In early 2010 I attended an event hosted by plasma cutting systems maker ITT Kaliburn, near Charleston, S.C. That's when I met Joe McNamara. He had led ITT heat transfer unit's plant near Buffalo, N.Y., through a major lean manufacturing transformation.
A few weeks ago I caught up with McNamara, who has since moved on to other areas of the company; the Buffalo heat exchanger manufacturing plant now is operated by Xylem Inc. Throughout our chat, I kept asking about the typical lean stuff: How did the company's 5S program go? What value streams did you identify? What was the challenge of adapting your custom, made-to-order manufacturing operation to the tenets of lean manufacturing?
He obliged me with the details, but then kept coming back to one element he felt made the whole transformation possible: good communication, not only between shop floor workers but also (or perhaps especially) front-office personnel. They did it by tearing down barriers to communication, both literally and figuratively. They removed walls (again, literally and figuratively) between engineering, factory managers, purchasing, and quality.
“We knocked down walls constantly,” McNamara said. “We got to the point where we were functionally structured along value streams, so out on the factory floor we literally built enclosed rooms.” Those rooms were strategically placed only steps away from specific value streams on the floor.
Each focused factory had its factory manager, purchaser, planner, manufacturing engineer, and quality engineer working in close proximity. If a customer called and had a question about production, the engineer didn't have to transfer the call to anyone. He'd simply walk a few steps, talk to the front-line supervisors themselves, walk back and answer the customer's question—all in less than a minute.
“The level of emails back and forth, and the level of nonsense overall, really, dropped by 90 percent,” McNamara said.