Lean leads by example

Although the road to continuous improvement is long with many a winding turn, Mike Richardson discovers how a Lean training initiative has enabled Tufnol Composites to significantly reduce its costs and increase productivity.

Sometimes we all need a fresh pair of eyes to better see our way ahead in business. Well-worn phrases like ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ and ‘out of the box thinking’ have found their way into modern business parlance, yet their implicit meanings do still hold an element of truth.

There’s also the belief that ‘we know best’ and that if any production improvements do need to be made within our organisation, then the team responsible for its running are clearly best placed to make them. But sometimes we all need a helping hand and a fresh pair of eyes, so to speak.

Birmingham-based manufacturer, machinist and stockist of high performance laminates, composites and engineering plastics, Tufnol Composites decided to embark on a Lean training initiative in a bid to expand its manufacturing capabilities and up-skill its workforce. The company enlisted the help of Lean training provider, Lean Education And Development Limited (LEAD), to work with teams of employees on projects tailored to their specific areas.

LEAD has been delivering Lean training projects to a growing number of large manufacturing businesses, and was introduced to Tufnol by GKN Aerospace who was promoting the deployment of Lean throughout its supply chain.

“We started introducing Lean practices some time ago,” begins Tufnol’s managing director, Roy Thomason. “Through our membership with the Midlands Aerospace Alliance, we were introduced to people that could help us on this journey. It’s important that we maintain very close ties with our key customers. In this instance, GKN Aerospace was very keen for us to embrace Lean principles, so we began by taking part in some supply chain improvement groups that were led and sponsored by GKN and this started us off on the road.

“They’ve been very supportive – and vocal too about our progress, which demonstrates that if we do the right thing then we will get the support we need from key customers. It’s no longer an adversarial, but a collaborative approach. What GKN has done is impart its own Lean philosophies so that we are now both singing from the same song sheet.”

Thomason points out the fact that Tufnol’s present manufacturing facility was built during the 1920s and that if anyone was really serious about Lean manufacturing principles, then they certainly would never have laid out the factory today like the way Tufnol’s was done way back then.

“Nowadays it’s very important to get the manufacturing processes much more connected and improve the flow through,” he continues. “In our view, ‘Lean’ means improving the workflow throughout the factory in a sensible and efficient way. One of the key outcomes of Lean is the elimination of waste and unsurprisingly, one of our biggest wastes was repetitive and iterative movement, such as people having to walk and move product from one part of the factory to another. We’ve spent a lot of time concentrating our efforts on obtaining a smaller working footprint to ensure our working environment occupies only the space it needs.”

I ask how well the Lean approach has been adopted by the employees at Tufnol. Were there any dissenting voices and perhaps a reluctance to let go of legacy work practices?

“Like many long-established companies our workforce has seen it all, but it’s important we understand that they are the people with all the knowledge,” clarifies Thomason. “For example, one of our employees has been with the company for 44 years. He’s seen it all before and yet he’s one of the biggest contributors. He’s become empowered and is a valuable provider in disseminating his knowledge with the rest of the team.

“What is really attractive about LEAD’s approach is that for the first time, people involved in the initiative will receive some kind of recognised academic accreditation at the end of the training. It also helps to up-skill our employees and makes them more marketable too.”

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, some might see the reliance on a third party consultancy to help them better identify Lean-driven improvements as an unnecessary step, i.e. surely as owners of your own systems you should be best placed to optimise them. In hindsight, has LEAD really helped Tufnol overcome the hurdles it couldn’t have done by itself?

“LEAD has a fresh pair of eyes and although we as a company are probably best placed to see what is wrong, LEAD facilitates this process and help keep us focused on what we continually need to be doing,” notes Thomason. “They’ve almost blended in to become part of the company; our people no longer see them as ‘outsiders’ and they are very much a part of our process.”

One of the positive future developments spinning out of Tufnol as a result of undergoing its Lean training initiative will be the company’s first forays into the resin infusion process.

“We have a growing business in resin infusion, and as it employs all the resin systems and reinforcements we already use, it’s a logical step for us to take,” Thomason concludes. “It’s allowed us to create a manufacturing area that is far more efficient than it would have been, had we not benefited from the Lean training initiative. We’ve concentrated on how the production area will be laid out, optimise the workflow to the area and ensure that minimum waste is expended in terms of movement and materials.

“In terms of starting new processes within our factory, the Lean training initiative has given us the tools to know exactly what to do. Our employees have been given the skills to perform all these production improvements, without the management team needing to hire expensive business consultants. With our kind of history, we must continue to keep pace with new business initiatives – if we want to remain competitive in this industry. Training initiatives like Lean help keep us at the forefront.”


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