How Continuous Improvement Saved a Major US Manufacturer Twice

posted on: Tuesday February 21, 2017

success-2029803_1280Did you know that the lean strategy Just-in-Time (JIT) was modeled after a supermarket? Taiichi Ohno, former Vice President of Toyota, promoted the idea of JIT from the concept that at a grocery store, the “next process” (or customer) goes to the “preceding process” (the supermarket) to retrieve the exact “parts” that are necessary in exactly the quantity that is needed. The idea clearly worked because Toyota is known for the birth of its very successful lean manufacturing strategies.

Toyota’s success with lean wasn’t the only reason our featured US company took note of their tactics, however. Other Japanese automotive makers quickly adopted the lean model, and because of that, they were putting this other company out of business after World War II. As you may have guessed, I’m talking about Harley Davidson.

Japanese companies were selling their quality bikes a lot cheaper, and as Harley Davidson (HD) soon learned, it was because it simply cost them less to manufacture. HD visited some of the Japanese companies and discovered that there were three practices that made the difference: employee involvement, statistical process control, and JIT.

The implementation of JIT, including Continuous Improvement, catapulted HD out of its funk. It was able to reduce costs and climb its way to the top of the motorcycle industry. It enjoyed a good run for a few decades. As any manufacturer who has been trying lean for a while knows: it’s easy to discontinue some of the core lean concepts once a plant is humming along. Did HD stop practicing Continuous Improvement?

To an extent, that is very likely.

HD has been offering plant tours since the 70s, which means that at least some of the JIT concepts had to be active. At the very least, they were practicing 5S. If you let the public in to see your plant, it’s got to be presentable.

However, in 2007, HD faced closure of three factories. Nearly 3,000 employees feared losing their jobs and went on strike. With the tough economy, HD needed labor unions to reduce jobs, wages, and benefits. It was years later that the president and CEO of HD announced, “Together with our unions, Harley-Davidson is making the necessary changes across all our production facilities to succeed in a competitive, global marketplace. The company is well on its way to build a world-class, sustainable, lean operating structure.”

Today if you tour a plant, there is strong evidence of the “Continuous Improvement System.” It’s apparent in the team boards titled “Continuous Improvement,” and the employees use lean daily meeting structures and problem solving escalation. A representative was quoted in HOG magazine as saying, “In a culture of continuous improvement, Harley-Davidson employees work every day to be the new factory, looking for ways to reinvent the process.”

If you’re struggling to get lean to work, or if you’re new to the model, remember that ongoing Continuous Improvement is necessary throughout the life of your business. Without it, your manufacturing methods will become outdated. If you don’t have the right equipment to make JIT work, talk to Load Mover Inc. about their battery-powered tugs. The employees are familiar with both JIT and Continuous Improvement. They sell solutions, meaning you will know exactly how to use their tugs to eliminate the most waste and support ongoing Continuous Improvement. Call them at 952-767-1720 or email