Ross Controls, headquartered in Madison Heights , Mich. , has been a manufacturer of pneumatic valves since 1921. It has grown into a global supplier involved in all industries. Since every piece of equipment that moves has a valve on it, chances are excellent that the valve is produced by Ross Controls.

Last year the company implemented lean manufacturing principles into its environment, working with The Lean Learning Center in Novi , Mich. , to transform its organization into a company prepared to meet the challenges of the future.

The journey has been interesting, and the successful experience is one that the folks at Ross enjoy sharing.

History: Founded on a fire

Charles A. Ross, founder of Ross Controls, was a process engineer at Detroit Seamless Steel Tube Company when the plant caught fire in 1919. Due to World War I, the German-made air valves he used to make a new steel tube piercing process were not available, so Ross decided to design and build his own. The rest, as they say, is history.

It wasn’t long before the durable poppet-style air valve Ross designed for Detroit Seamless Steel Tube was sought by other companies. In 1921, Ross, along with a number of partners, founded Ross Valve Company.

Developing over the years into an international supplier of premium standard pneumatic and hydraulic controls and systems, in 1995 the name was changed to Ross Controls to reflect the company’s expanded product line and commitment to continuous innovation. The company’s primary stockholders are the children and grandchildren of the founders.

Introduction to The Lean Learning Center

It was early in 2001 when Dennis Pawley, one of the founders of The Lean Learning Center and a Ross Controls board member, toured Ross’ Madison Heights , Mich. , facility.

“His comment,” says John G. Smith, Ross senior vice president, “was that we had the complexity of an automotive manufacturing plant, but we had only 50 people to run it. He wanted to know how we did it.”

When the company decided to invest in lean, it was not in desperate straits, but there were issues in manufacturing. Not a lot of attention was being given to the factory. Strategically, manufacturing didn’t match up with marketing. Ross had invested in other programs that taught the tools of lean, but they weren’t working, because, as it soon discovered, true lean incorporates principles, rules and tools.

Five employees from the Michigan plant and five from the Lavonia, Ga. , facility were sent to the Lean Learning Center for a five-day Lean Experience course.

“Everyone came back excited about this unique way of teaching,” says Smith. “We started out learning a lot that seemed to be nothing more than common sense. Then it hit. We realized that common sense could be quite complicated. It was a real eye opener. We came away seeing what we needed to do as a result of what we learned that week.”

During the session, the class was assembled into teams and assigned to build a model airplane. During the allotted time, the Ross team managed to build one airplane. At the end of the week – after learning lean methods, tools, and applications – the group was given the same assignment.

“Under the exact same conditions,” says Smith, “our group built nine airplanes. We spent a few hours preparing teams on how to build the plane with tools we learned in lean. We learned how lean can affect the way you think about what you do inside your company. The difference was that it showed us the power of what lean can do and it demonstrated to management the pressure hourly employees feel when they don’t have the parts they need to do their job.”

Following that experience, the same group of Ross employees attended the two-day Lean Leadership course, designed to teach the principles required to drive lean transformation, at the Lean Learning Center .

“This is where we learned how to implement what we learned,” says Sue Reicher, Ross Controls product line manager and acting plant manager. “This was very valuable, because we learned how to approach and work with people and teach them how lean works, what it is and why we have to have it.”

Back to the plant

Taking lean back to the plant and incorporating it has been a challenge, but not an insurmountable task.

“The majority of the employees have bought into it,” says Reicher. “We’ve had to instill the feeling that everyone can make changes and do what needs to get done without red tape. Before, everything required supervisory permission or change was dictated. Now, we incorporate the 60 percent rule, which is, ‘If you’re 60 percent confident something will work, try it.’

“However, productivity is the measurement. If someone wants to paint the floor pink, he can go ahead and do it. But if it does nothing to help morale or increase productivity, then what’s the point?”

Initially, there was a lot of hesitancy, primarily because of lack of past management support. But today’s management says that lean is not an option. It’s a culture, it’s here to stay and it will be taught to everyone in the Ross Controls organization.

“Lean education is key,” says Smith. “But, it’s difficult to accomplish. Every activity has to be structured and measurable. We institutionalize the thoughts of lean and record every procedure in every workstation so anyone could step in and do the job. We’re cross-training employees and providing skills and education for promotion. It was so clear and easy in the classroom, but the implementation is a lot harder than it sounds.”

One of the moves Reicher made was to move the weekly meetings from a conference room out to the “learning line” on the shop floor.

“This opened up the lines of communication,” says Reicher. “We used a section of the shop to teach lean, its tools, rules and principles. We applied them to that area and then moved onto others. The ideas began to flow. Everyone started to look at waste and find ways to become more efficient and productive. All ideas are welcome, but there has to be a high percentage of agreement.”

“For every action there’s a reflection,” says Smith. “What’s really key is to improve all activities at every possible level and to measure how we’re doing. It’s systematic problem-solving, making everything structured and measurable. All of a sudden, the rules and principle of lean are tied with the tools. How potent is that? We began to see the power within everyone, not just management. This is the key to lean.”

Tangible results

“The first impulse when implementing lean is to translate results into head-count reduction,” says Smith. “This is a big mistake. What we’ve done is use lean as an opportunity for more productivity. We’ve cross-trained employees to do things that were not previously getting done, or we’ve improved the process.

“Of course, in these tough economic times, people may have to be laid off. But, it’s not a result of lean, but because of the economy. In fact, if it weren’t for lean, we would have been in terrible shape today. Since January 2001, we’ve had a 22 percent reduction in inventory. This was turned into cash, which has helped to maintain Ross over the past year and a half. Because we implemented lean, we’ve sailed right through.”

Since lean, savings throughout the plant have included:

Test area: parts from vendors tested for tolerance levels have been reduced by 50 percent;

Assembly: more than 20 percent reduction in floor space due to reduction in inventory;

Double-valve assembly area: assembler Bill Brown eliminated all 65 baskets in his area; rearranged and opened up pass-through shelving to create more space and efficiency;

Finished goods: reduced inventory by 80 percent

Work in process: reduced by 30 percent

Ross Controls has also held kaizen events at their Madison Heights facility. Before lean, 90 days of repairs filled an entire area. The kaizen group suggested they “do it like cell phone repairs,” where they give out rebuilt phones rather than waiting to get a phone back. The repair area was changed to rebuild, the turnaround to the customer is 30 days or less and total product sits on one shelf rather than filling an entire area.

The company’s shipping department was also directly and positively affected by lean. A kaizen boot camp was held, whereby Ross hosted a group of people from outside the company. They came in and examined the department, which had history of a high degree of shipping errors due to mislabeling. After studying the situation back at the Lean Learning Center , the group returned to Ross. In less than seven hours, everything in the department was moved, relabeled and color-coded. The result has been a 400 to 500 percent reduction in errors.

Steve Littleton, chief steward at the time of lean implementation and the first union member to attend the Lean Experience, is a big proponent of lean.

“It made a big difference to realize that management wants to know what we know on the floor,” says Littleton . “It’s great to see all these continuous improvements. We’ve moved areas for accessibility, eliminated waste and lean has saved some jobs here. And, since lean, we’ve added two new product lines. So, we’ve saved 20 percent of space and added 20 percent work to the product line. This is significant.”

What’s next?

“Lean is a journey, not an end,” says Smith. “We’ve accomplished a lot through lean, but we’ve discovered that, because everything and everyone is connected, one action precipitates another. We’ve increased morale tremendously and opened the lines of communication. But there’s always room for improvement.

“The benefit to this is it improves morale because people see and appreciate the hard work that’s gone into it. I’m sold on lean … obviously.”

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This article provided by The Lean Learning Center. For more information, visit www.leanlearningcenter.com.