About 15 years ago, Continental Refrigerator, a commercial refrigeration and freezer equipment manufacturer based in Bensalem, Pa., faced a 21st century reality. With customers demanding products with a greater degree of customization on ever shorter timetables, the company had to find a way to maximize its efficiency, both on the production floor and throughout the rest of the business.
“In our company, we’ve always preached two major themes,” says Brian Kelly, company president. “The first is take care of the customer. The second is ownership—every employee has to have a feeling of ownership in what they do that benefits them and the company as a whole.”
That customer-centric perspective and the demands on the company’s production capabilities led Kelly and the management team to investigate and ultimately adopt lean manufacturing principles. “Lean manufacturing allows all of our employees to accomplish our No. 1 goal of taking care of the customer,” Kelly says, “by standardizing our processes, improving efficiencies and productivity and reducing waste.”
Principles of the lean philosophy originated with Benjamin Franklin’s common-sense aphorisms in Poor Richard’s Almanack and The Way To Wealth. The concept was adopted and refined by many Japanese companies in the 1980s, most notably Toyota, whose experiments with just-in-time manufacturing and “kaizen” improvement teams began in 1934 when it switched from producing textiles to cars.
When Continental began using the practice in 2004, Kelly knew the company had to embrace the entire philosophy and not try to implement it piecemeal. That meant changing the company’s way of thinking to a focus on process improvements that would make everyone more efficient.
“Lean is a never-ending journey,” Kelly says. “It doesn’t happen overnight, and the right move today can change over time. That’s the nature of business. Customer expectations, government regulations and new advances in technology can all lead to more lean initiatives and continuous improvements. We always want to be better.”
Continental uses three key principles of lean to help reduce or eliminate these wastes—one-piece flow; the 6 S’s; and kaizen events. Each of these provides process improvements and workplace efficiencies. Applied together, however, they provide a framework for continuous improvement that adapts to virtually any situation.
One-piece flow is the adaptation of customization to assembly line manufacturing techniques. Instead of manufacturing products in batches—setting up an assembly line to build a set number of a particular product model, for example—one-piece flow allows employees to customize each product as it comes down the line. It also allows employees to better spot production bottlenecks, potential product defects, and has the advantage of reducing inventory and cutting downtime.
The 6 S’s
Workplace efficiency is optimized by using the 6 S’s—Safety, Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain. “These are to-dos that can be applied to any workspace,” says Kelly, “whether it’s on the factory floor or in the office. The objective is to provide a work area that’s safe; sorted or decluttered; set, which means a place for everything and everything in its place; shined or cleaned thoroughly to help quickly identify any problems like a leaking hose (or leaky ball point pen); standardized with a daily checklist; and sustained or audited to make corrections and improvements.
“The hardest S is ‘sustain,’” he continues. “How do you keep important things in place and still improve on it. It’s easy to fall into complacency, but in busy months like now you really have to be on top of things to keep up.”
Changes like the switch to R-290 also shake things up, making employees reassess their own workstations to accommodate new components. The company trained employees how to use new charging equipment and new ultrasonic welders. Employees also learned the procedures for changing out R-290 tanks and preventive maintenance for the new equipment.
Kaizen, the Japanese word for improvement, is incorporated into the process on a continual basis, particularly on the production floor. Work instructions have been standardized for all processes, such as product assembly, machine operation and customer service software. Time studies are generated to provide standardized production rates for each work area. These baselines are used to train new employees and cross-train employees within each department.
Cross-training provides multiple advantages, including increasing productivity, and providing flexibility to cover breaks, vacations, and illnesses. It also helps reduce injuries, aids in shifting demand, and gives employees paths to advancement. Those who know the most and equally important, can do the most, make the most.
Another benefit of cross-training is the acceleration of the improvement process and development of best practices. When employees know how to do multiple tasks, they can more easily see bottlenecks occurring and step in to help others. They also bring a different perspective to each task, and can offer suggestions for improvements. “We have fostered a culture where mini kaizen meetings occur throughout the shift as waste is identified and addressed with solutions,” Kelly says. “As a follow up to our daily meetings, we have weekly kaizen team meetings to document newly discovered waste, brainstorm solutions, and review open continuous improvement projects.”
Most kaizen events are focused on implementing the 6 S process on a work area with the goal of sorting out any clutter, arranging all required items to minimize motion, creating standardized locations, and thoroughly cleaning everything. The team typically consists of area workers, leads, a supervisor, an industrial engineer, and sometimes a maintenance tech. All supplies needed for an event are provreided such as cleaning supplies, floor marking materials, label makers and shadow boards for organizing hand tools.
“We’ve challenged our team to find the best way to manufacture a quality product,” Kelly says. “The team’s solution could be anything from a workstation re-layout to maximize an employee’s efficiency to a plant area redesign to maximize production output.”
The company also invests in new technology whenever it makes sense, adding robotic welders, robotic panel benders, multiple new laser punch presses, and state-of-the-art charging stations and labs for R-290 to the production floor. Employees enthusiastically welcome the improvements because the technology enables them to perform their jobs more safely and do more for customers.
“The small, incremental improvements add up to big improvements,” Kelly says. “We now manufacture more than 2,500 line items and can customize them to meet our customer’s needs; our No. 1 goal is taking care of the customer. We’ve reduced waste such as excess inventory, machine and assembly line downtime, workstation square footage and improved final output. Continually receiving industry awards and adding to our customer base each year supports our lean efforts. This makes everyone on our hard-working crew a winner.”