Lea Tonkin Lea Tonkin
Freelance Writer

Growing and Engaging People Every Day in Lean

August 1, 2018

Known for its heating and ventilation products and strong family culture, Cambridge Engineering, Inc. is reaping the benefits of its lean journey. However, like with most company-altering strategies, adjustments were necessary in order for lean to take hold at the Chesterfield, MO-based manufacturer.

Cambridge Engineering chair and CEO, John Kramer Jr., addresses a benchmarking tour group. Since 2015, Cambridge Engineering has hosted more than 200 companies.
When John Kramer Jr., chair and CEO, recognized lean as a logical next step for Cambridge Engineering 10 years ago, experts advised starting with 5S improvement projects, training workforce on Japanese terms, and then adding a host of metrics and white boards—adding to the mix of daily priorities. It was top-down driven and tolerated, not embraced, by the company’s 120 employees.

“There were too many metrics, and there was too much focus on cost rather than on people,” Kramer notes. “Our busy season (fall through January) would hit, and I would tell my people to stop improvements and ship products. All of our lean principles would go out the window, as people did not have time to make improvements. Although I had a glimpse of the vision of a lean culture, many times it felt like we were going backward rather than forward.”

Staying Focused

After working with an executive coach and following the plan for organizational health described in Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage, Kramer determined that his leadership was the biggest challenge and barrier to making the cultural changes he envisioned. “I would whipsaw the organization in a million directions without giving employees the chance to make progress,” he says. “Once I stopped and allowed the team to focus on key areas for success and develop a rhythm and pace, the cultural progress started to come alive.”

During this period of growth, operational team members came back after a lean benchmarking trip to FastCap, lean expert Paul Akers’ facility in Washington state. “They were excited about his book, 2 Second Lean,” Kramer says. “They had met with Paul and learned that you can improve and prosper by taking something complex and making it simple. We started making simple changes and celebrating small improvements, opening up more dialog with our employees. The concept, embraced by our organizational leadership, also resonated with our executive team members and me because it focused on people growth and engagement. Because it was so simple to understand and was people-focused, the team was able to quickly share with others inside the company, and we haven’t looked back since.”

Akers strongly encourages readers to start their lean journey by learning to see waste, allowing people to “fix what bugs them,” and then to make short videos for sharing improvements with others.

“I remember how excited our leaders became about the concepts taught in 2 Second Lean. Their courage to try something new and experiment with videos was amazing,” says Marc Braun, president, who was the executive vice president of sales and marketing at the time. “Our marketing department had used video sparingly. We had a collection of several videos reflecting the ‘Cambridge Story,’ and little presence on YouTube. The company now has more than 4300 videos created by employees.”

Every employee is encouraged to make 1-min. videos. Some are accounts of rapid changes to eliminate wasted steps or prevent over-reaching at a workstation. Other videos reflect improvements over an extended period.

Ideas, Processes and Products

“For us, lean is about people and people growth,” says Greg Sitton, plant manager. “It’s not something that is simply implemented.” Key elements in creating lean understanding include lean classes for all new hires using 2 Second Lean as a guide, and then taking them out to the shop floor and asking them to stand there and look for the eight types of waste. “Within 10 minutes, they typically see 20 to 50 wastes,” Sitton says.

The company also gives employees time on the clock to read 2 Second Lean and to discuss the book in a team setting, encouraging employees to “go and see” waste and to develop remedies for eliminating waste in their work areas. This expectation reflects a significant transition from Cambridge’s initial lean efforts, when senior leaders and engineers usually initiated lean improvements.

“That idea only works for owners of the company,” says Sitton. “We realized that we needed more people who buy into the culture. Now we develop people with a sense of trust, who are able to see waste and fix what’s bugging them, and they now respond as owners.”

Fast Start for New Employees

Cambridge Engineering associate Justin Meade shares improvement experiences with tour visitors.
New employees are encouraged to jump right into lean improvements at Cambridge. Justin Meade, a general laborer who works on wiring panels, says he got started with lean during his first week nearly three years ago.

“When I first started an assembly job, it wasn’t very fun,” says Meade. “Then, after seeing some of the others’ videos, I started on improvements—first a small project, putting tools that were scattered all over onto a shadow board.” Over a period of six months, Meade developed a cart furnished with parts, plus a trash can and tools needed to eliminate wasted movement and space during his daily tasks. He made videos of several improvement iterations, modifying and later eliminating the old cart. Along the way, he got help from a sheetmetal team member, a welder and others in creating a new cart. Now, tools and parts are in one area.

“It used to take an hour-and-a-half to do a particular job. Now the process takes 20 to 25 minutes per unit,” says Meade. “I just went ahead with it, after talking with my team lead, Scott Moore, who encouraged me to make the changes.”

Meade says he continues to gain improvement ideas and inspiration from participation in morning employee meetings. “I like that everyone here is updated about how the company is doing financially,” he says. “We’re also encouraged to give input on company goals.”

Cultivating the Culture

Attracting potential employees who will support the Cambridge collaborative approach is crucial to the company’s long-term success, says Meg Brown, human resources director. “We attract people who enjoy being problem solvers, and being given the ability to make changes,” she says. “This gives us a huge competitive advantage in this tight labor market.”

The company culture at Cambridge has resulted in a high employee retention rate, says Brown. “People like the freedom to change things that bug them, and to be supported in their work environment.” Brown adds that training and development investment will continue to evolve as Cambridge leadership continues to strive for organizational health and alignment in all areas.

Finding frequent opportunities to celebrate employees and their ideas for improvement also contributes greatly to the company culture. All-company, 15-min. meetings led by employee volunteers occur daily at 8:30 a.m. “The morning meeting provides an enormous opportunity for growth across the company,” says Bruce Kisslinger Jr., director of manufacturing.

The meetings start with stretching and leaders sharing anything they would like. Employees then share gratitude for each other and for what brings them joy before watching employee videos. Finally, company announcements and company metrics for safety, quality, delivery and revenue are covered.

Learning Through Exposure

Mike Taylor, who works in pre-paint, is a volunteer member of the Cambridge external lean exposure team. “About 10 of us are in charge of finding other companies doing lean, so that we can learn from them,” says Taylor of the team’s efforts, adding that the goal is to have every Cambridge employee visit at least one other lean facility. “We try to take one nugget from each place we visit to use in our lean projects. For example, one of the main things we focus on is visual cues throughout the plant—labeled parts, visual cues for replacing parts so that you can go ahead and order parts while you keep working. We have the freedom to make our lives easier.”

Taylor adds, “When I first joined the company, I did not want to take part in lean. Now it has become second nature. I haven’t always been an outgoing person, now I run meetings in front of the whole company. It’s our job as line workers to teach others.” Sharing information with others through improvement-project teamwork and videos (he creates about one per week) helps everyone eliminate problems. “If I’m struggling, I can see how others made changes,” says Taylor.

Simplicity and Spreading the Word

Leadership continues to hone its strategic-planning process, initiatives reflecting lean progress and means for communication throughout the organization. Having a three- to nine-month “thematic goal” or rallying cry, with defining objectives, has been a primary method for building alignment during the past five years. Beginning in 2017, a three-year strategic plan is in place to help drive longer-term decision making towards a common vision.

“Our three-year plan has helped the teams focus and continue to increase engagement,” Braun says. “For example, one of our initiatives for 2017 is that every employee will spend at least a half-day learning by benchmarking at another company.”

The company’s primary method for sharing strategic plans and goals with employees and asking for their feedback is the daily all-company meetings. Last year, executive committee members also asked employees, in groups of 10 to 12 at a time, about their feedback on these plans, and made changes, such as reducing the number of initiatives, based on feedback received.

What’s Next?

In the coming year, developing standard work will be a major area of focus, as Cambridge continues to drive for the next level of quality systems, according to Braun. “What’s good is that our people are asking for it,” he says. “It is employee-driven, enhancing our ability to innovate rather than stifling it. Also, using scrum methodologies to increase the speed of product innovation through our engineering teams is a next evolution for using the same level of experimentation in this area, which will deliver rapid value to our clients.”

Cambridge also is ramping up efforts to utilize its continuous improvement engine to build a world-class safety culture. “We have a culture that cares deeply, but intend to focus more of our continuous improvement time on building a zero-incident mindset across the company,” says Braun. “We want to demonstrate that safety and innovation cultures can be built simultaneously. We’re learning, having a blast, and building a powerful and sustainable growth engine.” MF

Lea Tonkin is a freelance writer in Woodstock, IL. Her article is an edited reprint from the winter 2017 edition of Target, published by the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, www.ame.org. For more on Cambridge Engineering, visit www.cambridge-eng.com.

Industry-Related Terms: Nugget, Run
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms

Technologies: Management


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