge part of a car’s styling,” he says.

Guardian Automotive glass ends up in all positions of automotives, from windshields to brake lights and rear windows.

“Where the glass is depends on the customer and the platform,” Davis says.

So considering the parts and the whole, integration seemed a logical solution for streamlining operations. And Davis was used to thinking about the process as much as the product after running production lines at TI Group Automotive Systems’ North American division. He’s is a straight-shooter, a spirited leader and an old-school believer in treating employees with the respect he expects in return — and in laying down law and leaving decisions to local management.

“Often, someone feels like they are conquered [during change],” Davis says.

In many manufacturing facilities, employees tend to welcome departmental integration like a burning case of strep throat.

“Any time you start to talk about change, it kind of reminds you of our political system where both sides talk about it but what they are really talking about is the other guy,” Davis says. “People are all for change until it’s close to home and has an impact on them.”

But in a competitive industry, change isn’t a suggestion; it’s the only way to continually capture market share and turn a profit. The auto manufacturing industry relies on trimming production costs to accommodate a customer base that constantly drives down prices; it depends on innovation, smart systems and employees who are willing to take risks.

“If you look at companies like General Electric that are always out in front, they know they have to constantly make change,” Davis says. “It’s easy to make change if your business is backed against a wall or threatened to close.”

Successful companies, on the other hand, might shuffle and sit still, pleased with profit margins, progress, earnings reports and steady growth. But complacency eventually invites threats to a company’s market share, Davis says.

“This industry is fiercely competitive and, in some cases, there is excess capacity out there with OEMs, and that drives pricing pressure,” he says. “You can run from that or embrace it head on and say, ‘This is the world we live in, and now we have to do business another way.’”

Thinking lean
Lean is a mental game. Steering CSM initiatives can improve performance, plant operations, product quality and sales, but not if employees don’t think lean and act fast.

”You have to give firm directives and say, ‘We are going to embrace lean manufacturing,’ but to prevent the change from being too autocratic and taking away ownership from people at the plants, you need to let the employees at each plant do it their way,” Davis says.

Show people how the new system works and explain why it’s being implemented, Davis says. For example: “This process will provide better service while reducing cost.” Stick with systems, and communicate that lean principles will help the company maintain its competitive edge. Then, loosen the lead and allow supervisors to design ways to reach objectives.

“When management edicts are too autocratic, you don’t get buy-in and ownership from employees,” Davis says. “Then, when the system doesn’t work or you run into obstacles, you won’t have local ownership to fix [the problem].

“In today’s world, there have to be directions and goals that make it very clear what we want to do, but at the same time, there can be local preference for the ‘how’ part of the plan.”

By allowing plant supervisors the freedom to invent and experiment with efficiency measures, Guardian expands its lean think tank and collects more common-sense ideas from more people. That’s why Davis encourages and rewards employees for taking risks.

Perhaps a supervisor wants to implement a production or quality improvement that requires a substantial investment.

“If the results don’t meet the success you were looking for, you could say, ‘Why did we make that investment?’” Davis says.

But with Guardian’s CSM brand of lean, Davis responds differently to failed attempts. Every creative effort to improve processes is evidence that a supervisor or employee has soaked in the lean mentality and shares the same passion for constantly sharpening the saw.

“We never chastise or put down a person for taking risks,” Davis says. “Our absolute mode of operation is that we dust them off and get them back in the race. We want to encourage risks; otherwise, our progress won’t be as fast. And in this market, we need to make progress at a rapid rate.”

Slim admin
Guardian Automotive didn’t stop at the production line with lean efforts. Targeting an area of business most manufacturers neglect when defining systems and measuring efficiency, Davis’ next CSM target was the office.

Called CSA, or common-sense administration, the company follows the same method of defining steps to process as the manufacturing department.

“When you go to a manufacturing plant, you can see a process flow and you can see all of its steps,” Davis says. “In an office, people tend to look at their work as a combination of tasks. They don’t think about processes. You need to get the [office personnel] together and say, ‘Improving your task is a good thing, but improving your process is a great thing.’”

For the front of the house, this means defining tasks by the steps required to complete them, standardizing a process to effectively carry out the task and measuring whether the process was efficient or littered with obstacles.

“In a lot of cases, you don’t realize you have standardized processes,” Davis says. “They exist everywhere.”

Data entry, performance reviews and accounts receivable are just a few examples.

“What gets me pumped about lean is when you look at wanting to make change and you want to drive all the metrics as you embrace lean, metrics change for the better,” he says. “The impact that [the process] has on people is incredible because it creates a culture by involving and empowering people.”

Although Davis says that all 11 plants and five distribution facilities have accepted CSM, progress varies. Still, every location has experienced measurable change in metrics, or numbers that indicate production efficiency by inventory turns, quality levels and safety.

“When we measure all the metrics, we call that an impact,” Davis says. “And when we do an impact, we don’t see improvement in just one aspect, we see several things improve at the same time. The people see that and get motivated.”

Overall, inventory turns are 50 percent better than they were a few years ago. Cash flow is far more comfortable because lean processes focus on working capital, and inventory is made just-in-time rather than stockpiled while it waits for orders and shipment.

Quality numbers that identify defective products dropped to single digits from the high double digits and even triple-digit levels Guardian once recorded on a regular basis.

“And lean does improve safety,” Davis adds. “The number and severity of accidents have reduced because in many cases, people aren’t moving parts. We relocate assembly lines so [production] is simpler, and we move a few pieces at a time rather than large batches.”

Most of these shop-floor rearrangements originated from employees’ suggestions, Davis says. Employee input drives performance and preserves morale while Guardian introduces CSM to its staff.

“We are focused on both the performance and people side of the business, and that’s when lean works for you,” Davis says. “It pulls people together to get the job done naturally, whether manufacturing or administration.”

Fair philosophy
Davis is an engineer by trade; he learned the manufacturing ropes at his first foundry job.

“I was heavily industrialized as a child,” he says, because his father worked as a human resources manager in a plant near their hometown in Ironton, Ohio.

Systems, efficiency and practical approaches to operations are second nature to Davis. But his basic instinct is for people.

“I have good math and science skills, but personality traits and preferences are different,” he says, adding that he always looked up to managers such as Guardian Industries CEO William Davidson.

“In my early days at the foundry, the management was autocratic and intimidating. And when you saw how that affected on the shop floor, it flat out didn’t work. I thought if I had the chance, I’d be different.”

Davis says his leadership style — to delegate, not execute with heavy-handed authority — clicks with Guardian’s culture. In fact, the culture intrigued him enough to accept the position overseeing its automotive business integration.

He carries out lean directives while sticking to his two-dimensional leadership philosophy. “It’s about performance with the right benchmarks,” Davis says. “When we monitor performance, we acknowledge efforts regardless of the results.”

Part of recognizing opportunities for improvement includes first understanding the company’s culture and its core — “all the goodness that has been there for years,” he calls it. The sweet spots for Guardian Automotive are its manufacturing facilities, and the company holds each plant in high regard, Davis says.

“I’ve seen companies get that backwards,” he says. “Manufacturing is first and foremast at Guardian, which I love. And there is pressure to perform, but we celebrate every victory.”

How to reach: Guardian Automotive, (248) 240-1800 or http://www.guardian.com