Achieving EXCELLENCE–In Short Order

Gary S. Vasilash

Some companies talk about becoming lean. And they even practice some elements, too. Few companies go for the transformation in a big way. A great example of a place where this is happening (not “has happened,” because lean is a state of becoming, not of being) is the Benteler Automotive Hagen Drive Plant.Here’s a look.

Do you want to know what an “excellent” company is, a company that actually believes in the value—no, not merely the value, but the fundamental importance—of continuous improvement?

One of the best examples is Benteler Automotive, a supplier company that provides chassis components and modules, safety and structural products, exhaust systems, and tubular components and systems. Headquartered in Auburn Hills, Michigan, Benteler is part of Germany-based Benteler A.G., which operates 40 manufacturing facilities in 13 countries. The parent company was founded in 1876. Benteler started manufacturing operations in North America in 1979. The point of this background is simply to assert that it is highly likely that in order to span three centuries, an organization has to be responsive to its customers’ requirements. Otherwise, it would have ceased to exist.

But what about this claim of excellence and support of kaizen? What’s it predicated on? Consider this:

  • In 1998, Benteler Automotive achieved an Automotive News PACE Award for its development of a hydroforming process for exhaust systems wherein a tube within a tube is formed.
  • In 1999, Benteler Automotive achieved a second Automotive News PACE Award, this time for coming up with a single formed tube that replaced a standard U-shaped crossbeam and torsion bar assembly.

While admirable, they’re not the reason for the claim. The reason is based on a comment by John Buchan, vice president, Operations, Exhaust Systems, at the company. He says that when he took over operations at the Benteler Hagen Drive Plant (Grand Rapids, MI) some four years ago, he knew that the product technology was “world class.” And his belief was certainly validated by the judges of the awards. Think of it: Not just one prize, but two, one right after the other. How many company executives would put the trophies in a glass case in the company lobby, splash the trophies images across pages in brochures, and just feel pretty damn smug in general as they waited for the business to come rolling in? (Maybe you’d better not answer. At least not out loud.) But Buchan goes on to say that he just came to the conclusion that while they were doing “OK” so far as deliveries went, the scrap level and the overall organization of the facility weren’t what they should be. They were profitable. And the company had responded to the requirements of its existing customers via the OEM programs that were aimed at taking cost out of the operations, but there was some question about how they could drive value into their organization. So they started on a lean journey.

And then Toyota came into the picture, interested in sourcing exhaust manifolds from Benteler. And the people from Toyota provided what Buchan describes as a “wake-up” call. 

As Scott Eisen, Continuous Improvement/Training Manager, at Benteler recalls, “They asked us, ‘Where’s the standardized work? Are people working to takt time? What are the work-in-process inventory levels?’”

Apparently, the people from Toyota weren’t simply bowled over by those awards.

So Buchan, Eisen, et al. went to work at really becoming lean. As Buchan puts it, “I had a personal conviction to start leading the organization hard.”

But there was one interesting thing that he learned while doing that—he learned that what are often considered to be “soft” things are vitally important. For example, training. Buchan admits, “I had always thought that leaders who talked about training didn’t know enough about technical issues.” Now training is fundamental. Buchan and his staff lead the training. He acknowledges that not everyone felt comfortable with it: he describes it as “a lot of indigestion.” And he admits that he had to make some management changes.

Another “soft” thing is housekeeping. “I see people jumping at kaizen and SMED,” Buchan observes of a typical approach some companies take when initiating a lean transformation. “But I knew that it”—as in having an organization that is working lean—“was about being proud to come to work.” No one is proud of going to work in a place that’s disorganized, dirty, and has fluids leaking from machines onto the floor. So at the start, they spent a lot of time on housekeeping, on the 5S principles*. In fact, “Housekeeping /5S” is at the foundation of the House of BASIC Lean Manufacturing, with BASIC signifying “Benteler Automotive Strategy for Improving Continuously.”

What they were seeking was a means by which “lean would take root at the operator level.” Since operators work on the factory floor, what better way to make sure that happens than by making sure that the factory floor is a clean, orderly place to work? Standardized work, continuous improvement, and other lean activities followed on this clean initiative.


Getting There

Here’s a question. Suppose you want to become lean. How do you go about learning about the practice? And further complicating matters is that you’re not located, say, in the vicinity of Georgetown, Kentucky. Rather, you’re located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as the Benteler Hagen Drive plant is. While one might assume that “lean” is the purview of automotive (thanks to The Machine That Changed the World), and while Grand Rapids, Michigan, is not a hotbed of automotive activity, there are other companies in other industries (e.g., Steelcase) that are working at becoming lean. In the case of Benteler, they became involved with a regional organization called The Right Place Program that’s committed to “retaining existing jobs, supporting local business growth, and attracting new businesses to the Greater Grand Rapids area.” Part of what that organization does is help companies become lean.

The lesson here is that no matter where you are, there is undoubtedly a group of people who are also interested in retaining and growing jobs and work—and lean is a great way to make that happen.


It Has To Be You

Yes, they used consultants to help them make their way on their lean journey. But they have also recognized that in order to make lean part of the fundamental culture of the organization, it is something that Benteler people have to own. Yes, they attend outside conferences and training sessions to learn about new methods and to learn what other organizations are doing. But they also realize that it is important that they implement what they learn within the context of their own organization.


Then & Now

Scott Eisen describes the “before” of the Hagen Drive Plant. Lots of inventory between machine stations. Linear machine layouts. Little physical visibility. It was more or less the format of many 210,000-ft2 manufacturing plants that have plenty of welding, forming and fabricating going on.

Since they’ve begun the lean transformation, they’ve taken out four semi trailers’ worth of equipment. The floor is unobstructed and clean. The work in the four business units is being performed by teams. There is a proliferation of cells. There is an extensive use of yellow tape on the floor, marking where things belong. There are various visual aids throughout the facility, from the standardized work instructions at every work position (which combine graphics and text) to audit boards in every business unit area.

The “after” is impressive.


The Accomplishment

Scott Eisen recalls that nearly two years ago, during a planning session, John Buchan handed out an assignment to three of his people: look into the Baldrige Award, the Industry Week Best Plants Award, and the Shingo Prize. For a manufacturing company—or at least for the people who are actually involved in the process—winning the Shingo Prize is as good as it gets. As it states in its achievement criteria: “The Shingo Prize recognizes organizations that use world-class manufacturing strategies and practices to achieve world-class results.”

Benteler Automotive’s Hagen Drive plant was one of the six plants in North America to receive the 2001 Shingo. That is nothing less than astounding: in four years, from good to world class.

Still, Buchan says, “We have a ways to go.”

And what really makes him proud is the fact that the lean transformation is now part of the fabric of the organization: “It’s happening on its own—that’s the accomplishment.”*5S = Seiri (sort), seiton (set in order), seiso (shine), seiketsu (standardize), shitsuke (sustain). See the accompanying “Lean Lingo Made Accessible” so you, too, can learn about terms like these.