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The Early Days of Lean

Transitioning to lean means tremendous change for management and employees. General Manager Amanda Grappone Osmer gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the early days of Grappone Collision Center’s transition, and what the shop is doing to ensure success.



Photo by Joseph St. Pierre

No one ever said change was easy. And no one understands that more than Amanda Grappone Osmer. In February, Osmer, the general manager of Grappone Collision Center in Bow, N. H., introduced lean management principles to the collision center.

Osmer spent months preparing for the change, first learning about lean herself. Books like The Toyota Way and Lean Production Simplified were helpful, as was information from the DuPont Business Council and industry experts Mike Anderson and John Sweigart. Then Osmer applied for a grant through the New Hampshire Job Training Fund to help pay for training.

Driving her desire to implement lean was a three-fold goal: to reduce waste and inefficiencies, to set a positive example as a business leader and to empower front-line employees to identify and solve problems.

“It makes sense … to eliminate waste and build efficiencies into all systems,” she says. “I feel a responsibility as a business leader to set a positive example, and our shop has a chance to do that by proving that there is a better way to do business.

“The other facet of lean that pulled me in was the involvement of the team,” she continues. “It makes so much sense to have the people on the front lines identify any problems and then find the solutions for them. This is such a powerful concept, and one that I look forward to seeing in action as the system takes shape.”

For Osmer, there’s a lot to look forward to with lean—and a lot of effort behind her. Even early on, Grappone’s transition has brought myriad challenges, humbling leadership moments and small victories. Here’s a glimpse:

PREPARING FOR LEAN

Several months prior to the start of the official training, Osmer and her shop manager introduced the basic concepts of lean—like kaizen (a Japanese concept that means, essentially, continuous improvement) and the “five S’s” (sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain)—to the employees, and told them that some significant changes were coming. (Among them: converting in March from a flat rate to an hourly pay plan.)

She also posted timelines of Grappone’s so-called lean adventure around the shop and announced that the first day-long training with the shop’s chosen training partner, New Hampshire’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), would kick off with a pancake breakfast. While many shops rely on industry consultants to learn lean, Osmer liked MEP’s comprehensive, hands-on “LE102” class because it involved her whole team in a daylong event that covered the fundamentals of lean. She also liked the fact that she was able to use the $11,000 grant Grappone received from the New Hampshire Job Training Fund to help pay for the MEP training. (For more information on MEP, and to find a center near you, visit www.mep.nist.gov/about-mep/index.htm).

THE LEAN LEARNING CURVE

Osmer and her manager met with their MEP trainer, Jane T. Ely, who talked them through the process of going lean. Of course, preparing for change is one thing; implementing it is another, and Osmer encountered a steep learning curve.

I. Getting Started, Facing Challenges

Grappone’s lean adventure officially began on Saturday, February 21, when everyone participated in a one-day training session comprised of lectures and hands-on exercises that demonstrated the power of efficiency and waste elimination.

In March, Osmer and five of her employees—team leaders from parts, paint and body—created what’s called a “current state” map. “We discussed the current, existing state of what we do every day,” Osmer says. “We also measured touch time during the repair and the distance the technician traveled during the job.” Among their findings: A simple bumper job, on average, traveled 1.2 miles in and out of the shop before being completed. “We knew we were wasting time and energy, but we didn’t realize how much until we mapped it out.”

Next was creating a “future state” map — the creation of the shop’s “ideal operating scenario” based on the inefficiencies that surfaced during the current state map exercise. Based on the future state map, on April 4 the shop held its kaizen event. “It’s an event based around a continuous improvement concept, and our concept is to create a flow so that it’s efficient, and people aren’t wasting time looking for things or waiting for parts,” Osmer explains.

Integrating the five S’s, Osmer and her employees spent a day-and-a-half cleaning out the shop. “It was like a bad yard sale,” she says. “We had all our stuff out back, every last piece of equipment and all of the toolboxes. We scrubbed the heck out of the shop. We filled two dumpsters. And when something came back in, it had to be clean, and have a place and a purpose.”

Cleaning the shop, as it turns out, was the easy part. The voluntary event “was a great group effort and teambuilding experience,” Osmer says. And indeed, the shop sparkled. But step two—refiguring where vehicles entered the shop, were prepped and then repaired—ran afoul.

In retrospect, Osmer admits that the major stumbling block was this: “[We] had put a lot of thought and effort into envisioning a future state, but when it came time to lay the shop out based on those meetings, I didn’t take the lead in telling the many dissenting voices that we at least had to try this new system before making changes to it.”

II. Seeking Help

In mid-April, Osmer took a two-day trip to visit Marshall Auto Body in Waukesha, Wis., where operations manager Aaron Marshall has been running a lean shop for three years. “He has it down to a total science,” she says. She studied his shop closely, and upon her return, she held a shop-wide meeting and did a PowerPoint presentation, complete with slides of the shop layout, explaining how lean has been implemented at Marshall Auto Body.

The outside assistance didn’t end there. On May 20, Marshall visited Grappone to check out the shop’s flow and the layout, and help further guide Osmer and her employees. The visit helped Osmer realize a key management mistake: In trying to solicit and incorporate feedback from all her employees, she didn’t offer a strong enough vision. It also gave Osmer hope that the shop’s future state map was viable, and provided a much-needed morale boost to her staff. “The guys are pretty excited after having met Aaron and [his father,] Scott, and knowing that they have all the support they need to succeed,” she says.

On June 10, Osmer, the company’s president, the shop’s team leaders, two techs and an estimator all traveled back to Wisconsin to see for themselves “how a lean shop works in practice as opposed to in theory,” Osmer says.

And during the week of June 15, Marshall and two of his techs visited Grappone to “pull the Band-Aid off,” as Osmer says. They helped to lay out the shop in what Osmer calls “a cell-type environment” that will dictate workflow and make each tech responsible for just one part of a job, such as blocking and priming rather than working on a vehicle from start to finish.
Beyond offering “hands-on lean expertise,” the assistance from Marshall helped fast-forward Grappone’s lean transition. Osmer initially estimated that it would take a year for the 10,500-square-foot shop, which repairs between 200 and 250 cars a month and brings in roughly $300,000 a month in sales, to complete the transition; she now expects to be in full swing with the first stages of lean by July.

“To me it really doesn’t make sense, once you’ve discovered that this system exists, not to implement it company-wide. That’s my long-range plan.” —Amanda Grappone OSMER, general manager, Grappone Collision Center

III. A Singular Focus

In addition to her duties as general manager of the collision shop, Osmer also served as the director of administration for the five-dealership Grappone Automotive Group, overseeing the dealership’s human resources department and corporate giving. But the early challenges of the collision center’s lean adventure helped her realize that she needed to focus exclusively on leading her team through the transition. “I knew it was going to be a big deal, and it fell on me to make sure we were going in the right direction,” she says. “It became clear that I needed to be present more.” So in late May, she gave up her other duties within the company for 6 to 12 months in order to “live, sleep and breathe lean,” she says. The move allows her to be on the shop floor daily from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Eventually, she plans to implement the change in other areas of the dealership that can benefit from the transformation. “To me it really doesn’t make sense, once you’ve discovered that this system exists, not to implement it company-wide. That’s my long-range plan.”

LOOKING FORWARD

While Osmer calls the experience of transitioning to lean “the most humbling experience, in a business setting, that I’ve ever had,” she’s also enjoyed some small successes early on. She’s proud of the way her employees have maintained the shop’s cleanliness. One of her painters came up with the idea to paint the top of a paint can green on one side, red on the other, and use it as a visual key to let others know whether or not a vehicle is prepped and ready to go. Another employee thought to post spreadsheet records between two paint booths that track the job size is the time it went in and out, reasons for any holdups, and cycle time. “They’re coming up with these things on their own, as part of the lean process,” Osmer says.

Osmer expects bottom-line benefits from the lean transition, as well, including reduced cycle time, a reduction in the dollars spent on shop customers’ rental cars, and the retention of an additional 10 percent on Grappone’s bottom line. And she believes that any shop, regardless of size, can benefit from learning to be lean.

“For me, this is a starting point,” she says. “It’s a learning process for all of us. We have a lot of support from the owner [Osmer’s father, Robert Grappone], and we see the value in it. At the end of the day, it’s a better way.”

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