thumbnail group

Connect With Us:

ME Channels / Lean

Focus on the Workforce: Lean Course Teaches Value of Manufacturing

 Mark Doman

By Mark Doman
Pawley Professor in Lean Studies
Oakland University
Rochester, MI

When I start my undergraduate Lean Studies course at Oakland University, I ask the students to raise their hands if they have ever been in a plant. Usually, very few hands reach for the sky. When I ask if they are interested in manufacturing, most say, “Not really.”

Yet I teach in a suburb of Detroit, the Motor City.

The truth is that most college students don’t see manufacturing as an attractive career opportunity. According to a recent survey, manufacturing even ranked dead last among career choices for 18- to 24-year-olds.

This helps to explain why American manufacturing firms are struggling to fill nearly 600,000 open positions, despite a stubbornly high US unemployment rate of about 8%, with more than 12 million people looking for work.

But there are many possible approaches to help manufacturing regain its mojo with college students. 

At Oakland University and the Pawley Lean Institute, we have implemented an innovative program in partnership with several manufacturing companies in Southeast Michigan. We have created an undergraduate course on Lean that is based on the “learn-do” principle and is exposing many nontraditional students (i.e. not business or engineering majors) to the world of manufacturing. In addition to teaching lean basics, the experience is opening students’ eyes to the world of manufacturing and creating a new universe of career opportunities that most had never even considered.

By the end of the three-month class, students have a much more positive view of manufacturing. The students “go to the gemba” at their sponsor companies to understand the workflow and the processes, to observe the employees and see the equipment in operation. They talk with top management and the workers on the front line, and they ask a lot of questions. They experience the fun of doing investigative work, root cause analysis and problem-solving in real-time and in a real-life context. They learn how to work together as a team to assess the companies’ lean journeys and how to present their recommendations for improvement. They get a chance to see manufacturing in a more appealing light, and see the potential for opportunities in fields such as human resources, finance, process improvement, production management, and engineering. 

The lean class was started five years ago with less than a dozen students in one course per year. Now it has grown to a twice-a-year program with 25–28 students each term. The word has gotten out that the lean course is interesting, and that learning about manufacturing (and other industries) first-hand is cool. Talk about great PR for the local manufacturers!

Visiting a Stellar Lean Facility

When the class takes its first site visit to the Faurecia Fraser Interior Systems Plant, it is often their first exposure to how a factory works and feels. The Faurecia Fraser plant is growing fast. First opened in 2006 with less than 300 employees, it has now grown to two locations with over 800 employees. The plant supplies Ford, GM and Chrysler with interior systems, including instrument panels, door panels and center consoles. The Faurecia plant is globally competitive and keeps winning new business. The students are excited to be there because I have been telling them that the Fraser plant is the best lean plant I have seen.

Plant manager, Joe Lupinski, makes a detailed presentation about the Faurecia production system, or what they call the Faurecia Excellence System (FES). He stresses the lean principles of the Faurecia production system, which are as follows: standardized work, elimination of waste, kanban pull system, takt time production, leveling, flexibility, kaizen and auto quality. He then reviews and explains each of the principles so that the students can understand exactly how they work in the Fraser plant. He provides many charts, diagrams and pictures so that the students can see how all these principles fit together into the Faurecia production system. He also talks about the Fraser workforce, which he praises for its commitment to continuous improvement. The Fraser plant employees are averaging almost 23 improvement ideas per employee per year.

Joe and his team have definitely proven that you can efficiently and profitably run an auto supplier plant in the Metro Detroit area with a unionized workforce and practice lean at the highest levels. 

The students really seem to learn from and appreciate the outstanding presentation.

Joe then takes all of us on a plant tour in white lab coats and safety glasses. They see firsthand the cleanliness, order and visual systems throughout the plant. There is no question that 5S is regularly practiced here. They watch the efficiencies of the kanban pull system and the straight line process flows through the plant. They see the cells where teams work and where production and quality results are posted daily. Joe takes them to several workstations and points out the various poka-yokes that make defects nearly impossible. Plant manager, Joe Lupinski, makes a detailed presentation to the students about the Faurecia production system, or what the company calls its Faurecia Excellence System (FES).

The students are impressed, as well they should be. It is a great learning experience for everyone. One student, Krista Huber, an English major who just decided to pursue her MBA, said after the visit: “It is one thing to read about an assembly plant being lean and operating with all the various lean tools and practices—kanbans, pull systems, poka-yokes, 5S and the like. It is quite another to visit a plant like Faurecia and see these tools actually being used for real work. I was overwhelmed by the cleanliness and organization of the plant floor and the efficiency with which the plant ran.”

Last term the students also visited Fitzpatrick Manufacturing in Sterling Heights, MI. As I told the class, they have had the good fortune of visiting two of the best lean companies in SE Michigan—Faurecia and Fitzpatrick Manufacturing. 

The site visit to Fitzpatrick came at a great time because we had just finished learning about 5S. Fitzpatrick lives and breathes by 5S. The students were immediately struck by how clean and bright and shiny the Fitzpatrick office area and factory floor were. Everything was spotless and in its place. As one of the students said, “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

This class session is unique because several Fitzpatrick employees, along with its leadership team, sit in on the class. The class starts with an overview of Fitzpatrick presented by Kevin LaComb, who details how the CNC job shop company started in the kids’ bedroom of the founder, William Fitzpatrick, in 1948 and has grown progressively since then to its current 80,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility.

In addition to local facility visits, the students also hear from several guest lecturers during the term. I have been able to bring in experts such as Vickie Dolis from GM, who did a stint at NUMMI, Robert Simonis from Lear, Bob Hemrick from DTE Energy, Ed Sosnowski from Uni-Solar, Jeff Engle from Takata and several other noted lean experts.

Students Get Down to Business

Once the students have learned the basics of lean, they descend on sponsor companies that have agreed to participate in the program. This term, manufacturing firms Ace Controls, Faurecia, Fitzpatrick Manufacturing and Experi-Metal are working with us, as well as several other organizations in the health care and service industries. 

The first assignment for the students is to “go to the gemba,” where the team members get their first impressions of the sponsor company’s business and factory environment. The students are asked to prepare a 10-minute presentation to describe what they experienced—saw, heard and felt—during the visit, explain the basic value stream map of the business (such as what the business does, how it makes its products and/or performs its services for its customers and who the suppliers and customers are). They are also asked to identify the types of wastes—muda—they saw during the visit. It’s a good icebreaker for both the students and the sponsor company employees. 

The next assignment launches the team right into the formal Lean Assessment, which involves a detailed two-part process. 

Among other factors, the team assesses the history of the company’s lean efforts, such as who are the key lean leaders, what are the long and short-term philosophies and any recent major changes that have occurred. They then move into assessing the workplace organization and visual management such as the 5S environment, results display areas, standardized work, visual controls & charts, process maps and value stream maps and the identification of waste/muda. They examine the flow and error proofing to look for customer-driven (“pull”) flow, kanbans and poka-yokes.

Just as importantly, the team assesses the vital human element of lean in the organization. The students assess employee development and kaizen improvements looking for evidence of kaizen training and team activity, A3 reports and suggestion programs. They dig into the lean culture and quality people value stream to understand what the role of HR is in the firm and how they go about recruiting, selecting and developing their employees. They investigate the company’s respect for people and employment policies and practices to really capture how the company operates  through the ups and downs of the business cycle.

The Lean Final

The team’s final presentation of the term is a summation of its lean assessment, with a heavy focus on the recommendations for improvement and the lean thinking supporting each team’s recommendations. Many of the sponsor companies send their managers to the teams’ final presentations and, sometimes, the teams are asked to do an on-site presentation to the company’s leadership team.

The student teams have made many insightful observations and revealed many facts that were in plain view. Their recommendations have led companies to investigate further and make valuable process changes. The companies have all reported that they have learned a great deal from their student teams. Most companies want to sponsor another student team in the future. 

In summary, this partnership between Oakland University and the local manufacturing community is one example of an innovative collaboration with win-win results. The students learn lean principles in a real-world setting and gain exposure to an entirely new world of career possibilities. They learn that manufacturing does not necessarily mean a dirty, gritty, old-fashioned sweatshop, but may, in fact, involve a clean, fast-paced, results-oriented environment that values lean thinking and problem solving. The students see that they can play a valuable, rewarding role and they don’t have to be an engineering or business major to do so.  

The manufacturing companies, on the other hand, have an opportunity to tell their story and sell their benefits. They have a chance to spread the word to a group of bright, young, energetic college students who might not otherwise have given them a second look. And they get a free assessment to boot! ME

This article was first published in the November 2012 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF

Published Date : 11/1/2012

Editor's Picks

Advanced Manufacturing Media - SME
U.S. Office  |  One SME Drive, Dearborn, MI 48128  |  Customer Care: 800.733.4763  |  313.425.3000
Canadian Office  |  7100 Woodbine Avenue, Suite 312, Markham, ON, L3R 5J2  888.322.7333
Tooling U  |   3615 Superior Avenue East, Building 44, 6th Floor, Cleveland, OH 44114  |  866.706.8665