Corporate Training Doesnt Always Occur In Classrooms

June 24, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — In a time when globalization is forcing Michigan workers and manufacturers to be more flexible than ever before, the requisite training more and more comes in high-tech packages.

But recently one of West Michigan’s prize-winning firms — the Hagen Exhaust Facility of Benteler Automotive — has been doing some cross-corporation training in an old-fashioned way: face-to-face right on the plant floor and eyeball to eyeball across the conference table.

Of course, the material being conveyed from worker to worker — not to mention engineer to engineer and executive to executive — is very much 21st century stuff.

Indeed, some of the training came in a best practices exposition last month concerning lean manufacturing for which Benteler this year received the Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing.

The firm was one of five companies in the large manufacturing judging category to receive the honor, which commemorates Shigeo Shingo, the late genius who helped engineer the Toyota production system and other related lean manufacturing processes.

But the best practices exposition was only one occasion this year in which Benteler has invited other area firms to bring representatives in for on-the-floor show-and-tell demonstrations on how to streamline manufacturing and eliminate waste.

The company reportedly has had a steady stream of visiting workers and managers from West Michigan firms, the idea being to help them see first hand the processes of lean manufacturing in operation.

Benteler’s prize, according to John Buchan, vice president of exhaust systems for Benteler, came at the end of a three-year pursuit of lean manufacturing implementation. He identified Scott Eisen, Benteler’s continuous improvement manager, as one of the key people in the change. The company also brought in consultants to help its staff work through the required changes.

But Benteler also had quite a bit of help from its friends: the other companies that were part of the Lean Enterprise User Group in which Benteler worked (and which it served as a host company for one year) by virtue of its membership on The Right Place Manufacturing Council.

The council’s user groups, regardless of the issue on which they happen to focus, are all comprised of manufacturers and, often, even competitors.

Despite that, the assorted firms’ representatives work closely together on general manufacturing goals.

The work entails doing research, doing homework, undertaking experiments in their respective plants, showing each other their results and seeking feedback from each other.

The idea is that the Grand Rapids area’s manufacturers are participants in widely differing industry segments and they can cross-pollinate in finding ways to cut costs and thereby enhance their employees’ productivity.

And, when one of the involved firms reaches a goal — such as Benteler’s prize — they can share in the findings and the progress that the prize recognizes. Winning the prize recognized, among other things, that Benteler had cut 40 percent of its waste costs.

From The Right Place Program’s standpoint, the idea is that all firms in the end can profit from their mutual assistance, and that the local and regional economy will be the more resilient and competitive for it.

Speaking of the prize, when it was awarded in April, Buchan said that in a tightening economy, it’s more critical than ever for suppliers to utilize lean manufacturing processes in order to offer their customers an excellent value. Buchan happens to be Benteler’s representative on Right Place’s Manufacturers Council.

“By honoring our lean manufacturing efforts, the Shingo Prize motivates our manufacturing operations and the entire Benteler Automotive team to continue our ongoing efforts to achieve ‘best-in-class’ recognition.”

In that connection, the company currently has two work cells that are focusing on the next level of concern: value stream mapping within the plant, and continuous flow processes.

Meanwhile, the local manufacturing council itself has asked The Right Place Program to start locating resources for two new parallel areas of exploration: first, sustainable development, in which industry can vault itself out front of governmental environmental regulations, and, second, integrated supply chain management.

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