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Getting "Lean"

Rod Matthews, Managing Partner, Southern Vinyl Manufacturing, LLC

I have nearly thirty years of experience in the building materials industry. In 2002 I was interested in investing in a segment poised for rapid growth, and after extensive research I found Southern Vinyl Manufacturing. The company, which started in 1997, manufactures PVC fence and rail systems. We sell these products to building material professionals throughout the Southeast and are in the middle of expanding nationally. We need to be very good at what we do. Otherwise, why grow?

When I became involved in the company, there were ten employees working out of a 1500-square-foot, two-bay garage. Input materials and discards were everywhere, and there was no rhyme or reason in how we were organized. It was a typical small fabrication business. Dean Ervin, my business partner who started the company, often called it Santa's workshop.

Three months later, the company moved into a new, larger facility that was ten times the size of the old one. We were ready for growth. We began setting up multiple manufacturing lines in a manner that we thoug2ht made sense, and we brought with us a lot of our old practices and procedures. After a year or so, however, we discovered unless we made dramatic changes, profitable growth would elude us.

"Sure I Like Change . . . You Go First."

Bringing in change was hard, but necessary. We recruited a seasoned plant manager who really knew his stuff. He knew his first job was to get each and every employee involved in changing the business.

In 2004, the plant manager and I attended a one-day seminar on Lean Manufacturing. After the training, I immediately approached the trainer, who was with North Carolina State University Industrial Extension Service (IES), and hired him on the spot as a Lean consultant. IES supports manufacturing businesses in the workplace. We realized immediately this organization has professional engineers who know how to teach Lean Manufacturing. Lean was how we were going to engage our employees.

We took the leap.

If you ask me what about our business is different because of Lean, I would need to tell you everything: our business processes, our quality, our space, how our space is organized, how we produce, how we move and how the processes flow, how we invest in inventory, how we look at the work, how we solve problems, how we manage change, how we get the employees involved in the business. Every aspect of our business has been touched by Lean principles.

Lean is based on a fundamental proposition: What does the customer want from a process? Then we separate value-added work from non-value-added work. Value-added work is, of course, what the customer is willing to pay us for.By becoming more efficient at the work that does not add value (the counting, checking, waiting, moving, sorting, and so forth), we can serve our customers much better.

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