During the last week of February I visited a GE transportation plant in Erie, PA to present my Lean Safety story at a meeting of plant managers and lean leaders from both the Erie plant and other GE facilities. After my presentation my host provided me with a personal plant tour. This facility is big scale lean for they produce locomotives – the kind that would make a train buff weak in the knees. It is heavy industry of the type that helped to build America’s industrial dominance many decades ago. Fast forward to today. It is an aging facility, spread over acres of land, producing many or most of the parts required to assemble locomotives in house. Trying to get your arms around the concepts of flow when the components are sized by the ton is almost incomprehensible.
Yet in just three years lead times have been reduced dramatically. With an intense focus on lean principles, they are slowly weaning themselves from MRP planning and moving toward a visual Obeya Room planning board that simplifies the component planning process and immediately gives visual attention to problems. To help ensure component on-time delivery they are transforming their fabrication and welding shops from traditional batch and queue work centers, that were literally buried in excess inventory, into sub-assembly flow cells that deliver components to final assemble based on takt signals. The use of a skunk-works approach for developing new fixtures and material handling equipment, required to make these fabricated parts flow, has engaged and energized some of their workforce. This is real lean, lean on a scale you can see and understand. Only passionate lean thinkers can tackle a process of this size and succeed. This visit once again proved that size doesn’t matter – a process is a process. Remove the waste, make it flow and the results will provide reduced lead times to customers.
When this economic downturn, or maybe plunge, does correct itself this facility will be ready to serve their customers in ways not imaginable in the past. On the GE website it states that “GE is imagination at work.” My visit to this facility proves that point. The lean leaders at this facility are visionaries and they are having the time of their lives. I had a lean buzz on while walking around, hearing about and seeing the changes they have implemented. Then, while standing next to a, “big as a house,” just built and freshly painted locomotive, I think I became a train buff. Woooo-woooo-chuggga-chuggga.