Leaning into the Future
Since 2009, Midwest Rubber has made big strides in leaning its organization and changing its company culture.
BY SARAH ASP OLSON
Brent Anderson, continuous improvement manager, and Doug Turk, president, of Midwest Rubber.
On January 1, 2009, all 60 of Midwest Rubber's employees gathered in the Plymouth Creek Center, less than a mile from the Plymouth- based manufacturing plant. There was a table with coffee, juice and breakfast rolls, but the meeting was about more than just mingling. The
off-site gathering was the official launch party for Midwest Rubber's lean journey.
"We thought it would be good just to take people away from work, make it a big deal, a big kickoff," says Brent Anderson, Midwest Rubber's continuous improvement manager. "We presented what it means to be a lean company and what companies are doing on their lean journey,
and educated as to what it is we're going to start getting involved in and practice."
Since that initial meeting, Midwest Rubber has systematically implemented a series of lean programs and processes -- from 5S to Kaizen improvement processes. The result has been leaner operations, more organized work spaces and a happier, healthier culture overall.
Learning to Lean
Several years ago, Midwest Rubber completed the Value Stream Mapping process with Enterprise Minnesota (then Minnesota Technology), but it had not focused much on lean since then. It wasn't until Anderson joined the company in 2008 that lean once again rose to the
Company HistoryFounded in 1976 by owner Chuck Anderson, Midwest Rubber focusesprimarily on two specific market segments. About 35 percent of thecompany's business is in belting and conveyer products produced for OEMssupplying the food and paper
industries. The remaining 65 percent is indie-cut rubber products, such as squeegees, for the global floor careindustry. Most of Midwest Rubber's business in the former category islocated within 250 miles of the Minneapolis plant. The company's floorcare business, however, has
expanded nationwide, and evenoverseas--including operations in the Baoshan district of Shanghai,China, and a distribution center in Italy.
"As I got involved and [saw] how things work, the culture and how things operate, all the things that gave people headaches, I thought to myself, 'There's got to be a better way than this,'" says Anderson, who started with the company as a cost analyst. "Being newer in the
manufacturing side of things, I just started looking around, doing some research, and just about everything that came up was [about] lean manufacturing."
After digging into all the research he could get his hands on, touring companies that had implemented lean manufacturing and talking to people for whom the process had worked, Anderson became a passionate advocate for lean at Midwest Rubber. The next step was to get the
company's management team on board.
Anderson worked with a lean consultant and gathered a cross-functional team of managers from within Midwest Rubber to present a lean strategy to upper management. Not only did the group decide to adopt lean practices, but also president Doug Turk, vice president of sales Roy
Campen and owner Chuck Anderson agreed it was time for a complete overhaul of the company's mission, values and overall strategic plan.
"This was an entrepreneurial company [since its founding in 1976], so for all intents and purposes [we] had not done any strategic planning up until that period of time two years ago," Turk says. "Like every organization, the culture is the first place you have to
This was especially true for Midwest Rubber, as Chuck Anderson is poised to hand over control of the company to its stakeholders -- his five children -- all of whom currently work as Midwest Rubber employees. With change on the horizon, managers and stakeholders began to see
the importance of an overall strategic plan, one that would shape the culture of the organization and guide operations into the next 30 years.
"We really pushed on the strategic planning because as Chuck Anderson was transitioning it over to the siblings we had to get more direction as far as where the company was headed," Turk says. "We wanted to understand who we were, so basically we spent almost two days
developing our mission and our vision."
"Walking the Talk"
After six months of planning, education and work with a lean consultant, Brent Anderson and his team were ready to roll out a united strategic plan for Midwest Rubber. The plan features a new company philosophy -- service comes first -- and an ongoing commitment to lean.
"We talked a lot about how things would start to change and that there would be a lot more employee involvement," says Anderson, who told employees a lean journey requires everyone's ideas and commitment. "We wanted to let them know we're going to try to promote employee
empowerment [and] make changes and improvements to the work they're doing and the work areas they're working in."
But cultural change doesn't happen overnight, especially when Midwest Rubber's old culture sometimes lacked a commitment to follow-through. Anderson and his team knew employees would require visible proof that managers were committed to following through on lean initiatives.
"There was some skepticism about it, but the only way you can combat that is by walking the talk," says Anderson. "It took some time for people to see the visible signs of that invisible reality, or the talk, that happened."
To set about walking the talk, the first lean tool Midwest Rubber put into place was an employee suggestion program on the shop floor where any employee could write a suggestion for improvement on a Post-it Note and tack it to a board.
"We wanted to start with this because anybody could do it or use it at any time," Anderson says. "We have a visual method of writing Postits on a board, [so] it's not in an in-box that sits there and collects dust. As we work on implementing the ideas, they can visually
see where it's at, where it's moving, and they can see the follow-up happening."
Seeing their ideas implemented gave Midwest Rubber employees confidence that their voices were being heard. As the program continued, and managers in charge of implementing ideas began to prove themselves to employees, the suggestions became more thoughtful, and employees
began to take ownership of their work spaces, areas and departments. To sweeten the pot, Anderson publicly recognizes employees whose ideas are successfully implemented into improvements.
"The [ideas] are across the board; they're all over the place," says Anderson. "General categories include material savings, aesthetics to our shop, comfort for the employees and safety improvements."
To date, Anderson says they've collected 116 employee suggestions, many of which have been turned into savings for Midwest Rubber. But even if an idea doesn't make it past the suggestion stage, Anderson counts it a success.
"The biggest thing is just two-way conversation," he says. "Even if it isn't accepted, there's that conversation. [Employees] truly have that comfort that this is an avenue they can use that will get heard and will get taken seriously."
With the successful employee suggestion program underway, Anderson and the lean team used 5S -- sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain -- to focus on organizing specific areas of the shop to make for smoother production.
"We have segmented our building into nine different areas of 5S responsibility," Anderson says. "We took one area at a time, trained on what 5S is and how it is important."
Midwest Rubber's pilot area for 5S, the maintenance shop, was a prime example of how 5S training can dramatically change a work area and the attitudes of those who work there. Where there were once boxes of tools, supplies and buckets stacked from floor to ceiling, now every
tool and storage cabinet has a place clearly outlined by colored tape.
"We took the worst area or area with the lowest score, which was very visible, and actually turned it into the best area or the example area," says Anderson, who credits 5S for the maintenance manager's commitment to sustain a clutter-free space. "We learned very quickly
that the tactical side of implementing these tools is not the primary focus. The buy-in and acceptance from employees doing the actual work has been the most important ingredient to success and sustainability."
After the maintenance shop success, Anderson and a cross-functional team determined a plan to implement 5S throughout the company. As of July 2010, all nine areas are maintaining 5S, and employees are reaping the rewards.
"There's a lot of association with physical and mental; the less physical clutter we have, the more mental clarity people have," Anderson says. "You can just physically look around. You can look at numbers. You can see people taking more pride in their work."
Hearing the Voice of the Customer
Lean initiatives have positively affected Midwest Rubber's internal culture, processes and bottom line, but the company's primary focus has always been, and continues to be, serving customers' needs first.
"[Lean] was really an outgrowth of our strategic planning process, looking at where we needed to go as a company and looking at the expectations of our customers," Campen says. "It's not just our customer, but it's our customer's customer. ... We have to be cognizant of
what their needs are as well and help our immediate customer deliver the product they're expecting and what their customers will need."
For Anderson, anticipating customers' needs means looking closely at each lean initiative he implements to make sure it benefits customers externally as much as it does Midwest Rubber.
"Instead of looking at all the tools out there and just grabbing one and forcing it into what we're doing, I try to [think about] what problems we are having and pick the tool that's going to help," he says. "One of the biggest approaches to lean is that the things you're
doing, the tools you're implementing, the improvements you're making, need to be perceived as value by your customers. Our lean efforts -- from individual Kaizens to 5Ss to scheduling changes -- have helped improve things like delivery and quality; those are the two measurements you
can point to that are directly impacting the customers."
Since the January 2009 kickoff, Anderson and his cross-functional teams of employees have used at least nine lean tools, including setup reduction, process mapping and flow concepts, to add value both internally and externally.
Next on the lean to-do list is leader standard work -- a process Anderson anticipates will bolster past and future lean initiatives.
"We've used a lot of [lean] tools, but there was kind of a missing piece to every tool; leader standard work is one of those that's a huge instrument," he says. "The whole purpose of the tool is to drive leaders' behavior. A lot of people would say that leaders' behavior
is one of the biggest drivers of what your culture is."
As Midwest Rubber continues on its lean journey, Anderson is pleased with the progress the company has made, but he is the first to admit he doesn't see an end in sight.
"Certain days there's more visible evidence of [success] than others," he says. "I'm aware that [lean] will never end, it's just that constant pursuit of perfection."
To learn more about Midwest Rubber, visit