The ATW Story
TRACY MACNEAL, COO
This document summarizes an interview with Tracy McNeal, COO of ATW, and her team’s implementation of the right Lean tools to improve from 30% to over 90% on-time delivery.
What were the circumstances that led to your Six Sigma deployment?
We had recently acquired an East Coast plant to go with our West Coast operation, but the business plan was not a great business plan. We had fallen to 30% on-time delivery and everything was late. The technical support was not really there, nor was the leadership or the skills – the team was smart, but the lean knowledge really was not there.
What steps did you take to improve the process?
The first thing I did was decide we needed a consultant and hired SBTI and they met with each of the plants.
Was this classroom training?
I think that classroom training is tough for a lot of people. I am also responsible for talent development at our company, and what I firmly believe is most people do not learn well in a classroom environment. Many people are kinesthetic learners and have to do it with their hands before they get it, so abstract application is very challenging for people.
One great thing that SBTI did that helped me a lot was a simulation with stickle bricks and a bunch of kaizans to redesign a process. They show how you get people aligned to look at their own work, so it is not a bunch of managers just coming and saying they want you to do it differently. The managers need to get the people out of the situation, so they can talk about how to redesign a process.
So you got involved in the actual process?
I think that the biggest thing I did was work alongside the team. I also did a lot of benchmarking so I knew what the process looked like when it was in action and knew what I was aiming at. And, when it was just me and maybe a dozen people, it was not that complicated. The thing I decided to do first was to find the bottleneck and start working on it. We put a visual scheduling system in, so that everyone could see where all the product was.
Did this help to explain why things were delayed?
When I came in, they were having on-time delivery meetings and the one person with the computer print out was just getting beat up three times a week. And that is what they were spending their time on…As the Lean initiative overseer, one of the things I was constantly challenging all the teams to do was to look and see where they are spending time in meetings, discussing data and status. I said all of that is a waste of time – the only reason you should get people together is to grow the business or workshop systems that are gonna grow the business.
So, I canceled all the on-time delivery meetings (laughs) and said we are not going to meet to talk about that anymore. I said it is all late, and we will let you know when it is not going to be late anymore. I replaced – I actually canceled — almost all meetings (laughs) and replaced them with workshops where we were sitting down and looking at where the bottlenecks were. We were also redesigning the way that we were going about doing things, so that everyone could see for themselves. We also came up with color coding. That way, we could start tracking when we were losing time because of equipment failures, because of staffing problems or just because of flow.
How did your team react to that?
Every time we were able to notice that it was flow, it was tagged and the team themselves were seeing it and doing the problem solving — I was not doing that. I was insisting that they use the system. Management has to be relentless not to accept excuses in terms of looking at the reality and coming up with their own solutions.
I did not delegate, I did not abdicate, I sat there with them because the reality was that I did not know the answer was either. But, I did know the system. They thought I was crazy for the first three or four weeks (laughs) until they got it. I think that takes some courage on management’s part to be willing to say “just come with me, just try it, just try it my way.“ You can’t berate people.
So how did you know the team could succeed?
The things I usually look for are: Skills, Capacity and Willingness. They did not have the skills, but they had the capacity and willingness. So, it was really about asking them about their process and asking them what they saw as possible, “What if we tried it like this?“. I am an engineer and I knew what questions to ask. I would not put just anyone in that role, you do have to have some technical skills and to be able to ask the right questions. Otherwise, you are looking for a needle in a haystack.
What tools was the team specifically lacking?
When I am looking for the signs that a plant is improving these are the tools to see in action:
- Visual Scheduling
What move affected the greatest change?
Again, canceling meetings where you are just talking about problems and status and replacing all that time with workshops. I also canceled a lot of work that was not on the bottleneck, because until you fix the bottleneck, you can’t see all of that work anyway.
Overall, you are not looking for 10% improvement, you are looking for 3X improvement. I am happy to disclose that we moved from 30% to more than 90% on-time delivery as a result — a 3X improvement on delivery time with no change to anything, using just lean tools to do that!
So, what can you say you learned from this?
A lot of things, but I would say it was an empowerment issue that was missing. The team was the right team, they just needed empowerment and tools and once they got those things, they turned the plant around themselves.
I usually point out the main theme being: when the team was giving enough of the right tools in the right way with the right leadership to empower them – that’s when success happened. Later, when we were giving Lean benchmarking tours of the facility, people were blown away that they were led by our operators themselves!
Note: As a result of this deployment, ATW received the “Best Lean Management” Award from the Providence Business at its annual awards ceremony for the company’s outstanding leadership in implementing Lean systems.