Svelte Companies Prosper in Lean Times

THE sign on the refrigerator is almost enough to make you lose your appetite…almost. Pasted on the door — the last remaining obstacle separating normal human beings from the goodies they crave — are these words: “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.”

We know that sign was put there for a purpose. Yes, even for our own good. But it's still tough to say “no” when really good stuff is on the other side of the door — and on the other side of that warning sign.

But those who have succeeded in the fine art of self denial tell us that it's worth it. Just ask the spokesman for that national sandwich chain. His joy is obvious as he holds up what looks like a parachute with a zipper sewn in it. He proclaims how great it is not to have to wear those pants anymore. Then comes the “coup de gras” — that his new svelte self is the result of eating his sponsor's sandwiches (instead of wolfing down supersized greaseburgers).

Shameless huckster? No question. But is he happy that he no longer waddles? You bet.

All of us can do things faster, better, and easier when we aren't having to lug around our spare tires and padded dashboards.

The same holds true for companies. Few of us think of our companies as bloated, but a lot of people lately have been discovering just how much their operations can give up, do better, or do with less.

Increasingly as we visit industry companies, we are encountering businesses that are on some sort of austere weight-loss program. They may call it lean manufacturing, continuous improvement, or any of a host of other names. But the net effect is that they are relentlessly searching for excess pounds — pounds that take the form of wasted motion, senseless delays, unnecessary inventory and work in process, poor quality, and needless rework. It's like another sign we know — this one posted by a former employer. It said: “Why do we never have enough time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over?”

It's enough to raise your blood pressure when the only lean place in your company is the bottom line. Perhaps that's why for many in our industry, getting lean is more than making empty New Year's weight-loss resolutions. Companies are doing something about it.

Thumbing through this month's Trailer/Body Builders, it will be apparent that a lot of people are implementing lean manufacturing programs. One of those is Wabash National. The company has just fired up a new high-speed van trailer production line at Lafayette, Indiana, plant. The line, which produces a higher quality trailer but with only half the labor content, was made possible by several years of small- and medium-sized projects that enable the company to do more in less space. Combined, these initiatives freed up 40,000 square feet, enough to put in the new production line without expanding the plant or sacrificing an existing operation. (See story, Page 42).

And one might expect Omaha Standard to at least unpack its bags completely before thinking about reconfiguring its new plant. Almost immediately after moving in a few months ago, the company came up with a better way to operate its fabrication department. In just one weekend, employees executed the plan — which included moving eight press brakes to new locations. The result: fabrication capacity has doubled. (See story, Page 26).

This type of thinking affects everyone in the channel of distribution one way or the other. Truck equipment distributors, trailer dealers, and their customers benefit when their manufacturers build a higher quality product without a corresponding increase in price. By contrast, these same initiatives place other truck body and trailer manufacturers — and their dealers and distributors — at a competitive disadvantage unless the manufacturers can match or exceed their competitors' improvements. This is capitalism in its purest form.

What about suppliers? If truck body and trailer manufacturers make significant productivity improvements, who can blame them for expecting their suppliers to do the same? Conversely, if a manufacturer is conducting business as usual, how willing should his supplier be to cushion the impact of rising energy and material costs?

In a recent interview, Wabash chairman Bill Greubel made it clear that he expects his suppliers to implement productivity improvements. Maybe those who do so will be close by. And maybe, Greubel says, Wabash will be looking worldwide for suppliers that will.

Our options are becoming global, in terms of where we buy and where we sell. We can flourish by constantly doing things better and by partnering with other companies that share that approach.

We are working hard, but we can get leaner. Maybe we need to make that sign on the refrigerator door a little more prominent.

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