By James Warder
Republished with the permission of the Cabarrus Business Magazine
GDC's founder and President Curtis Walker, began his Lean training decades ago. Mr. Walker was sent to Japan to learn directly from the organization that started the concept we today refer to as "Lean". This story tells of how a trip half way across the world changed his life forever.
In 1981, Walker sat at the airport in Detroit, wondering what he had gotten himself into. Several hours later, his jet settled on a Tokyo runway, the adventure about to begin.
Walker’s company, at that time, a Japanese firm located in the United States, was quite familiar with a method of operations called “Lean.” It had been developed by the Toyodas, the family that eventually came to dominate much of the automotive industry with its Toyota brand. To be exact, the concept was originally referred to as the Toyota Production System or TPS.
Over the next three years, Walker would spend half the year in Japan, soaking up all that he could about TPS operations, techniques, methodology and culture. For the other six months, he was back in the U.S., implementing what he had learned.
To be sure, Walker’s experience was an unmitigated achievement. His implementations have made his company a huge success story in its industry. He has since served in positions of senior production manager and COO of a Fortune 500 company. Today, he is recognized as one of the top 10 authorities in Lean operations and culture in the U.S. – a far cry from that initial experience and reaction for a young African-American in the land of the rising sun.
Undoubtedly, Walker, a tall man, stood out among the considerably shorter Japanese population. The fact that he is left-handed was also a mark of distinction. Yet, the real first telltale incident that made it clear that Walker wasn’t “in Kansas anymore” was when he climbed into bed that first night. “It really never occurred to me that, since the Japanese people are so much shorter, that their beds would be shorter too. I climbed into bed that night and my feet stuck out,” Walker recalled.
“Then, there was the problem with eating. Every meal in Japan has rice, either as the entrée or as a side dish, and you’d better adapt to chopsticks because they don’t provide forks and spoons. Plus, there is certain etiquette,” Walker said as he remembered one of his first Japanese restaurant experiences. “Typically, when you go out with a group, the meal is served family style. I remember wanting to have a second helping, and I simply reached for the bowl and shoved some food on my plate with my chopsticks. Well, from the look on my eating companions’ faces, you’d have thought I had committed a mortal sin. Later, it was pointed out to me that the proper way to serve oneself is to turn the chopsticks around so that the fat end is the serving end...no double dipping with the end you put in your mouth. Looking back, it makes perfect sense, but, at the time, I just didn’t know the rules. I do remember thinking to myself, what I wouldn’t give for a spoon.”
Obviously, these sleeping and eating customs weren’t the real reason Walker had come to Japan, and he soon found himself immersed in learning the rules of TPS or Lean operations from the people who had invented them. Later, other companies would come to seek out Walker, as he had earned the designation of sensei, or expert, from his teachers.
Ultimately, in 1999, Walker determined that it was time to spread his own wings in order to “preach the gospel of Lean” to other companies who could benefit from a real understanding of what it means to instill the Toyota Production System, including its processes and culture, into their own organizations. In the years since then, Walker’s company has successfully completed seven plant-wide lean conversions, turned around two companies destined for financial foreclosure, and conducted projects ranging from classroom training to full implementation of lean conversion, strategic planning, start-up structuring, risk management, plant-floor layout, activity-based costing, inventory reduction and Six Sigma projects.
The client list began to grow with such industries as aerospace, automotive, electronics, food services/processing, insurance/financial and medical represented. That list includes such names as Ford, General Motors, Textron, Nike, Ralston Foods, Stryker Medical, Progressive Insurance and Delco Remy. Along the way, the U.S. government enlisted GDC-TBS’ services to teach soldiers in Afghanistan how to fully reconstruct military vehicles in far less time than they had ever been able.
“Do you think that the Army sent any extra soldiers home because of what we taught them? Of course not! What we gave them was the ability to complete a task in less time, thus creating more time for our fighting men and women to conduct the job they were sent there to do,” Walker said. “This example probably provides a pretty good window to our overall philosophy. When you mention Lean to someone, the first thing that comes to their mind is cutting people and eliminating jobs or positions. After all, that seems to be the easy route. But I believe that you invest in people and save money on things. It’s all about improving operations and opening the capacity to better compete in the global marketplace.”
“I learned very early on in my training in Japan that the Toyota Production System stresses quality and value rather than mediocrity and quotas. They improved each and every step of their production process by building on previous ideas and formulating a way of thinking...a culture, if you will...that stated that everything that they do is centered on the customer, and everything else is a waste of time and should be eliminated.”
Walker is quick to point out that Lean Conversion is so much more than just a set of tools. It is a total business philosophy that can be applied to all types and aspects of any business.
“At Toyota,” Walker explained, “that corporate culture extends throughout the company – from top to bottom – to the point that even lunch breaks are a team exercise with everyone eating all at the same time in the same place, where, naturally, many productive discussions take place. Here in America, there is often some resistance to this approach. After all, involving frontline workers and taking them away from production and delivery may seem counterproductive. But including them in the improvement process will result in a far better return on your investment, as these people are often in the best position to identify inefficiencies, bottlenecks and opportunities for improvement that make their jobs easier and save the company money.”
“The Lean approach represents a potential gold mine for companies because it increases productivity and quality, decreases waste and costs, and maximizes profits along with customer satisfaction. However,” Walker emphasized, “the one thing to remember is that 'Lean' is an approach rather than just a set of processes. As such, it must be embraced for the long term rather than a one-time activity.”
According to Walker, going Lean will create more quality and value with less work, but only when it is an ongoing, corporate “way of life.” Additionally, if allowed to run continuously, lean techniques can improve supply chains, resulting in the preferred “just-in-time” delivery that most organizations aspire to, therefore ensuring better distributor, employee and customer relations.
One of the things that makes GDC-TBS unique in the marketplace is their offer of a free assessment to any company that has even the slightest idea that they are missing opportunities to save money.
“There is absolutely no cost, as long as the assessment takes place within 100 miles of our facility. And, outside of 100 miles, the only cost is travel expenses,” Walker noted. “During that time, we will identify the most opportune areas of deficiency and assist in determining where to begin improvement efforts.”
From a 10,000-foot vantage point, Walker is quick to note that if you aim to be a top competitor, a lean organization is more than a choice...it’s a mandate in today’s business climate.