Research fundamental to Lean manufacturing journey

Located in the heart of the New South Wales’ wheat belt, in the town of Dubbo, Ben Furney Flour Mills is a family-run business that has been going for more than three generations.

With the company motto being “big enough to matter, small enough to care”, like a lot of family-run businesses it makes up a core part of the local community with more than 80 plus employees helping make the business tick. Being located in regional Australia doesn’t mean the company isn’t open to big ideas. Recently it has taken on board many of the principles associated with Lean manufacturing as it realised that streamlining processes and training staff in more than one aspect of the business was a win-win situation for the company and its employees; it cut down the costs for the company while offering diversity to its labour force.

Linden Kotzur is Ben Furney’s service operations manager and is a keen endorser of many of the Lean philosophies utilised by the company. He was there when the company first instigated the process and he has three main pieces of advice for those thinking about starting the journey – the first being research.

“As a company, we had been discussing the different options available and looking at ways of continuous improvement,” he said. “We started to research more and more into Lean manufacturing and look at what the advantages were and where we could then apply this. We spoke to people in the industry and talked to many different parties. We then aligned ourselves with a consultant in the field who was experienced and had also worked with the implementation into the workplace.”

The second part is to implement it into small steps. Do not go all out and try and convert the whole production process at once. It will not work.

“My biggest point would be to say that you need to start with some small tasks first,” he said. “Isolate one small particular area. Go through the exercise and consult with all involved. Let people evaluate the change and find their own benefits in it. If you try and implement it too big, too wide, too far over too many tasks, people will lose the input and motivation because they are not seeing a return.

“Your first attempts at the Lean process need to be very carefully planned. They need to be small achievable tasks. You need to see how it will go right from the beginning. It might be something as simple as reorganising the spare parts cupboard of the workshop.

Once the company started implementing Lean, it reviewed what it had done so far and looked at the different pros and cons.”

Kotzur said it is important for a company to keep on top of things – and if you are not doing that – you will start to fall behind. And he sees some very serious consequences if you do start to fall behind with the implementation.

“We started the journey to streamline processes and keep our all-around advantage – and to do that you have to be on top of your game all the time,” he said. “If we hadn’t done that, we could have continued on for a while, but I can see that we would have eventually begun to fall behind in the marketplace. We wouldn’t be as competitive as we could be and with the way the world is at the moment, you need every advantage and efficiency that you can achieve.”

As with any change in structure to a business, there can be resistance, and it was no different with Ben Furney when it started to implement Lean. However, Kotzur said that as long as management communicates well, then there shouldn’t be too many issues as most workers on the ground will soon begin to see the advantages. And it’s not all about streamlining processes but making the tasks easier for all.

“With anything new, or changes going on, you have some resistance. I think it is important to openly communicate to staff what is happening and taking small steps at a time, which is key to the success,” he said. “You have to communicate well with your staff and let them know what is going on and explain why you are doing what you’re doing. And you need to emphasise the advantages of going down this track for all involved.

“At the end of the day, it is making the employees work easier. It’s making it more systemised and easier for all to follow. It allows for the rotation of staff and they are confident taking on new tasks knowing we have good processes in place that they can easily pick up or review. It also gives them the opportunity to rotate through the different sections knowing that we have systems in place that they can easily adapt to. In this aspect, also make sure there is ownership at all different levels of the business.”

And what have been some of the main outcomes of the implementation? What about from a practical point of view when dealing with customers? There has been a lot of waste reduction and therefore increased production capacity. This is because the company has become more efficient in its processes. For example, it’s only producing what it needs for individual customers. It can do so by using the history of dealing with a particular customer and the records it has of those dealings means it can combine all that knowledge with the level of product it produces.

“When we’ve reviewed our customers’ purchasing habits; by and large the majority of them were pretty predictable,” he said. “When staff started looking at their average purchasing quantities, they weren’t varying that much. By integrating that history into our programming, we’re manufacturing in a lean method; we’re combining what we need into minimal runs, and we know that we are going to have that stock ready for that customer.

“We’ve sat down and analysed it. For example, we might have eight people buying one of our particular products, they buy X amount of quantity. Instead of making that batch up four times a month, we might only make it once or twice a month, making sufficient quantity to address the needs of our regular customers.”

He said there will always be a company that might suddenly require an abnormal quantity of a product, but because Ben Furney has become lean in its production, it has the capacity to go back and complete a special production run if required. These wins have had far reaching positive benefits for its customer base and its position in the marketplace.
His final point, and one that any aficionado of Lean knows, but always needs reinforcing, is that it is never over.

“I look at Lean as a continuous process that is ongoing. It also needs continuous evaluation. As with many things in the workplace, you need to have communication at the right levels,” he said. “You need to isolate and look at the different areas and see where we can get improvement. I believe that as a company we still have a long way to go, but I see continuous evaluation all the time. It is a great process in the workplace. Our long-term goal is to go through it as we’re going. I don’t see it stopping ever.”