Hi! Nice to meet you! My name is Rob Fletcher and this is my site: Lean Genesis.
I’d like to tell you a bit about myself: where I’ve been, what I’ve done, where I’m going.
I like my story and I hope you do too, so welcome to a glimpse into my professional past. I found my career beginning in an industrial park in Battle Creek, Michigan. I worked in a Japanese automotive companies for nearly 20 years. I started working as a temporary employee and climbed management ladder consistently over that time. I held many management positions during my career and when I left Japanese automotive, I was the Plant Manager with a high level of Lean Manufacturing influence. I was fortunate to have achieved this adventurous career mainly due to my curious personality, my love of solving problems and helping make other peoples jobs more enjoyable. I also had several really great mentors, a few of which I will mention later, and all of which I feel extremely fortunate to have known. I also was in the right place at the right time. It was the early 90’s and manufacturing was doing well. I worked in a company that had strong ties to Toyota and this is where I began my Lean journey. I will forever be grateful for each and every lesson that I learned and I hope I can take what I’ve been given and pay it forward.
My Lessons From a Lean Master
It was quite common for our Japanese Managers to spend a few years at the company and then they would have to go back to Japan. One of these exchanges brought a new General Manager to us. Evidently, something was very different about this one, though. I didn’t understand why, but a lot of our Japanese management, and even the management from surrounding companies were making a pretty big deal out of the new GM. That is when I met Mr. Ito. Very small in stature, but a huge, permanent smile on his face. He only knew a few words in English, but you could tell he was a humble and nice man.
Everything was pretty normal at first, but I started to notice that Mr. Ito spent an awful lot of time on the production floor. Most GM’s generally spent most of their time at their desks or in meeting rooms. Mr. Ito was particularly interested in our final assembly department. I had never managed that area, mostly because I was good with equipment and assembly didn’t have any. However, I did know that Assembly was usually behind on their production schedule and they had a reputation for an unfortunate abundance of quality issues. I was curious about what Mr. Ito was doing in the area with his clipboard and stopwatch, so I kept an eye on him, but from a distance. On most occasions, I saw him standing in the same spot for hours. Sometimes he’d scribble on his clipboard as he looked at his little grey stopwatch and then he’d walk to his desk, do something, produce a paper and he’d go back out to the line. I wanted to ask him some questions about this odd behavior I’d never seen before, but he didn’t speak English.
Eventually, Mr. Ito went into action. He brought our bilingual accountant out to the floor and gathered the management of the assembly area. With a big smile on his face and a bit of struggle, he managed to utter 3 English words: “One by One”. I had no idea what this was about, but it didn’t really hold my interest and I wasn’t impressed. I went about my business, until I started hearing the complaints.
- “That crazy guy is telling us that we can only work on one piece at a time.”
- “We have been doing this for a long time. We know what’s best!”
- “We will never be able to get our production out if we do it that way:.
I agreed. I didn’t know much about the department, but it didn’t seem like doing 1 product at a time was very smart, they would never get anything done that way. I shrugged it off and stayed busy in my own area.
He began anyway. Communicating through the bilingual accountant and watching the employees change the way they had done things for years. He would observe and constantly give direction to people. He’d step back, consult his stopwatch for a while and repeat. It didn’t take long before everyone started to see an extremely noticeable difference. Over the next couple of weeks, the department actually began to get on schedule, quality issues went to a record low and they even went from a 3 shift department working overtime, to a 2 shift department with very minimal OT. What the hell just happened! I couldn’t believe it! I’ve never seen results like this! This 20 something hotshot was no longer the act to beat.
Mr. Ito then began to take on his next project and it was a life changing event for me. One day, the president (and now my friend), Mr. Yori Ochi called me into a meeting room. He explained to me that they were going to do something for me that was going to make me very valuable. I was to be relieved of my production leader duties and study with Mr. Ito. He told me I had been chosen due to my ability to communicate effectively, lead people and because of my obvious passion for improving the manufacturing floor. Of course, I was interested to learn his technique, but I was yet to understand how great of an opportunity I was being presented with.
It was slow going in the beginning. I knew I just wasn’t quite getting it. I knew a handicap was the language barrier. We did have our bilingual accountant translating, but since translation was not his expertise, I could tell that I was missing out on a lot.
The Book that Changed My Outlook
Well, if I was going to learn anything, I needed to fill in some gaps. I went to the book store and bought a book that I thought might help. I looked through the limited selection of manufacturing related books, but I didn’t see anything that seemed to be related to efficiency. I did see a book titled ‘The Toyota Way‘ by Dr. Jeffery Liker and I had heard Mr. Ito say the words “Toyota Group” on many occasions, so I purchased it. As I was reading about the Toyota Production System (TPS), I started to understand “One by One”. One piece flow was a key piece of this revolutionary system that this man, Taiichi Ohno designed. So as I was halfway through the book, I took it to work and told Mr. Ochi, our president, that it was helping me understand what Mr. Ito was talking about. Mr. Ochi took the book to Mr. Ito and as he flipped through the pages Mr. Ito pointed to Taiichi Ohno’s name and said, “Ohno-san, my Sensei”. Translation: Mr Ohno was my teacher. What! I’m reading this book about this amazing system that changed the face of manufacturing that was invented by this amazing man and I’ve got one of his direct students standing right in front of me! Wanting to teach me! This is when I realized that I had been presented with an opportunity that I absolutely must take full advantage of. I told Mr. Ochi that it was imperative that I get someone who could translate full time and extremely well, which he did. We also bought cases of the book that helped me understand and distributed them to all of the office staff and all of the leaders on the floor.
My new hero, Miza joined the team as Mr. Ito’s translator, shortly thereafter. She was very smart and cared a lot about really understanding what Mr. Ito said and carefully making sure that I understood her translation completely. Plus, she got an added bonus of learning right along side of me. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t believe I would have been able to learn a fraction of what I did. For the next couple of years, the 3 of us spent a lot of time on the shop floor looking for improvement opportunities. We worked on things like one piece flow, visual factory, level loading, Andon, Poka-Yoke and many other wonderful lessons. We had countless sit down discussions going over basic TPS principles and philosophies. I was sent to Japan for more extensive training in a network of plants and I had the privilege of getting exposure to true TPS (Toyota Production System) in full practice. We even attended a conference with Dr. Liker that eventually led to a dinner meeting between Mr. Ito and the author of the book that was instrumental in helping me understanding my first lessons.
It was unbelievable how much positive change happened on the plant floor, how much I had learned and how much I enjoyed it. Now that it’s been 15 years, I am more aware now than I was then about what was actually happening. Mr. Ito eventually stopped teaching me details and began giving me larger projects to figure out on my own. I also would have “up and coming” leaders assigned to work directly with me so I could practice being a teacher of TPS.
Eventually, Mr. Ito had to leave and I continued practicing what I had learned. I was extremely happy and feeling good about my new skill. I had 14 years of seniority in the company and I’d learned the most advanced manufacturing technique any of us had known, I was feeling pretty special. That was about the time that I started wondering what I would be able to do outside of my comfort zone. I guess all of that conditioning to think outside of the status quo made me want to stretch my legs. I began to search for a new company to test my new-found ability in. There was a neighboring company that had a strong reputation for Lean and they had visited my company on one occasion to see our lean system in action. I decided to go to work for them.
A New Playground with New Lessons
Now it was time for Lean Training, Act II. I’ll never forget my first lesson. I went out to the floor and did what Mr. Ito and I had done, I kept my eyes open for improvement opportunities. One of my observations was that there were production lines that needed to be stocked with component parts, but there was no signal to communicate when the components were needed. Of course, this meant there was an opportunity for improvement. I believed Kan-Ban was the correct solution, so I sent an email to the leaders of the company, letting them know what I was planning on doing. It didn’t take long for me to get a response from the VP of operations (Kerry Fox) asking me about my PDCA. Now, Mr. Ito taught me many things, but somehow, PDCA was one thing we really didn’t go over in great detail. I had read about it, but there were so many skills that I was trying to develop, I obviously hadn’t paid close attention to all lessons.
Evidently, if I was going to implement anything in under Kerry’s watch, I was going to need to learn PDCA. So once again, I dove into research. I had learned so many valuable lessons up to this point, but as I learned more about PDCA, I knew this one had something a bit different. The more I studied, the more I started to understand how many mistakes I’d made in the past. I even took leadership of a Quality Circle team and created the PDCA style presentation that one 2nd place in a worldwide competition held in Japan. What a rush! Over the next few years, I learned many things about how to be a Lean Leader from Kerry, and I will definitely be sharing many of those anecdotes in some of the material on this site. To this day, I am thankful to Kerry for not letting me take the easy road and just implement an improvement just for the sake of doing something. PDCA is still one of my favorite lessons to pass on to others, because I believe that if more people/companies practiced good PDCA, they would be tremendously more successful.
Over the next several years, I traveled to many plants in several countries to learn, share and participate in lean activities. I met many great people and learned so many incredible things during my time with the people in that company. They are very committed to sharing what was learned across their multiple plants, so I learned so many great lessons and made so many great friends during that time. This is where I learned to really step up my game and polish my skills and I am very grateful for that opportunity.
Unfortunately, that plant fell victim to the massive amounts of plant closings during the recession and I found myself out of a job in a very difficult time to be typecast as an automotive leader. I started to work with smaller American companies practicing the skills I’d worked so hard to hone. It was almost too easy to implement a few tools and have a pretty substantial impact with almost no effort because none of them had really been exposed to an experienced Lean practitioner. The unfortunate thing was that none of them really had the deep desire to implement true Lean, so they didn’t hold my interest. I do want anyone reading this to know that it is absolutely possible to implement Lean Manufacturing in all kinds of companies, even smaller, build to order ones. You may need to modify some of the “text book” teachings, but that is actually true for any company. The worst mistake you can make is use the excuse that you can’t do lean because you are not high volume automotive.
So that leads me to current day and my vision for the future. I know in my heart that I have learned some very special lessons in my career up to this point. I feel that so many people have been so generous and passed their knowledge on to me and I feel obligated to pay it forward to as many people as I can. I have done my best to do so up to this point, but I feel that I can do better. I want to try to reach out and share what I have learned with as many people as I can. So, I have learned to build a blog site and I am going to continuously improve my blogging skills so I don’t bore you (at this time, I still have a lot to learn).
I am going to continue to make Power Point Presentations available to help illustrate the lessons that I would like to pass to you .
I am going to generate videos so I can make a personal connection with you.
I am going to respond to any and all emails that anyone would like to send me .
I am only one of many, many people in the lean community and I am happy to say that I am going to join those that are committed to spreading the knowledge of Lean and hopefully do it justice and help people on their lean journey. I hope you choose to follow my blog and I very much hope you participate in the discussions. In the spirit of team involvement, I would love for you to give me feedback or kaizen advice. Do you want to know what I REALLY want? I REALLY want to be able to help you learn to become true lean practitioners.