Success Story - Avtron

“The thing about Lean is, it’s common sense … it’s just not common practice,” observes Michael Scheiman with a good-natured grin.

Scheiman is Vice President of Operations for Avtron, a worldwide leader in the design and manufacture of electrical control and test equipment for multiple industrial segments.

Avtron’s management team has a deep commitment to growth and using continuous improvement practices to increase capacity and improve customer service. So, after spending nearly six years with the company as a contract consultant assisting with shop-floor Lean projects, Scheiman joined the staff full time in 2006 as Director of Continuous Improvement.

Scheiman faced a unique challenge because Avtron was actually three separate businesses serving different industry segments with distinctly different needs:

  • Avtron Aerospace, Inc.
  • Avtron Industrial Automation, Inc. and
  • Avtron LoadBank, Inc. (a company that was acquired by Emerson Electric in March 2012).

At that time, the company had five manufacturing facilities in the Cleveland area, one in New Hampshire and a sister company in the United Kingdom.

“Sometimes we do a continuous improvement project for Avtron Industrial Automation that we can replicate for Avtron Aerospace,” Scheiman says. “But often times the sales process is different, the quoting process is different. So they don’t completely cross over.”

This complexity explains why management decided in 2009 to invest in a training program to develop the Lean Office project facilitation skills of three department-level associates and followed up with a second training program for three more facilitators in 2010.

“As a company, we already had a lot of experience with implementing lean projects on the shop floor,” says Scheiman. “Management began to realize that the biggest benefit would now come from optimizing business processes: sales, engineering, order management, master scheduling, and procurement.”

Working with MAGNET

To develop the in-house talent needed to continue growing the company’s Lean culture, Avtron chose MAGNET’s Workforce & Talent Development consulting team to deliver two “Train the Trainer” Lean Office projects in 2009 and 2010.

“Most manufacturers start with Lean on the shop floor,” observes Bob Schmidt, Growth & Innovation Advisor at MAGNET. “Then they realize applying lean to transactional processes in the office will yield even bigger benefits. The challenging part of lean in an office environment is that it takes a bit more work to find out where the waste is.”

The MAGNET team was charged with developing Lean event facilitator skills for a select group of existing company employees, who would then independently assist their colleagues by identifying and leading Lean office projects. The MAGNET team included Schmidt, Michael O’Donnell, Growth & Innovation Advisor, Becky Kemp, Senior Training Specialist and Mary Ann Pacelli, Senior Workforce Development Consultant.

“The biggest challenge is to help the company define some way of selecting people who are going to be successful at this,” says Pacelli. “This involves two aspects: first, learning technical skills with the Lean tools; and, secondly, learning or improving communication skills including team building, conflict resolution, and team time management.”

Pacelli notes that many of the challenges faced are not so much on the technical side, but on the “people skills” side. So picking the employees to invest in is critical.

Selecting the Right People

“We help our companies find the right people with our self assessment tools,” Pacelli says. “After taking a self-assessment, some people realize they aren’t going to be comfortable in a facilitator role and opt out.”

Eighteen employees who had been recommended by their managers completed a detailed online form that assessed leadership potential. This was followed by in-person interviews. Six individuals were selected in the final cut for Avtron’s new Lean Office Team.

The self-assessment results also helped the MAGNET team plan the customized training program. Knowing what the trainees thought were their own strengths and weaknesses helped determine where the MAGNET team spent time and resources during the training phase.

First, MAGNET’s consultants led the Avtron team through a two-day Lean office overview workshop that included instruction in Lean principles and terms, and a hands-on Lean office simulation project. During the same two-day intensive, communication and team building skills were taught and practiced in role playing exercises.

“These full-day training sessions are intense,” admits Pacelli. “But because the work is so interactive, breaking the training up into smaller chunks doesn’t work as well. Everyone needs a chance to practice, right then and there so they don’t lose focus.” She notes that those who actually goes through the training usually agree that full-day sessions are necessary.

Next, each team member was assigned to observe one of the MAGNET consultants leading a Lean Office kaizen event. Next, the Avtron trainee would co-facilitate an event along with a MAGNET consultant. Finally, each trainee led their own kaizen event, while the MAGNET coach observed. After this third event, each Avtron team member received private, one-on-one feedback from the MAGNET coach.

Finally, the Avtron staffers each facilitated their own Lean kaizen event independently and later reviewed the results and conducted a SWOT analysis of their own performance with the MAGNET team.

As part of their training, the Lean Office Team participated in coursework and hands-on activities covering essential Lean topics, including:

  • Kaizen selection
  • Kaizen chartering
  • Kaizen facilitation
  • Advanced value stream mapping
  • Lean metrics
  • Audits and sustainability
  • Coaching & Skill Development
  • Facilitator Training
  • Project Management
  • Evaluating ROI

Scheiman says calculating return on investment (ROI) for Lean projects can be pretty straight forward, but when it comes to Lean Office projects, sometimes the benefits come in unexpected ways.

“We were about to install a new CRM tool,” Scheiman recalls. “But, as a result of the engineering group doing a cost-estimating Lean event and seeing the result, they had one of those ‘Aha!’ moments. Although they’d been resistant to the idea at first, now they themselves pushed to do a Lean Office event on our sales processes—from first customer contact to receivables—before we embarked on installing the new CRM.”

For that timely event, Scheiman identified more than $50K in savings on just training and consultant’s fees for the software installation.

“An added benefit was that the subsequent implementation of the new CRM package was greatly accelerated thanks to the process map the team already had developed,” Scheiman adds. “And I know we avoided an untold number of delays that you typically see with a new software installation.”

“Another typical Lean Office project output is what I call ‘best-practice learning’,” says Schmidt. “Once you have a cross-functional group all together in one room, they start sharing and find out the different ways their co-workers are tackling common tasks. Frequently everyone in a department will finally agree to adopt a best practice.”

Schmidt says he noticed this happening at Avtron, especially with the company’s field service reps who don’t often get to meet each other.

“I was impressed by the results the teams achieved,” agreed MAGNET’s O’Donnell. “It was exciting to see the growth and effectiveness of the facilitators and their skills as they worked with their teams. I believe that the support of Avtron leadership and sponsors was crucial in the success of the projects, and sustaining the results of the teams.”

Continuous Improvement Going Forward

With the sale of one of the company’s business units in March 2012, Avtron lost a couple of the facilitators trained three years earlier. However, Scheiman says Avtron will not hesitate to work with MAGNET when its ready to train another group of in-house Lean facilitators.

“One of MAGNET’s greatest assets is its local presence,” says Scheiman. “This is not someone flying in from some other part of the country. They have a local knowledge of our region’s resources. And they always have as their goal to transfer the skills you need so you can become independent. That’s why we chose MAGNET.”

Economic Impact:
Increased Sales: $1,550,000
Other Savings: $505,000
Capital Investment: $405,600
Jobs Created: 1