Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Notes from the Lean Symposium

This past Monday, the 29th of January, I participated in the Symposium on Lean Production held in Austin, Texas. The event was organized by the Manufactured Housing Research Alliance (MHRA) in conjunction with the Manufactured Housing Institute's annual Winter Meeting. MHRA has been working with several manufactured housing factories for the past 9 months for a project entitled "Manufacturing Innovation Through Lean Production." Here's some background on the project:
In April, delegates from each factory attended a week-long training session in Cincinnati to learn the basics of Lean. Then, we took this knowledge back to our factories and began the long journey of implementing it. Dewey Warden from Senco (a supplier to our industry) and Dr. Mike Mullens from the University of Central Florida worked hands-on with the factories mapping out our value-streams, performing Rapid Process Improvement (RPI) events, and working with management on implementation strategy. This occurred over the course of about 9 months, and is still happening today. Finally, all of the project participants came together in Austin this week to discuss what we had learned during the course of our project. That's the project in a nutshell.
Now that that's out of the way, I'd like to give you some of my notes from the symposium:
1) It was great to see good ol' factory guys up on stage, speaking candidly, using PowerPoint, answering questions from the audience, and pretty much enjoying the moment. Also, there seemed to be a genuine appreciation of their effort from the audience.

2) Every presentation made the point that there has to be buy-in from all levels for Lean to work. It can't be top down only, and it can't be shopfloor only. Everybody has to get involved in the decision-making process. It was emphasized that one of the difficulties that we've faced was the need for old school authoritarian types to let go of the reins for a minute and let the front-line guys do the driving.

3) There seems to be a consesus by everyone that Lean factory homebuilding has the potential to be the best solution to fulfilling housing needs. Dr. Darlene Williams, the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, spoke at the outset of the symposium, and indicated that her organization was committed to supporting Lean research in our industry. It was very encouraging.

4) It still amazes me that so many competitors can come together and share ideas, secrets, strategies, and experiences with each other even as the market has become more and more competitive. The idea is that we're entering a new phase in the history of homebuilding, and that we'll all have opportunities to make a difference. It's nice to see such cooperation and goodwill in the corporate world.

5) It's obvious that we have a long way to go before we can say that we know Lean. Some executives have a good comprehension of macro-level principles, and some factory guys have a solid grasp of micro-level techniques, but only a very few people have an understanding of the entire spectrum of Lean the way a Toyota sensei would. Don't get me wrong, it's not rocket science, but there are always deeper levels of undestanding that can and must be attained to become like Toyota.
Overall, it was a great experience. I came away feeling that more and more people are picking up on what we're trying to do, and that Lean can be used as a marketing tool in our industry. If people start to associate factory homebulding with Lean, then maybe the stigma of trailer parks and hurricanes will be replaced by a mental association with top-of-the-line manufacturing products, like say, the Lexus automobile. Of course, this correlation will never make headway until we make some headway into actually becoming lean. We've got a long row to hoe, but the journey should be enlightening.


BRIAN K said...

It would seem that one topic of discussion that is in the forefront locally is somewhat universal. We have had several comments in our blogs regarding everyone at all levels and areas "buying in" to Lean. According to your notes it looks like it was a key topic at the symposium as well. As I have said in the past, I believe this will ultmately determine how Lean we actually become. Our initial efforts are focused on the factories, but it is imperative that we remember that production is only one portion of our overall operation. "Lean" production facilities will bog down unless those entities that feed the factories and that the factories feed also become Lean.

craig s said...

What a great experience for you Mike. I think that Lean will be a necessary tool as our company moves more toward modular manufacturing and as the complexity of our product increases. Palm Harbor has led the industry in so many other areas, it would be great to see us lead the way with implementing a true Lean manufacturing philosophy.

Jordan Dentz said...

Mike - I think you accurately captured in your comments both the mood and spirit of the Lean Symposium. Thank you for your excellent summary. Look for the plant presentations to be posted on the MHRA website ( next week.