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  • Writer's pictureBill Greider

PTA Plastics: the power of "Build Leaders then Cars"

I'm sure anyone who has attempted this lean thing has read or heard this famous Toyota quote. Don't know about you, it is definitely one of the TPS concepts that might take a little while to marinate. I also think that is the primary reason people often punt on lean on 2nd down. (The other concepts that sound really good but are really difficult to adopt are "respect for people" and "continuous improvement". Respect means understanding that the true process experts are the people who do the work, and "continuous means....continuous-not when we have time or once in awhile).

The definition of "leader" that I've always believed in is actually one of the 14 principles of the TPS, and like all things TPS, is easy to say, harder to do. "Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others." Unfortunately, the "build leaders" part requires blind faith and a sizable investment in time. I wish I knew a way to build leaders all at once or with PowerPoints, but unfortunately it is done one person at a time. As you build momentum, more leaders are built faster, but it can take a while to build that momentum. Lean is not about tools, it is about building leaders.

Which brings me to PTA Plastics. A couple of weeks ago, I attended their every other Wednesday A3 closings. This was their first set of closings after they figured out how to increase the throughput of one of their assemblies from less than 20 per hour to over 30 per hour-with the same number of people, simply by implementing a couple of dozen simple improvements suggested by the people who do the "assembling". These people are the leaders we're talking about. These same leaders are planning on another set of improvements on the next run to drive even more of the 8 wastes out of this assembly process. At the closing, these leaders stand up in front of 2 shifts full of people plus one of PTA's best customers (who helped on this project) as well as senior PTA leaders from CT and CO. Now we all know that human's biggest fears in life are death, clowns, snakes and public speaking. Imagine how much leadership development goes into A3 leaders standing up in front of all of these people and taking them through how their A3 teams went through the PDCA/DMAIC to achieve these results?

The energy level reminded me of the first time in my life the Red Sox won the World Series. Laughing, cheering, gratitude. Sometimes what gets forgotten is exactly how much determination, patience and blind faith on the part of management this requires. Remember that in order to collectively solve difficult problems, we need to build a process to be able to solve easy ones first. PTA started with asking all employees "if you owned the company (which they do, they are an ESOP), what change would you make in your job right now?" People wrote their answers on index cards, which turned into A3, and the process of building leaders began. Eventually, if you stay with it and build on it, a culture of kaizen starts to emerge, where improvement are happening all the time. One A3 leader at a time. Then we go after harder and harder problems.

My hat is off to Kent Seeley, General Manager at PTA's Oxford, CT location, Doug Morrison, Jim Harris and Tom Hatch, Lean Specialist at IDEXX (the voice of the CUSTOMER!!), who are leading the kaizen blitz mentioned above along with Greg Thayer, Lean Leader at PTA, and of course to the true experts of the process, the incredible people who actually do the value-added work.

Focus on "building leaders then cars". Greg and Kent are continuing to help build leaders every day. It never stops, and is the most fulfilling work I can think of.

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