What can lean do for you?

Wm. Craig Bonham
NTEA Board Chairman
Vice President, Commercial Vehicle
Safe Fleet
Belton, Missouri

This article was published in the December 2019 edition of NTEA News.

My years in the dealer, racing and commercial vehicle communities have given me great experience streamlining process flow. During my NASCAR days, the team worked to efficiently stage and change tires, prepare the pit, check air gun functionality, and optimize gas can and jack positioning, with the ultimate goal of getting the win. The best racing teams don’t take unnecessary steps but shorten them for speed.

From the track to the kitchen, I can remember watching my grandmother make Thanksgiving dinner. Her process was a work of art. It amazed me that everything was ready at the same time; her kitchen was a well-oiled machine, and so efficient. She knew where everything was located and had her supplies perfectly placed for ease of use. This was her form of a lean discipline — she called it “Rose’s Way.” 

From kitchen to work trucks, I’ve found the same basic concepts apply in our industry. Today, at Safe Fleet, we’ve made strides to enhance customer value while minimizing waste by engaging lean disciplines in our day-to-day business. It’s a journey that has helped our team start to shift focus from isolated technologies, departments and assets to flow optimization of our products through the entire value stream. While we have eliminated significant waste, there’s more to accomplish not only in the manufacturing environment but also in the front end of the business. Adopting lean taught us to look at the business holistically rather than individual aspects of the environment. These activities have freed space throughout the business, shortened our lead-time to build quality products, and helped us invest in new technologies and enter new verticals.

Another reward of implementing lean involves response time to our changing customer needs and wants. To win today, you have to be fast and efficient while delivering high quality. People like my grandmother, who are great at something, develop their own version of lean. It’s about removal of obstacles, distractions and clutter. Today, the demands for speed to market mean things can be chaotic without a systematic and organized approach. These demands will not go away any time soon. 

I see the lean journey being embraced by companies throughout the industry. Why do I call it a journey? It does not happen overnight; you must observe and make adjustments to improve process flow, eliminate waste, increase productivity and efficiency, and gain profitability. It’s successful when daily improvement is the goal.

Many may become uneasy when they hear the term lean. I sure did. But when I saw the benefits of this approach, I became an advocate. Don’t be frightened by lean. It involves getting rid of clutter — the disruptive, inefficient flow in business that forces people to work harder instead of smarter. It’s about making physical adjustments like where raw materials are received and getting them to the necessary location in fewer steps. It’s about using a cart with all necessary inventory at the installation area instead of running back and forth every time you need something.

Keep in mind, lean takes time (and patience), but it can be personally and professionally rewarding. I’ve seen people start frustrated with lean implementation to ultimately teach the concepts in their department. In many instances, improvements made on the shop floor come from collaboration during the process flow review. It helps employees feel more enthusiastic about their work.

I’m always looking for more ways to dive deeper into lean strategies. If interested, join me at Manufacturer and Distributor Innovation Conference in March at The Work Truck Show® 2020 as it will cover lean techniques in detail and would be a great starting point for adopting these principles in your operation.