It's Not Easy Being Lean

At MEECO, adopting an innovative manufacturing process that gives employees more responsibility is at times a tough sell

By Lisa Bergson

"That was the dumbest thing I ever saw," scowls George Grega, our dour-faced, longstanding plant manager, recalling the conveyor belt a former production manager installed. "You'd push it forward, and, if there was a change-order, someone would push it right back. No one had any ownership."

"The production manager of the time loved it," I recall, my mind reflecting on some of the challenges in MEECO's manufacturing process that I am determined to see addressed. It's the first time I've sat in on the "lean manufacturing" meeting around the big, gray wooden table in the back of the plant. A progressive approach, LM involves employees in diagramming each phase of production, identifying bottlenecks, and coming up with ways to eliminate them. It strives to reduce clutter, inventory, and downtime.

Last summer I endorsed its adoption but left the implementation to De'Shell Carr, our director of manufacturing, and to Advent engineering consultants, whose services were funded by a loan from the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center.


  Now, it's time for me to get involved. Not only do I view optimizing production as key to keeping our core, 53-year-old technology competitive but I also want our new Tiger Optics business to implement LM from the get-go.

Other senior managers have resisted the concept, however. It's odd. I query Calvin Krusen, our director of engineering, who sees no benefit to conducting so-called "value-stream mapping" on the MTO, Tiger's first electro-optic analyzer. "I have a personal problem with 'my solution works in every application,'" he explains. "The way I see it, consultants come in, and basically they're trying to get me to part with my money." Calvin's sweet, open countenance belies a certain cynicism.

"Calvin, these are just tools, like using a MRI to scan the body," I counter. "We need consultants to help us with implementation. But if you don't use the MRI, you might not find the tumor." Unfortunately, both the engineering and sales departments claimed they were "too busy" to attend Lean 101, the in-plant training sessions. Now they've dug in their heels.

I'm not convinced the production staff is any more committed to the restructuring and the job cross-training that LM entails. "Be careful -- they break people," I say, turning to De'Shell at the meeting. My plant staff have, in fact, undermined all the managers who tried to implement change, obliging me to boot those who failed. It has made for a high-turnover job.


  Thanks to Advent's extensive training, however, the team appears truly enthusiastic. They toss around terms, like "my supermarket" when speaking of a constant, preset inventory of available parts. "I already have a supermarket," boasts Terry Lasher, a 23-year employee, who used to cower at the thought of trying anything new. "I keep 20 elements bagged and ready." Terry's elements are the heart of our electrolytic cells -- what the rest of humanity calls sensors. Making them requires finesse and painstaking attention to detail.

"That's because you're good," De'Shell tells Terry, whose yields have soared ever since De'Shell and Advent began working with her to standardize the process, modernize her tools, and qualify her materials. "Now we have to cross-train someone on what you do," she adds. A capable, young engineer, De'Shell has a soft Afro -- and an often abrasive manner. Since joining MEECO a year ago, she has risen quickly from manufacturing engineer to senior management on the strength of her ability to exert control over our process. Controlling people, however, is another matter.

"Yeah, you better cross-train someone because Terry may just walk up to Lisa and retire on a day's notice," kids Kelly Gaydos, our impossibly thin and sassy purchaser.

"No!" I cry, covering my face in mock agony. "I can't take it! I'm not going to attend any more of these meetings."

"I wouldn't do that to Lisa," Terry says, with a laugh. Short, with a blonde pixie haircut, she's half-grandmother, half-imp. Anyway, I have no problem with cross-training. We did it before."

"With Pat," I say, recalling my favorite production manager, who left when the pressure got to be too much.


  No, with the guy who installed that conveyor belt, says George, who mentions another departed production manager I'll call Jeff. It hurts to remember Jeff, who worked his way up from service technician and dreamed of making MEECO a "world-class manufacturer." Under his aegis, consultants taught the "seven tools" of quality control, folks documented their procedures, and everyone was cross-trained to handle at least one other position. Nonetheless, the conveyor-belt debacle, compounded by our market's whiplash and chronic problems with our electrolytic cells, led Jeff to a tearful decision to leave MEECO.

I vow, if at all possible, to protect De'Shell and our lean initiative from a similar fate. This time, at least, the production staff does seem to embrace the lean methodology. Even George, whose cup never approaches anything like half full, is inspired to suggest a new way to consolidate our cells. Under LM, "each individual takes charge," says George. "You keep ownership."

So how do I think it's going. Well, we're definitely moving forward with LM, and we're starting the process with baby steps, so that employees can have some immediate "wins." For example, we were able to create a "point-of-use" inventory, which makes for faster stock-picking. As a result, our service technician is happier and more productive. We aim to reduce the four-week turnaround time in his department by half. The cumulative effect of this and other such small, plantwide changes over a year is expected to yield a minimum of 20% improvement in operating profitability.

Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies web sites at or, or contact her at