By Mitch Talley
LEAN training praised for helping companies get edge in tough times. Expert Die officials say it just makes common sense to take advantage of courses offered by Georgia Northwestern Technical College
“What if we ... ?”
Those three little words have turned into a battle cry for Expert Die, a Whitfield County company inspired by five weeks of special training led by Bob Helms of Georgia Northwestern Technical College.
All 25 of the company’s employees completed the Common Sense LEAN training, which was held on a series of Fridays in October and November at Expert Die’s Cavender Road facility.
“Bob says he calls it Common Sense because the class really is just common sense things to do,” Expert Die co-owner Dawn Barr said, “things like being organized, owning your position, figuring out new ways and ideas of doing your job more efficiently and more effectively, not wasting time hunting for things.”
Barr says the LEAN training — which for years has helped huge corporations like Motorola, Toyota and General Electric save billions of dollars and increase quality — is something she and her husband, Eric, have wanted to take for years but never had time for.
Finally, a letter she received from the college promoting several courses, including LEAN, was the spark that led her to sign up.
“We were just going to send about five guys,” Barr said, “but then as I was doing the registration, I noticed that they will actually come to your workplace and do the training if you have at least 10 people sign up.”
Fortunately, she had sought out — and received — a grant administered by Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute with the help of project manager James Seal that wound up paying 75 percent of the $200-per-person fee for all of Expert’s employees.
“The grant has actually been around since the 1970s,” Barr said. “It’s a federally funded program, and it’s to help businesses grow their businesses and compete against imports. James came up here and spent a whole day with me asking questions like how has your business been in the past, where do you see it going, what’s your plans, what’s your goals. He built this package of training programs we were wanting to do, and so we were approved for a $30,000 grant that actually has paid for a portion of three projects,” including a paperless pickup and delivery system and an upgraded website.
While some workers were hesitant about the LEAN class at first, Barr said it didn’t take long for everyone to come on board once they realized it would make life easier for them — and their customers.
“We had one that was like, ‘Aw, this is crazy, a waste of my time,’ but over the weekend after the first class, he actually called up my husband and said, ‘Hey, this is actually a pretty good idea.’ He’s already coming up with some ideas, things that he could do that might make things flow a little easier.”
After the first class, in fact, employees came up with the idea of moving the cold saw blades from inventory to a spot right next to the machine that is used to cut teeth on the blades.
The class is “just getting the wheels turning in everybody’s mind,” said Jason Goley, who was hired in June 2013 as marketing director and takes care of the company website.
“That’s what Bob was saying: If everybody puts a little input into it, then you’re going to have a great idea. Instead of one great idea, you’ve got a bunch of great ideas.”
Back in July, Expert Die had already started a Continuous Improvement Program, sending out forms to employees asking for suggestions on how to improve the operation of the company.
“The funniest thing was after the first LEAN class, I came in on Monday morning and there’s one of those forms laying on my desk,” Barr said, “so I thought that somebody had filled one out after the class. Their idea was that each department needed its own set of tools so that they wouldn’t waste time looking for tools when they needed them.”
Once she looked at the form, though, she realized it had been filled out in July. Turns out the plant manager — after listening to the LEAN suggestions to clean up your work area — had found it buried underneath a stack of papers on his desk.
“We originally planned to give prizes for the best idea through the Continuous Improvement Program,” Barr said, “but now we’re going to start rewarding people every time they come up with a good idea and we implement it, no matter how small or how big. We want our employees to understand that it’s not just upper management that has to take care of everything — it’s everybody, and it trickles all the way down.”
“We’re all just spokes in the big wheel,” Goley added.
“We want our employees to realize they are working for a management team that does want to hear their input,” Barr said. “One of the big things Bob said is you’ve got to have data to back up your suggestion. It can’t be, ‘Oh, this is my grand idea and I think it should be done this way.’ You’ve got to have the facts and figures because everybody has an opinion.”
At the same time, management has the responsibility to be willing to implement ideas if they are good enough.
“If the employees keep filling out the Continuous Improvement forms and never see any change,” Barr said, “then they’re going to quit doing it.”
Helms believes strongly in the LEAN program, having been involved with it for years at his previous job with General Electric.
In fact, he believes companies that don’t embrace the LEAN concepts may not be around for long.
“If you’re working for a company that is not interested in LEAN, I would be looking for another job if I were you because they will not survive,” Helms said. “A comparison of that is if we had two companies in town that were sharpening experts and one was pursuing LEAN and the other wasn’t, I would expect eventually that the other one would go out of business — they couldn’t compete.
“It’s not different than the car manufacturers,” he said. “There was a time when the Japanese car manufacturers had better quality than the U.S. car manufacturers, but because the American manufacturers have incorporated the LEAN concepts like the Japanese have for years, I think they’re both doing quite well. They’ve had to incorporate LEAN into their thinking, or they wouldn’t have survived. And I think that speaks volumes for LEAN.”
Barr goes so far as to say that if a company is not pursuing the LEAN concepts, they’re mismanaged.
Helms agrees. “Yes, LEAN improves quality, customer satisfaction, the bottom line, profitability. It impacts all of that, and if you’ve got a company that’s not worried about those things, they’re not going to survive.”
Expert Die has made changes to survive the harsh economic times endured by Whitfield County during the past five years, Barr said, including going out of the area (and even the country) to seek new customers.
“We’ve also stayed on top of technology, stayed up on training,” Barr said. “Our competitors now are national companies — that’s who we’re competing with now. My two main competitors are national saw manufacturers, and I’m standing and holding my own, even surpassing them, believe it or not.”
Helms agrees. “You will be a force to contend with if you continue this path,” he said.
“That’s what we’ve seen,” Barr said. “It’s kind of a simple little motto, but we’ve got the signs in the shop: ‘If it’s not perfect, do it again.’ The ultimate goal is to satisfy your customers — well, you’re not going to do that if you’re doing substandard work. So if it’s not right, don’t send it out the door. Get it right, then send it out the door.”
Then it’s time to look at what caused the problem in the first place, Helms pointed out, “because it’s got to be fixed. We need to get to first-time quality. There’s tremendous savings in that, so if something’s done wrong and you have to fix it, you need to fix it for customer satisfaction, but then you’ve got to go back and look and see what went wrong.”
Barr is sharing her story with the public because she wants local companies to realize that the Economic Development Department at Georgia Northwestern Technical College, as well as the Chamber of Commerce, are offering significant training opportunities that could make their businesses better and more competitive.
“Just let us know how we can help you,” Helms said. “The whole purpose of the Economic Development Department is to provide an affordable way for companies to meet their training requirements. I’m sure there are a lot of companies that don’t know we do this. Anytime we can help you, let us know. We’ll have it on our campus, we’ll have it on your worksite. Whatever is easier, whatever is best for you, we’ll do.”
He pointed out that the college also offers OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) 10-hour and 30-hour classes, which relieves a financial strain on small companies trying to meet these federal guidelines.
“If there’s any industry in the area that doesn’t have the expertise to do their own OSHA training, we’ll do it for them,” Helms said. “That’s one of the services a lot of companies don’t know about. And there’s a machine shop in Adairsville that was just cited with a $57,000 fine because they didn’t have their OSHA training together. So the Economic Development Department has a variety of things that we offer to try to help industry be better.”
Barr is a believer in the value of the Chamber of Commerce.
“In the past two years, we’ve been a lot more involved with the chamber,” she said. “Anytime they have classes, we try to go because it really helps.”
She says the training is vital to keep Whitfield County companies competitive.
“If we’re going to keep industry in Dalton and we’re going to have good, viable, growing companies in Dalton,” Barr said, “we’ve got to have the resources to provide all that. Small businesses can’t afford to hire a safety director to take care of OSHA; they can’t afford to hire a training coordinator that does all this training.
“You’ve got to have outside services for that, and it is much, much, much more helpful to a company if it’s run right here where they’re at rather than having to send your employees off all the time. I think one of the benefits of having Bob here on site is we have done several ‘field trips’ out into the shop, and he has offered suggestions from other industries he’s been in, based on what he sees.”