If I can see it, I can fix it

Leading2Lean has a platform that lets everyone—from workers on the plant floor to executives—spot problems as they occur. That reduces breakdown rates and ups productivity.

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West Liberty Foods’ Mount Pleasant, Iowa plant can slice meat as well as anyone in the world. But two years ago, some of its machinery just couldn’t cut it—or keep running through 16-to-20-hour shifts. As breakdowns occurred, the plant’s older computerized maintenance-management system couldn’t pinpoint problems.

Flying blind

“Without calling our facilities, we didn’t know what was happening—we couldn’t see the data,” explains Chad Williams, West Liberty’s corporate maintenance manager, by email. “We learned of problems, on average, three to four days after the fact. Sometimes the information wouldn’t get recorded; sometimes it was just lost.” As a result, machine up-time was hovering around 85 percent, turning Mount Pleasant into the worst-performing of four plants. That hurt the company’s bottom line and its pride. “Our specialty is taking an idea for a product and having it in full production within 90 days,” Williams says.

After some shopping around, Williams settled on a new system from Nevada-based Leading2Lean. He began to see improvements, thanks to the company’s real-time maintenance reporting. “Every one of our maintenance guys has a tablet and is connected to Leading2Lean once they walk in the door,” says Williams. “I no longer need IT support to run a report.” For the first time at the facility, according to Williams, maintenance groups can plan and schedule work and his leadership can decide whether to repair or replace expensive machinery. “Leading2Lean provides visibility to everyone. That way, we can drill down into issues and get to the root cause of a problem,” says Williams, who adds that Leading2Lean has saved $2 million in maintenance costs over the past two years. Machine up-time clocks in at 97 percent.

Leading2Lean calls itself a “global cloud-based manufacturing visual management solution”—in plain English, a software platform that gives real-time, visual information to alerts personnel to chokepoints on a factory floor. The platform, called Cloud Dispatch, logs whatever has gone wrong and gives troubleshooters an accompanying checklist to fix the problem immediately. Everyone at the factory—from managers to maintenance workers, welders to wirers—sees the same data, removing excuses for not sounding the alarm and responding to issues as they occur.

From a practical standpoint the information transparency fosters accountability and responsibility throughout a plant. Contemporary shifts must deal with things as they unfold, instead of leaving identifiable problems for proximate workers. It’s analogous to an accident along the freeway: “If you’ve got an emergency, the right people show up quickly,” wrote Bob Argyle, chief customer officer at Leading2Lean, who helped to build the prototype system after spending years working with facilities on lean manufacturing techniques. As more people on the floor start to “own” and solve problems, their behavior changes and so does the culture of a factory. Very quickly productivity starts to rise as work stoppages and downtimes begin to drop.

Leading2Lean’s systems support just about anything that impacts production—from materials and quality issues to staffing and training. Is the plant producing goods or parts at the expected rate? Anyone on the floor or up in executive offices can see real-time every activity along the line right out to the shipping bay and find out why those numbers are-- or aren’t--being met. Outcomes from the system show identifiable part defects, scrap rates or a new operator who wasn’t trained adequately. The recorded data becomes part of a “genealogy” of components not just to prevent problems, but to create better planning and more intelligent resource allocation.

Japan's Andon system resurfaces

A follow-up call with Leading2Lean’s team showed that its platform borrows from the “agile” movement and specifically the agile factory, drawn in part from Japan’s Andon system. Andon relies on signal lights to home in on workstation breakdowns, and the infamous Japanese “kaizen,” or continuous improvement. But its success with customers relies just as much on galvanizing the workforce—on motivating them to do the right thing and giving them the right tools to do their best work. “You have to understand what motivates people by appealing to the value of the work they do,” explains CEO Keith Barr who, along with Argyle and Tyler Whitaker, the CTO and chief operating officer, is part of Leading2Lean’s founding team.

 Barr should know how to inspire people. He spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force turning around what he calls the worst and second-worst units in that branch of the service—all while some of the biggest cuts in the military were taking place. In his first assignment, he was challenged to work with a maintenance unit at Castle Air Force Base in northern California that supported training operations involving the B52s, the long-range strategic workhorses.

“The team was dealing with broken tooling and equipment,” Barr recalls by phone. “So I challenged them: If we can really demonstrate improvement, raise the quality rates, we’ll be able to get better tools. I asked them to take some pride in specific things they could do with their work—and not pass along a broken aircraft to the next shift.” Within months he saw a radical U-turn in performance. After that year’s inspection, the maintenance division went from unsatisfactory in all outcomes—including quality of work, observation of standards, and training—to outstanding in most categories. Barr’s team started making suggestions to improve their work. The inspector general took notice, recognizing the unit for eight good ideas, an unprecedented achievement.

As he moved up, Barr grappled with new technologies to squeeze more efficiencies out of ineffectual units. Among others, he created information systems for avionics maintenance, automated reporting methods, logistics, and fast-capitalization projects, as well as for mission planning, scheduling networks, and test and evaluation scores used to assess promotions. “It all helped me understand what people needed to feel accomplishment.”

Transitioning to civilian life after two decades was a culture shock. “Decisions get made a lot faster in private enterprise than in the military,” Barr laughs. After handling turnaround situations at a handful of IT-solutions companies and taking on various operational roles he struck out on his own in 2006 to offer a spectrum of specialties in IT, R&D and sales.

That’s how he ran into Argyle and Whitaker. In early 2010, “Tyler called me and said, ‘I’ve got an interesting idea for you,’” Barr recalls. Whitaker “had been approached by a private investor in the Salt Lake Area”—vSpring Capital, which specializes in early-stage financing—“to look at a technology Autoliv had developed under Bob’s team.”

Inspiration from the airbag market

That turned out to be an legacy prototype for Cloud DISPATCH. Autoliv was the Swedish-American company formed after merging with Morton Automotive Safety, which made seatbelts and an early line of airbags. (Morton Automotive was a stepchild of the 1989 Morton-Thiokol split.) Argyle, a manager (but an engineer by training and tinkerer), had been through all the corporate changes, and watched as the novel airbag became a commodity. As prices began to fall, Argyle figured that salvation, if available at all, might come from one source: lean manufacturing.

In the mid-1990s, Morton had a taste of it thanks to two gurus from Federal Mogul. “Every system we had in place they dismantled completely,” remembers Argyle. But his real education in lean came from Toyota, which he called “the sensei of lean manufacturing.”

“We were bringing in new stuff and it just wouldn’t run,” he says. The Toyota guys told him, fix your downtime issues first. But how? While in Japan, Argyle had seen the flashing lights on Toyota’s digital boards which, coupled with an Andon system, sent fixit folks directly to trouble spots. That alone didn’t solve the problems. “It was expensive to put hardware everywhere,” says Argyle. An even bigger hurdle: bad attitudes. “If the maintenance guy figures, ‘Somebody else will get it; I’m not gonna react,’ then nothing happens.”

So Argyle wrestled with the problem some more. He thought back to the 911 dispatch system used by police, firemen, and medical emergency teams. Why not put up a magnetic board with a dispatcher system on the factory floor to identify a problem and get the right people to it immediately? “That changed everything,” Argyle explains. “Toyota taught me you can eliminate waste by making problems visible and engaging the workplace to solve them.” He modified the board into a software program with projector TVs. Autoliv started winning quality service awards. Customers like Bose and Energizer kept asking about the in-house system and how they could get their hands on it.

But because Autoliv wasn’t in the software business, Argyle got permission from his boss to develop the dispatch software into a separate business. He called on two customers, Energizer and Bose, as guinea pigs while he retooled the software. “They said, ‘We’re in,’” Argyle recalls in our call.

Enter Tyler Whitaker, a technophile who had recently exited a startup sold to EMC, the data-storage giant. A veteran of a half-dozen tech companies, Whitaker had cut his teeth at WordPerfect Corp. as a 15-year-old, where he was constantly razzed about his age by the 20- and 30-somethings who oversaw the place. “Tyler,” the P.A. system often pitched, “your mom is on the phone on line one: You forgot to make your bed this morning.” But over the next quarter century, Whitaker notched his mark as the go-to guy to run startups.

vSpring wanted him to form a new company around Argyle’s dispatch software. “I met Bob and saw the product—and all the hairs and warts on it,” says Whitaker. “But I also saw the reaction of customers and realized it could be brought to a new level.” He didn’t want to run the show, however. So he called up Keith Barr whom he’d known from his time at Sento Corp. and contact-center company Echopass (now Genesys). Then it turned out that vSpring really wasn’t interested in bringing on Barr or Argyle.

At that point, the trio decided it didn’t need to lean on investors. “We started running the numbers and realized we could bootstrap it,” says Whitaker.

Bootstrapped to trust

That first year-and-a-half, the team rebuilt the platform and courted new business, while taking no salary. In six months, Autoliv became a customer as well as a development partner. Some new prospects were teaching Leading2Lean valuable lessons, setting a critical pattern for new product development. “We see a need from the customer, understand the space they’re in, the problem set, and roll out the MVP just to get them started,” says Whitaker. “Over the course of doing this, we had to self-correct several times.”

But that led to better products and more lasting relationships. An early version of DISPATCH, for example, didn’t link the system to a document center module that included industry-standard instructions for what to do in a breakdown or other work stoppage. “Linking that up and putting the right information in the hands of technicians made a huge difference,” says Whitaker. Customers, he adds, “show us best practices.”

At the same time, Leading2Lean learned to roll out new features constantly and as customers needed them. Sometimes that required telling folks that certain bells and whistles would be a detriment, instead of an asset. On other occasions, it meant introducing incremental improvements so that users could expand functions without having to undergo new training. “That gives us a better penetration rate within a company, as everybody uses and interacts with the same data,” Whitaker explains.

All this has helped foster a considerable amount of trust. “We have a reputation with our customers as being an extension of their team,” says Whitaker. Often, he claims, clients will turn to Leading2Lean before their own IT groups, which frequently have their own agendas and can be overly insular and rigid. “We’re more responsive, engaged with their needs and accommodating.”

In six years, Leading2Lean hasn’t lost a single customer. “Normally, a 3 percent turnover is considered good,” says CEO Barr. “We have zero.” Product reliability and solid relationships certainly count. Barr also points to the customer’s ROI—or the time it takes to recoup the investment in the platform through the cost of reduced downtime, in addition to productivity gains. “We average about three to five months,” Barr says. “A good industry number is 12 months.” And some lumbering systems sold by SAP, Oracle, and IBM can take considerably longer.

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