Lean still going strong at Hill Laboratories

In late 2008, Hamilton-based company Hill Laboratories started their Lean journey. A fairly intense period of external training has been followed with Hill Laboratories now managing their own internal projects and training. I interviewed Steve Howse (General Manager) and David Havard (Lean Implementation Manager) to find out how things have changed in their Lean implementation since Skills4Work finished their training.

Hill Laboratories was founded in the early 1980s by Roger and Anne Hill and has grown to become the largest independent analytical laboratory in New Zealand. By 2008, the company had approximately 250 staff in five laboratories – four in Hamilton and one in Christchurch – with a sales branch in Japan.

Hill Laboratories’ General Manager, Steve Howse, had heard about Lean and was convinced of the benefits through contact with Damian Camp, CEO of Pacific Aerospace Ltd. Pacific Aerospace were in the midst of a Lean training programme being run by Skills4Work.

In late 2008, Hill Laboratories started their own Lean journey, with Strategic Leadership Team (SLT) training at the senior leadership level of the largest testing Division in the company – the Environmental Division. In early 2009, a pilot Productivity Improvement Team (PIT) was run in the water testing laboratory with much success. Over the next two years, eight PITs were run with approximately 100 staff directly trained by Skills4Work.

The focus of the Lean training was 5S (Workplace Organisation), Root Cause Analysis, Value Stream Mapping, Change Management and Strategic Leadership and Communication, with the aim of transforming organisational culture, engaging their staff and reducing staff turnover. The last PIT finished in September 2010.

This fairly disciplined roll-out through the company with Skills4Work facilitation was followed by a period of internal training, where existing PITs extended their footprint areas and taught the techniques of Lean to their workmates, with support from the SLT as required.

One year later, the success of their Lean roll-out comes down to the people you have involved. Some areas of the laboratory are charging ahead with improvement projects, others are progressing more slowly and in a few areas there hasn’t been sufficient progress and the General Manager has had to get quite directive with one or two people to get progress. David Havard, the Lean Implementation Manager says, “Some areas have fought against implementation, while others have really taken it on board and have raced ahead.”

The pilot PIT, Waters General, was a huge success due to the personality of the PIT leader. After two years in the role this leader stepped down. David and the rest of the SLT were quite comfortable with her doing so because the 5S principles and disciplines were well established and they were confident progress would be sustained with someone else leading it. In fact the PIT didn’t sustain progress and this was a surprise to the SLT. Steve Howse reflects, “Leadership is important! You have to have someone in there whose enthusiasm causes people to come to work in the morning and say ‘this is a good thing’.”

The last twelve months have been a period of consolidating the Skills4Work teaching and materials into the culture of Hill Laboratories. They have re-written the 5S Audit by developing questions that are more relevant to the operations in the laboratories. Staff say the new audit is much better and easier to use. In well- established areas the audit frequency has been reduced from weekly to fortnightly and audits keep stimulating discussion and identifying improvements each time they are done.

The original philosophy for doing Lean remains strong, which is that laboratory staff should be strong agents of change. It is up to them to drive the improvements. Managers don’t dictate how to improve things, they let staff propose their own improvements. David says, “A major benefit is to make things easier for staff.”

PIT teams periodically reinvent themselves. PIT names have changed in some cases. PIT membership has changed a lot through staff turnover. The PITs have evolved over time to having a core group of people from the department who investigate and manage the projects and share out the implementation actions to all staff in the department. This has meant more responsibility for those who are keen, while still keeping all staff involved. Appointment to the core group is for a year at a time, which prevents staff from feeling pressured and resentful and also helps to keep new ideas flowing.

David invests regular time with PIT leaders, with fortnightly meetings to discuss improvements and keep the momentum going. Periodically he will take the PIT leaders out to lunch to say thanks for their efforts.

Steve travels around the country two or three times a year to inform staff of what is going on in the business. These ‘roadshows’ include ‘best-of’ photos from improvements the teams have completed. Inevitably it helps other teams get ideas about how to improve their own areas. Steve also spends regular time in the lab working alongside staff. He actively identifies issues and raises Opportunities for Improvement (OFIs) into the system. As staff see him doing this, it creates an interest and has a positive knock-on effect.

The original SLT were from the Environmental Division, but Lean has been rolled out across the entire company now. Roger Hill (who is still actively involved in the company as Managing Director) and other senior managers want to take Lean to the next level at Hill Laboratories. This is very encouraging, because senior managers need to engage and drive improvements in their own areas.

Middle management also need to be engaged and made accountable for improvements. Steve shares, “We deliberately didn’t involve line managers in our initial roll-out of training and that wasn’t a mistake because it genuinely felt to staff that it was a grass-roots programme. But we have reached the point now where we need to change that so all managers are building Lean thinking into their own goals and expectations.”

When asked about the return on investment Steve said, “It is really hard to measure tangible, bottom-line improvement in our company. For a repeat manufacturer it is relatively easy to measure, but for us we have literally hundreds of different tests, so it is hard to measure the cause and effect of Lean initiatives. We could try to do this, but to be honest we are convinced of the value of Lean and I would rather we invest our time in doing another project than trying to carry out the complicated task of estimating the dollar benefit of what we’ve achieved so far.”

That’s not to say that there haven’t been significant improvements. A recent Value Stream Map literally halved the time between sample reception and results being returned to the customer. Another improvement was extracting a batch of samples in one half-day, where previously the same numbers of samples were extracted in three half-days.

The responsibility of management is to have a company that has staff who are well engaged and enjoying their work and is growing in terms of revenue, productivity and profitability. Lean is an important mechanism to achieve that.