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Bruce Norlie (right), of Norfield Industries, meets monthly with other members of Manufacturing IDEAS at a local cafe. The group organizes visits to member companies to share quality techniques and solve problems. From left: Matt Johnson, TFI Corp.; Chris Mann, Roplast Industries Inc.; Kurt Nathan, Lundberg Family Farms.

by Laura Smith

Do It Yourself

When he envisions the future growth of Manufacturing Ideas, Bruce Norlie sees The Northwest Lean Networks as a template. NWLean, as it's commonly referred to, has 10,000 members in nearly 40 countries. Founder Bill Kluck was sharing information with a handful of other northwestern United States lean consultants during the late 1990s. In 1997, when the volume of their collective information simply got too large to maintain on their hard drives, Kluck built a simple Web site and NWLean was born. It quickly grew from a regional consultant's advice forum to an international networking group that still gets 100 new members a week.

"Once you put something on the Web, people find it," he says. "The network took off from there."

NWLean is an online forum that offers moderated discussions on everything lean, along with on-site seminars and lean certification. Membership is free, a characteristic that Kluck says is vital for any professional networking group, especially online groups. As the founder of the Internet's largest lean networking site, Kluck is sometimes contacted by lean professionals interested in starting their own regional groups. What he tells them is this:

• Focus on smaller manufacturing concerns, at least at first.

• Beware of "inbreeding" in the group. If the manufacturing capacity in the region is dominated by a particular industry, it's easy for regional lean groups to become overpopulated with representatives from that industry. This discourages other types of input into the group.

• Make sure that the membership is free.

• Foster member participation in every possible way, and be flexible to member concerns.

For more information, visit www.nwlean.net.



Kaizen: Refers to the Japanese process of continuous improvement using problem-solving and analysis techniques that may include fishbone diagrams, control charts, affinity diagrams and other tools.

Kanban: A concept related to just-in-time production; the inventory-storage process revolves around a pull system in which a supply batch is ordered only when a previous batch is withdrawn.

Value-stream mapping: A lean manufacturing technique that maps the flow of material and data--and associated time requirements--from initial supplier to end customer for a given business process.

Lean manufacturing: A production philosophy that emphasizes the minimization of the amount of resources--including time--used in various activities. It involves identifying and eliminating nonvalue-adding activities in all areas of the organization.

Six Sigma: A highly structured performance-improvement methodology that utilizes a variety of statistical and problem- solving tools. Developed by Motorola during the 1980s, Six Sigma focuses problem-solving and data-analysis techniques on issues that directly affect a company's bottom line.


Bruce Norlie had developed a reputation for getting fired up about new management practices he read about, so when he showed up for work one day several years ago speaking about two quality improvement books that he had recently read-- World Class Manufacturing: The Lessons of Simplicity Applied by Richard J. Schonberger (Free Press, 1986) and The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt (North River Press, Second Edition, 1992)--the people in his company must have known that big changes were ahead.

They were right. Norlie is president of Norfield Industries, a Chico, California-based manufacturer of prehung door machinery and tooling. Since beginning his manufacturing career in 1964, Norlie has been interested in implementing emerging quality-improvement techniques to boost his products' quality and business success. Goldratt's famous book, which demonstrates bottleneck reduction through theory of constraints and other methods, made a lot of sense to Norlie. He remembers that a light seemed to go on for him, that the book distilled many ideas he'd had about improving quality at his own facility.

"It was the first book I read that had all the information I needed in one spot," he remembers. "It was easy to understand, and it was exactly what I needed at that time."

He implemented the suggestions in The Goal and saw marked improvements in both process and product quality but knew that more could be done. Ever the entrepreneur, he did what all good businesspeople do: He networked. Using local contacts he made during many years working in the manufacturing industry, along with the help of the Corporation for Manufacturing Excellence (Manex, which is a member of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Manufacturing Extension Partnership), Norlie developed a valuable tool for all manufacturers in Northern California. His story, through the development of the North Valley Lean Steering Committee, is a good lesson for all small manufacturers.

In the beginning
Chico isn't a hotbed of manufacturing activity by any stretch of the imagination. It's a smallish college town in the middle of the Sacramento Valley, a little less than two hours north of the state capital via a two-lane highway. The area's main industry is agriculture: nuts, most notably, and rice. Chico lacks the manufacturing history and knowledge base of, say, Detroit or Lansing, Michigan, so the establishment of the North Valley Lean Steering Committee, now Manufacturing Ideas (for identify, develop, evaluate, act and sustain), in the mid-1980s was a rather bold move.

Chico's chamber of commerce had been looking for ways to attract large manufacturers for years. Other than employment with California State University and Enloe Medical Center, the region has a shortage of high-wage jobs, especially for skilled laborers. The chamber's effort to lure manufacturers to the area and boost the existing manufacturing base was less than impressive. Instead of asking what Chico's manufacturing managers needed to learn to improve operations, the chamber made some educated guesses and then pushed courses and networking opportunities that manufacturers weren't interested in.

"We were using a 'build it and they will come' approach, and it didn't work at all," says Jim Goodwin, president and CEO of Chico's chamber. "When Bruce came to us with his ideas, we were all ears."

Norlie had contacted several of his manufacturing acquaintances to tell them about an emerging concept called lean. Like their peers in the manufacturing industry all over the world, these smaller shops were dealing with increased competition from overseas markets. The need to cut costs, improve quality and increase productivity was--and still is--intense.

Eight people joined the steering committee that formed as a result of Norlie's efforts. Noting that increased competition and razor-thin profit margins were affecting them all, the group decided that its first objective would be research on everything lean. They attended seminars all over the country, and with the help of the chamber managed to bring notable lean accounting expert Brian Maskell to Chico to present a workshop.

"That was very exciting because so many people knew who he was," Norlie recalls. "There was a lot of good information there. It just took off; people got more interested as they learned more about lean."

Continuing improvement
As the group's collective knowledge about lean and process improvement grew, its members started touring each other's facilities to get improvement ideas for their own shops. These tours became a regular occurrence for the group and proved to be valuable, noncompetitive opportunities to gain insight into how other manufacturers were doing their jobs. What the group found was that shop floors--whether in molding companies, rice processors or tooling shops--were remarkably similar. All the members of the Manufacturing Ideas group report that they're currently dealing with the same issues--increased competition, smaller lot sizes, and the need to produce differentiated products and reduce inventory.

"We were all doing similar things to improve our operations," says Chris Mann, vice president of operations for Roplast Industries Inc., a local manufacturer of plastic films and bags. "But we didn't have the common terms that we have now to describe them. That's been very helpful."

Setup reduction and employee incentives for improvements were particular problems for Mann's company, which a tour of Norfield's shop floor helped resolve.

"After I saw what [Norlie] was doing, we formed teams and started doing weekly audits, and then gave quarterly awards for the teams with the best audits for that quarter," Mann says. "It's worked really well, and it was pretty easy, too."

The implementation of video monitoring of Roplast's shop floor has resulted in improvements, too. The company simply records a process it wants to analyze, then reviews it for waste and inefficiencies.

"It's been very educational and has provided some funny moments as well," Mann says.

Kaizen events and kanban activities have further improved the group members' processes and product quality. The entire group is invited to a member's shop for kaizen events--an approach that extends the event's learning opportunities and adds value. Some kaizen events are remarkably simple, if labor-intensive. Norlie recalls a recent kaizen event at his shop during which workers removed all the equipment in the machine shop, repainted it, mapped out a better flow for operations and then moved the equipment to reflect the more efficient layout. Other kaizen events have lasted nearly a week and been led by outside consultants, with group members observing.

"They're always a little like mining," says Kurt Nathan, director of manufacturing for Lundberg Family Farms, a major grower and distributor of rice in the region. "There's always a little nugget you can take back to your office to improve things there."

Leaner times
Of course, improvement is rarely easy. Especially in smaller offices, where staff members often maintain close ties to each other and to supervisors, being told that management is reviewing each person's productivity can be jarring. Norlie recalls experiencing this when he told his accounting staff that he would be reviewing their positions in an effort to ferret out administrative waste.

"I told them that I thought there was a lot of waste going on in the department," Norlie recalls. "After the shock and defensiveness wore off, I explained that I'd be doing some value-stream mapping of the processes, and it turned out very well." For instance, Norlie found that they were using different colored paper for copying different types of forms. This necessitated frequent paper changes at the copy machine, which made the copying process very inefficient. "It's a small thing," explains Norlie. "But when you get a whole series of little inefficiencies, it becomes a big deal."

Lean, Six Sigma, kaizen, kanban, value-stream mapping and other quality- management techniques are powerful tools at any manufacturing operation, but their results are evident more quickly at smaller organizations. It might take six months to see the benefits of a kaizen event at a Toyota manufacturing facility, for example, but when there are only 20 people involved, the entire process is much more visible--and therefore more immediately satisfying.

Nathan, who has a long history as a quality consultant and college-level Six Sigma educator, points out that one of the main benefits of lean in smaller organizations is its inherent flexibility. Shop-floor employees have the knowledge that they need to assemble a value-stream map. Stamping machine operators, for instance, could plan their own setup reduction. Key performance indicators are reasonably easy for all levels of employees to understand. The list goes on.

"Lean projects can be directed from any level of the organization, so it's particularly valuable to manufacturers like us, who wear a lot of hats," says Nathan.

Different paths, same goal
Networking with other local organizations about lean techniques and process- improvement approaches is particularly valuable because of the immediacy of the knowledge transfer. Another major benefit is the ability to work closely with other manufacturers who've been focusing on lean improvements for many years and can provide sage advice for those new to the processes-- at no cost.

Such is the case with FAFCO, a Chico-based manufacturer of solar pool heating equipment. Its CEO, Bob Leckinger, is a member of Manufacturing Ideas and reports that the group's collective wisdom has helped move FAFCO's fledgling lean effort along. Leckinger joined the company in June 2005 with several other upper-level executives who had significant experience in lean and Six Sigma, and they immediately started studying FAFCO's outdated management procedures. Subsequent implementations of lean practices have significantly improved operations.

"The people in the group are all further along in their lean journeys than us," Leckinger says. "So it's ideal that we can get the benefit of their experience. They've already solved a lot of the problems we have, but we'd never know it without the networking opportunities of the group."

FAFCO hosted a Manufacturing Ideas facility tour in April, which about 40 people attended. The goal was to get input about a new planning system and scheduling board that were recently implemented, and it was a major success. Even after the event, FAFCO received many e-mails from group members suggesting improvements to the system. The on-site nature of the tour led to several unsolicited observations about the facility's operations that the management team hadn't even considered.

"Someone in the tour noticed that a machine operator would process a part through a machine and then manually clean it before putting another part into the machine," Leckinger recalls. "He suggested that it would be more efficient to place another part in the machine while the operator was cleaning the processed part. It was a simple observation and a simple fix, and it was right in front of us every day, but we'd never seen it. That's what the benefit of the group is. It's a fresh set of eyes to look at everything and notice what you don't."

There are a multitude of ways for manufacturers to access quality-improvement information and ideas, especially with easy access to the Internet. But going through thousands of pages of case studies online, consulting books and utilizing Web-based information advisors can be time-consuming and impersonal. Networking with other manufacturers in your region, even if they're producing vastly different products than you, can be a valuable way of sharing information and improving your processes. These business relationships can bear the fruit of quality for years to come.

About the author
Laura Smith is Quality Digest's assistant editor.