Andrew Lingel, President of United Plastic Fabricating Inc. (UPF) in North Andover, Massachusetts—developer of the leading Poly-Tank® and PolyBody® for the fire and trucking industry—has been working to take the business to its next level through lean thinking and practice for the last five years. For the past three years, with support from Karl Ohaus of Lean Transformations Group, Lingel and his team have achieved incredible business performance improvement gains (model line productivity up 40%, all productivity up 15%, warrantee cost down 40%), but Lingel knows there is still a long way to go.
This interview is the first in a new Lean Transformations Group series with CEOs across all industries who are rethinking their systems and processes to lead their teams into the future. We are grateful to Andrew Lingel for sharing his reflections with LTG, which we hope may be useful to other leaders.
WHERE IS THE BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT ENERGY AT UPF?
UPF is at an interesting place for an organization that’s been in business for about 30 years. We have team members who have been with us for 20+ years and they see things one way whereas some of our newer folks see things another way. We’ve brought in people who have a different thinking process. Sometimes this creates a real clash because people just have drastically different mindsets. It’s tough. Often there is a lot of resistance to change.
The new energy in the organization is coming from one of two places: the newer people who think differently about their work or the veterans who perhaps have always had a predisposition to thinking critically about their work, but had that mindset suppressed one way or another… but they didn’t leave because they wanted to move the company forward.
HOW IS UPF’S BUSINESS CHANGING?
Right now, COVID-19 is the biggest change for us. Reflecting on [needing to work from home], from an office perspective, it was really impressive to see how fast we were able to do that. I think if it was three years ago, it would have been a disaster. But by fostering change and a lot of change all of the time, our teams have become more adaptable. People are more able to change quickly as outside events change, and they don’t need so much handholding. People aren’t paralyzed asking, “How’s this going to work?” At UPF, we began by fostering a continuous improvement spirit or at least adaptability.
A million changes have happened in last three years, so what’s one more?
Just looking at our engineering group, our setup was visually managed with paper flows and handoffs… But for a while some people wanted to go back to the model of one craft builder with a design. But when we couldn’t do that, we had to figure out what would come next… just being able to see that was very impressive. One of the funny things that came out of this group’s work had to do with the andon (a visual management tool based on the lean idea that problems are treasures that signals abnormal conditions to leadership and the rest of the team). In the print production process, we’d been trying to reinforce pulling the andon as needed. Every time a person had a question, the other person would say, “Hit the andon first before I answer the question.” Then we started working at home with no andon, and one person in particular really struggled. Most of us thought, “Why not just ask the question?” But this person was struggling. So then the team worked to create a virtual andon in the new online office space. I thought that was fascinating… how quickly the team adapted.
HOW DID YOU HELP PEOPLE MAKE LEAN WORK FOR THEM?
I don’t know that I’ve done that yet. I’d love to help people do that! That’s the trick, right? The real success is creating other lean leaders, but that’s really hard. I’m not sure we’ve done it yet.
You make a difference as a leader when you understand the [larger] purpose of what you’re doing. You’ve got people working to improve quality, delivery, cost… but the ultimate goal is to stay sustainable. You’re doing these things because you think there’s an actual benefit to the bottom line, your employees, and your customers. That’s why I think leaders need to have those three things Karl Ohaus and I always talk about to do this work: knowledge, grit, and outrage. A lot of people lack knowledge and you can start by giving them knowledge… but at the end of the day, I think people need to be bothered by the fact that something is not working as well as it could be working… I get annoyed by things that don’t work well, and I want to fix things. Outrage is really the key component that no one really talks about.
I’ve probably read 40 or 50 books on Lean, and no one really gets into the fact that you have to give a damn.
From what I’ve seen, organizations are mostly dishonest about what they’ve done to improve their work. People want to say they’ve created all these amazing lean leaders, but often, when you look under the hood, the leaders aren’t there. For example, our small plant improved productivity by 100%… but there are still so many problems with it. It’s the best plant in the company, we’ve made a ton of improvements, and we still have a long way to go. As a leader, you have to have a dissatisfaction about your current state.
WHAT IS NEXT FOR YOUR BUSINESS?
I think it goes back again to being dissatisfied. The progress we’ve made is amazing, and it’s agonizingly frustrating because we can still see where we should be. How do we improve operations, not let people go, improve work, and meet the next goal? How do we help people think their way into a new way of working, or in some cases, work their way into a new way of thinking?... It’s not so easy to just tell someone what to do and have it get done. There are times when we’re working with many different constraints, but we are still driving towards perfection. You can’t just give in. And with lean thinking, we talk about respect for people, and that’s part of it. But, as individuals, we also have to respect ourselves enough to want to create value for the company. It’s our responsibility to self-improve within our own line of work, too.
UPF is also a high mix, custom manufacturing organization. Most companies doing lean work are high volume, low mix places. But to organizations that have a lot more mix and think lean isn’t applicable to them, I would say it’s the essence of these ideas that are important. You’re not as unique as you think you are.
If Toyota can figure this out, I think we can figure this out.