Ross Controls found itself facing difficulties in manufacturing efficiencies.

Ross Controls (Madison Heights, MI), an international supplier of standard pneumatic and hydraulic controls and systems, found itself facing difficulties in manufacturing efficiencies.

A couple of years ago, Ross investigated the implementation of lean tools. Through lean consultant Andy Carlino of Achievement Dynamics (Novi, MI), a management consulting firm, the company invested in Kaizen workshops at both its Madison Heights, MI, and Lavonia, GA, plants. Ross also started a lean learning laboratory where they focused on the assembly area of the plants with a specified team assigned to study the process.

Ross agreed to a structure of implementation designed by Achievement Dynamics for lean tools. They developed a shop-floor measurement scoreboard to monitor improvements in the processes, and they implemented methods such as 5S-sift, sweep, sort, sanitize and sustain. But, despite their new understanding of lean tools, Ross struggled to consistently incorporate the tools. They soon discovered that true lean incorporates principles, rules and tools.

It was around this time in 2001 when Carlino, along with partners Dennis Pawley and Jamie Flinchbaugh, founded the Lean Learning Center (Novi, MI). A provider of lean curriculum, the center believes that lean-at its most basic level-is defined as "a shared way of thinking." Its philosophy is based on the idea that lean tools largely are ineffective unless they are supported by the correct foundation of lean guiding principles and rules to help an organization understand how things work together and why.

The center provided Ross the opportunity to train several of its employees to become "lean leaders" who are responsible for maintaining lean tools across the various manufacturing disciplines at Ross.

With a base of trust already established via Carlino through Achievement Dynamics, Ross sent five employees from the Michigan plant and five from the Georgia facility to the Lean Learning Center for a five-day Lean Experience course. During the five days, students are exposed to a variety of learning methods including discovery, simulation, case studies, personal planning and journaling.

The center's methods of teaching represent a distinct departure from the norm. "Adults do not learn best by listening to a series of lectures," Carlino says. "Adults learn though their own discovery, through experience combined with the right questions and through interaction with other adults."

On day two of the session, students were arranged in groups and given an airplane factory simulation exercise. During the allotted time, the Ross team built only one airplane. At the end of the week-after learning lean methods, tools and applications-the group was given the same assignment.

"Under the exact same conditions, our group built nine airplanes," John Smith, Ross senior vice president, says. "In addition, the exercise demonstrated to management the pressure hourly employees experience when they lack the parts they need to perform. At first, much of what we learned seemed like simple common sense. But, after going through the exercises, we realized that implementing common sense approaches companywide could be quite complicated. We came away with a new sense of what needed to be done in order to carry off this lean transformation successfully."

With this new awareness of lean thinking and processes, the Ross team committed to implementing lean on a continual basis. This same group of Ross employees then attended the two-day Lean Leadership course designed to teach the principles required to be a lean leader and driver of lean transformation at the Lean Learning Center.

"This is where we learned how to pass along what we learned to others," says Sue Reicher, Ross Controls product line manager and acting plant manager. "We learned how to approach and work with people and teach them how lean works, what it is and why we have to have it."

Taking lean back to the plant and incorporating it has been a challenge, but not an insurmountable task.

"The majority of the employees have bought into it," Reicher says. "We've been able to instill the feeling that everyone is empowered to make changes and get things done without incorporating red tape." Initially, there was a lot of hesitancy on the plant floor, primarily because of lack of past management support. But, with lean, Ross management is the primary driver.

"Education is the key, but it's difficult to accomplish," Smith says. Every activity has to be structured and measurable. We institutionalize the thoughts of lean and record every procedure in every workstation so anyone can step in and do the job. We're cross-training employees and providing skills and education for promotion."

One of the moves Reicher made was to move the weekly meetings from a conference room out to the "learning lab" on the shop floor.

"This opened up the lines of communication," Reicher says. "We used a section of the shop to teach lean, its tools, rules and principles. We applied them to that area and then moved on to others. Everyone started to look at waste and find ways to become more efficient and productive. We welcome all ideas but there has to be a high percentage of agreement."

Smith says, "The first impulse when implementing lean is to translate results into head-count reduction. This is a big mistake. In actuality, lean offers an opportunity for more productivity. We've cross-trained employees to do things that were not previously getting done, or we've improved the process.

"Since January 2001, we've reduced our inventory by 22%," Smith continues. "This was then turned into cash, which has helped to maintain Ross over the past year and a half."

Since lean, savings throughout the plant include:

• Parts from vendors tested for tolerance levels have been reduced by 50%.

• More than 20% reduction in assembly floor space because of reduction in inventory.

• In the double-valve assembly area, assembler Bill Brown eliminated all 65 baskets in his area, and he rearranged and opened up pass-through shelving to create more space and efficiency.

• Reduced inventory of finished goods by 80%.

• Work-in-process has been reduced

by 30%.

Ross Controls continues to hold Kaizens, led by Achievement Dynamics, at their Madison Heights facility. For example, before lean, 90 days of valve repairs filled an entire area. After holding a Kaizen workshop, it was suggested this department change to "doing it like cell phone repairs," in which rebuilt phones are given out to save waiting to get a phone back. The repair area was changed to rebuild; the turnaround to the customer is 30 days or less; and total product sits on one shelf rather than filling an entire area.

The company's shipping department also was directly affected by lean. Ross opened this department-which showed a history of shipping errors because of mis-labeling-or scrutiny to a Lean Learning Center Kaizen Boot Camp class led by Carlino. After studying the process of Kaizen back at the Lean Learning Center, the group returned to Ross. In less than seven hours, everything in the department was moved, re-labeled and color coded. The result has been a 60% to 80% reduction in errors.

"Since lean we've added two new product lines. So, we've saved 20% of space and added 20% work to the product line. That's significant," says Steve Littleton, Ross Controls' chief steward at the time of lean implementation and the first union member to attend the Lean Experience.

"Lean is a journey, not an end," Smith says. "We've increased morale tremendously and opened the lines of communication. But there's always room for improvement."

Since Ross' lean implementation, The Lean Learning Center and Achievement Dynamics have sent several companies to Ross to see how they have successfully implemented the process improvement strategy. "The benefit to this is it improves morale because people see and appreciate the hard work that's gone into it. I'm sold on lean, obviously," Smith says.

Lean Learning Center/Achievement Dynamics

(248) 478-1480


• Shipping errors have been reduced by 60% to 80%.

• The company has seen a 22% reduction in inventory.

• Work in processes have been reduced by 30%.

• Because of reduction in inventory, assembly shop floor space has been reduced by more than 20%.