Art Byrne has been implementing Lean strategy in various U.S.-based manufacturing and service companies, such as Danaher Corporation, for more than 30 years, including The Wiremold Company, which he ran for 11 years. He now serves as Operating Partner at the private equity firm J. W. Childs Associates L.P.
In a podcast (Lean as a Business) , I asked Art
Joe: Point of reference that really struck me in the book, the one big overall thought I had from it, is you view Lean from just about an appreciative inquiry point of view, what you do well, what are the value adding activities? That’s practically like heresy sometimes, what many consider Lean thinking. I think the first thing when someone thinks about Lean, they think about waste reduction. But, you talk about value adding.
Art: That’s correct. There’s a simple definition of, what is a business in the first place, not just a manufacturing business, but any business? It’s really a very simplistic thing. It’s a collection of people, and a bunch of processes all working to try and deliver value to customers. That’s true for any business. It doesn’t have to be just manufacturing. Unfortunately, the traditional approach that we’ve evolved to when we run these businesses, we started out with strategy, and more often than not the strategy is to create shareholder value, which I think starts out by having it all backwards because shareholder value, to me, is a result, not a strategy. It’s a result of what you do, and the value that you deliver to customers over long periods of time is what’s going to improve your shareholder value.
You can’t just say, “I’m going to do shareholder value.” That’s backward. The other thing that occurs in almost all traditional approaches to a business is we take the value adding part of the business as a given. For example, if you’re running a company and you have a six?week lead time, and you’ve always had a six?week lead time, then that’s taken as a given, “OK we’ve got a six?week lead time. How do we do our strategy around that?”
What we try and do instead is we try and get our customers to conform to what we do, to the fact that we have a six-month lead time. Then, of course, we focus very, very heavily on making the month. The traditional management approach is focus on the numbers and make the month, make the quarter, that kind of thing.
Unfortunately, when you’re focused on make the month; you’re focusing on something that already happened. You can’t do anything about that anymore. That already occurred. That happened last month.
In fact, for most companies, by the time they get the results of last month, they’re three weeks into this month. Effectively, we’re always trying to drive the car through the rear-view mirror when you look at it that way. The reality, however, is the opposite of that.
The value is created by a couple of things, one, by improving your own value adding activities. Two, by delivering more value to your customer than your competitors can. Three, by conforming what you do to your customers to satisfy them and make you stand out versus your competition. It’s really this opposite…value is created by the opposite of the traditional approach if you will.
I always like to use the example of a simple thing that productivity equals wealth. Productively, this is true for countries, for companies, for anything. Productivity always equals wealth. If you think of the industrial revolution in England if you think about why the United States has become so powerful, it’s all really because of productivity.
A Lean strategy allows you to get big improvements in your value adding activities, which is basically productivity. It’s a way to get productivity by focusing on your value adding activities. As you get these, this creates the opportunity for you to grow and to gain to gain market share, which is particularly important in times like this when the economy is really flat and slow and people are struggling to get any kind of sales growth.
The Lean approach gives you the opportunity to do that by focusing on your value adding. I look at Lean really as the greatest wealth creator that was ever invented. But most people just look at it as a bunch of tools, as I said before. It’s a whole bunch of tools in a tool kit.
We can roll then out when we want to use them. If we don’t feel like using them…if you look at most manufacturing companies, they say they’re going to do Lean, and most of them will start where they’re trying to do Kanban, just because they can understand Kanban a little bit better than some of the other stuff. They won’t do setup reduction.
They won’t do some of the other fundamental things. They’ll try and do Kanban, without doing all the other things first; you don’t get much cane out of doing Kanban. But, that’s the approach that a lot of people take.
I think you have to understand Lean as strategic to understand what’s possible here. I can give you a simple example of that, which is, if I just gave you an example that said, we got Company A and Company B, they buy the same equipment from the same manufacturer, so they run at the same speed. Everything is equal. They don’t have anything different…as Company B can change the equipment over in one minute, and Company A takes an hour.
If each of them can only afford an hour a day to change that equipment over, then if I asked you who has the lowest cost, and who has the best customer service, A or B, it becomes pretty clear to most people that the guy with the one minute setup is going to have lower cost. He’s going to have tremendously better customer service because of his ability to respond quickly.
He decides to leverage that by offering a two?day lead time, when Company A and the rest of the industry has a six?week lead time. He’s going to start to gain market share. Company A’s first reaction is probably going to be to build more inventory so that he can offer a short lead time. That’s just going to drive his cost up. Or, if that doesn’t work, he’s going to start to cut the price which also hurts his cost structure and his profitability.
Something that most people would look at clearly as a manufacturing thing, setup reduction, turns out that it’s going to give me lower cost and better customer service, two very strategic things. That might give you a little insight into why, Lean at its core, is a very, very strategic thing. That’s part of the point that we’re trying to make in the book, here is applying the Lean tools and doing this…there’re some tremendous results you can get from this.
Joe: You talk about leadership as being a real focus in Lean. But, you talk about it more in a participatory sense than what I think traditional thought leads us. We think of Lean as empowering the workforce. But, you really do take it that leadership has to participate, and practically, at that ground level. Can you explain that?
Art: Right. Well, if you don’t have the leader of the business…and that doesn’t have to be the CEO, it can be the leader of a plant. It can be the leader of the division, or anybody that’s leading any business, a business owner if you will. My experience with Lean…It’s easy to tell you the facts about Lean and tell you the concepts. But, it’s very difficult to do. As a result, if the leader isn’t leading it, and I don’t mean managing it, but I mean leading it hands?on, out front, showing the way, then you’re not going to really get very far with this. It’s really interesting to me over many, many years…when I’ve given talks at national conferences on this stuff, or whatever, afterwards, people come up to me and say, “Gee, that was great. Can you come and talk to my CEO and see if you can get him to do this stuff?”
Because, the people down in the trenches that are trying to do Lean, they understand that without the CEO backing it, not much is going to change. The reality is, what’s very, very common is that you’ll see companies that say, “Oh, yeah? We’re going to do Lean,” and they think of it as some element of their strategy.
Mostly, they attempt Lean for things like reducing headcount, or improving their inventory turns or something like that. They don’t look at it as a strategic thing. They don’t look at it as, “How do I grow and gain market share by using this stuff…beat the heck out of my competition?” They just want to cut the headcount.
As a result, they delegate it down to their VP of operations. Then, they try and drop Lean on top of an existing batch structure, leave everything else the same. The reality is you can’t do that. You can try it, but you’re not going to be very successful for very long.
If you want to do this and use it as a strategic weapon, you have to change everything over time. It doesn’t do you any good, for example, if you’re in manufacturing, it doesn’t do you any good to try and do Lean at the manufacturing level and let your sales force continue running around doing big batch order taking, or have sales terms that call for you shipping 45 percent of your monthly sales for the last week of the month, and the manufacturing guys are trying to level load production. You’re at odds with yourself.
You have to have the leadership to do this. If you can’t get the leader to participate, it’s something that isn’t going to work very well. One of the main thrusts of this book is really to try and help the leaders understand what it is they have to do, and how they have to behave, and what they have to know in order to be successful at doing this.
I give some examples of; you just start out with as to, “Why do you want to do this in the first place?” Well, the results that you can get are fantastic. If I can digress for a second, I could just give you some of the results that we achieved at Wiremold.
There’s a whole long list here. Basically, we dropped our lead time from four to six weeks down to one to two days. That gave us the ability to increase customer service from 50 percent to 98 percent, and allowed us to quadruple the size of the business over eight years. We improved our gross profit margin from 38 percent to 51 percent.
Improved productivity by 162 percent. Inventory turns went from three times to 18 times. Our operating income improved by 13.4 times over the course of about nine years. The net result was, our value, our enterprise value, if you will, increased by just about 2500 percent over the course of about nine years. We went from a company valued at around $30 million to a company that we sold in 2000 for $770 million. That ought to give people plenty of incentives.
I can’t imagine someone leading a business and I said, “Gee, if I show you how to use these tools, and you can increase the value of your enterprise by 2500 percent over the next 10 years.” If you look at me and say, “Well, that’s interesting, but I don’t really want to do that.” Then, to me, you’re in the wrong job. You shouldn’t be in that position because you should want to do it.
The book really tries to say, “Look, this is what you can get from this. These are the steps you need to take. These are the things that need to be present. These are the things you need to know. This is how you go about implementing this, and the actions that the CEO or the leader has to take to make it happen.” Because, without the CEO driving this, you can really kind of forget about being successful, I think.
Wiremold was an interesting example. After we got written up in a number of books, we were a chapter in the book, “Lean Thinking.” We were a chapter in Gemba Kaizen. We were written up in articles. All the industrial tourists started coming. They wanted to come see what we had done.
That was starting to cause a problem because we had a business to run, and it was taking too much time. I basically put in a simple rule. I said look, we should be able…we should want to help other companies do this, but if they don’t bring their CEO, then we know that they’re not going to do it.
Let’s put in a simple rule that you can still come and visit Wiremold, but only if you bring your CEO. Guess what? All the tours stopped immediately.
Art: No one could get the CEO to come.
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