Thirty-nine years ago yesterday Ed Kittelson--with grinder in hand--spent his first day working at a fab shop in Anoka, Minn., northwest of Twin Cities. It was a homecoming of sorts. His parents had moved south to escape the cold, but Kittelson never felt quite at home. So the day after high school graduation, he packed his 1971 Chevy Vega hatchback and, long hair and all, headed back north to Anoka.
For years he spent time on the floor working the fabrication equipment of the day, punching sheet metal using a traditional duplicator stylus. He climbed the ladder to night shift supervisor, and then moved on to other manufacturers, working in sales and shop management; some jobs were great, others weren’t. In the early 1990s he found a two-person fab shop for sale, and he needed a $50,000 down payment on the loan to buy it. Where did he get the money?
“I kept getting these envelopes in the card from Visa,” he said. “Apply for a card, and you get a $5,000 cash advance. So on the day of closing [on the business sale], I went to 10 different banks with a Visa card and withdrew $5,000 from each in cash. I came to the table with a grocery bag of cash. I plopped it down, and that was my down payment.”
Kittelson, president of Micron Metalworks in nearby Ham Lake, told this tale to 30 smiling shop managers who attended this week’s LeanFab event in Anoka, organized by the Fabricator’s & Manufacturers Association, International®. His shop is well down the lean-manufacturing path. Tools are labeled and in their place. Employees have minimized and organized its raw stock inventory to the point where the remaining racks looked as if they were just for sheet remnants, not the main stock area. Work-in-process is minimal and, in some areas, hardly noticeable. People called “spiders” (a riff off of water spider or water strider from the Toyota Production System) ensure all jobs were pre-staged, so operators have all the tools and materials they needed to set up and start the next job. Manufacturing time for many jobs was reduced from weeks to days.
Considering Kittelson’s story, I'm not surprised about his company’s success with lean. Leaps of faith are part of a fabricator’s mettle. It certainly takes a big leap of faith to buy a job shop with a bagful (literally) of borrowed money, and it takes a big leap of faith to start down the lean path.
There’s something so very American about Kittelson and his background (including, of course, his Vega). Some of the great American success stories are about people who not only worked hard but also took seemingly crazy risks. For Kittelson, that leap of faith resulted in what is now a healthy, $10 million-a-year-plus business. Thirty-nine years ago, the 18-year-old, long-haired, Vega-driving kid wouldn’t have believed it.
God Bless America.