AME Conference Leans toward improvement

Joe Fisher, the AME Toronto 2013 Conference Chair, talks about Lean manufacturing and its benefits

September 18, 2013

The 2013 Association for Manufacturing Excellence conference heads to Toronto on Oct. 21-25 for a week of discussions on Lean manufacturing and driving waste out of the manufacturing process. Joe Fisher, manager of operational excellence for Eaton Canada and the AME Toronto 2013 Conference Chair, talked about some of his Lean journeys and what attendees at this year’s AME Conference will gain from this year’s event: 

PE: For those manufacturers just getting started with Lean manufacturing, what will be their most visible benefits from the start?

Fisher: The most obvious visual benefits from the start will be the sense of a workforce that, person-by-person, will gradually become more and more positive and engaged as they begin to realize that they really do have the ability to make a difference in the work they do. The experience many companies report is a decrease in the “general clutter” of their operation along with noticeable improvements in order, cleanliness, and ultimately the feeling that everyone is in a safer environment. While the rate of change depends on management’s support and commitment— many report customers recognizing performance and attitude differences—some being so surprised, they take time to pass on their appreciation both verbally and in writing. 

PE: For a company such as yours, which has used Lean practices for a long time, are there still surprises? How hard is it to still find Lean benefits?

Fisher: Amazing surprises come continually from companies who recognize that some 75% of the waste and poor processes in their facilities are there because they live in them every day. Companies report that firms who welcome tours, take tours, and promote upstream and downstream interaction in their own facilities are constantly receiving surprises. Since the AME Conference presenters are restricted to practitioners, many come away with surprises from the jolts received from peers who think quite differently.

Every process, in virtually any industry, harbors waste waiting to be uncovered, reduced, and eliminated for years to come. Real continuous improvement isn’t about jumping from process to process, but rather understanding every time you cycle through the same process on a regular basis for extended periods—more waste will become visible.

It is not uncommon that the fifth or sixth time a team attacks the same process that more improvement is achieved than from the first time. And that is a fact because a team gets smarter and gains capability and a deeper understanding of the principles as time moves on. New improvements allow a team to see things they did not see until the previous improvement was made.

When the surprises occur, they are usually associated with excitement around creativity and innovation that is actually growing and maturing employees. These are often huge contributors to your leading edge— and the concept that processes cannot be improved vanishes. 

PE: At this year’s AME conference, one emphasis is in improving collaboration. How can you take advantage of modern communication and connectivity tools to accomplish this goal? What have been your experiences in this area?

Fisher: Social media is no replacement for personal interaction based on trust and respect. However, it has truly extended the speed and breadth by which sharing, interaction, and learning can improve. AME, and its members, constantly are learning how to exploit them. This is making a difference in the potential for accelerated employee development, but again, nothing rivals the power of the one-on-one relationships built through networking, sharing, and mutual trust.

AME conferences, which have long been noted for the built-in networking they provide, continue to enable attendees to build career-long peer relationships as well as trusted networks they can call on to solve some of those unique daily problems without hesitation when help is asked for. Beyond powerful one-on-one colleague relationships, consortia have proved to be powerful methods for collaborative learning and sharing with each other.

AME has recognized the value of these consortia relationships and in 2009 began launching them. In this year’s AME Conference in Toronto, there will be a consortia program that links not only the individual members present, but also growing consortium-to-consortium relationships that will be drawn on long after the conference.  

PE: Another key goal for the conference is delivering information on reducing waste. In your view, which is wasted more often, time or materials? And how do you reduce waste in each area?

Fisher: Waste exists in all organizations in large quantities and in many forms. This year’s conference focuses on that challenge of building true end-to-end horizontal value stream flows—from customer need to customer fulfillment—while transforming vertical silo processes to truly support the horizontal creation of value. To that end, AME believes that time ultimately is the biggest waste and generates the most return when attacked.

Taiichi Ohno, the Godfather of the Toyota Production System (TPS), once said when referring to TPS, “All we are doing is looking at the time line, from the moment a customer gives us an order until we collect the cash. And we reduce the time line by reducing the non-value add wastes.”

The real power of focusing on time waste, and the resulting compression of cycles, is that this creates a real—and rapid—competitive advantage. The spinoff benefits from this focus, which is always focused on the customer, determines the difference between winners and losers. When manufacturers truly eliminate time waste from their value streams, they free up costs, increase cash, improve quality and delivery, and reduce the assets required to generate revenue. 

PE: Lean is about production improvement, but it’s also about management improvement. What has Lean taught you as a manager that has helped you deliver better results for your staff?

Fisher: Lean has taught me that my primary role is not to manage as a boss, but to lead as a coach and teacher. That is responsibility which includes growing my people every day. It has also taught me that my impact is severely limited if I stay in my office and meeting rooms. It has taught me that there is no more valuable place to spend my time than in the Gemba (the place where work is done as customer value is added).

My real job lies in supporting the value creators, helping them break through and solve their problems, by coaching, developing their process flow capabilities, helping them solve problems, and never ceasing to drive continuous improvement. Ultimately it has taught me that I need to learn to listen more, to become a truly people-centric leader, and that I need to learn how to ask the right questions rather than give the right answers. During all of this it has taught me to always, always, show respect for people.

This year’s AME conference will offer a number of practitioner based best practice presentations on great leadership lessons for a world-class lean environment. 

PE: I’m sure it’s hard to pick one or two, but what areas of this conference are you most excited about?

Fisher: These conferences give me such an opportunity to recalibrate my perception of the big picture for manufacturing and the trends. However, I am most excited about catching up with and networking with old friends and colleagues, as well as building new learning and sharing relationships with others. I don’t think there is any one type of or specific learning opportunity that excites me more.

This program is so jam-packed with great tours, workshops, best practice presentations, keynote addresses, and special interest sessions that I know I will return stimulated to do more. I am truly excited about the fantastic learning program as a whole and look forward to selecting from a wide range of great events, the areas I am seeking more of my own personal development in this year.

In brief:  

  • 2013 AME Conference
  • October 21-25, Toronto
  • The 2013 conference features a series of keynotes from top industry leaders, a wide array of plant tours throughout the Toronto area, and more than 40 workshops put on by industry leaders. The overall conference goal is to discuss how innovative, Lean practices can help deliver operational excellence and drive waste out of your organization.