Learn from the best: Five takeaways from AME Chicago 2019

Following from the largest Lean and continuous improvement conference, Manufacturers’ Monthly speaks with Australian attendees to find out what they learn from the five days.

Implementing Lean manufacturing processes in a business can be an ongoing process, but one that, just as it expounds in production, can always be improved. For businesses in Australia who have embraced this philosophy there are a myriad of sources to inform this journey Sometimes, however, an international perspective is needed, and for a select group of businesses this was gained through attending the Association for Manufacturing Excellence’s (AME) 35th annual international conference. Held in Chicago, from November 4 to 7, representatives of Australian manufacturing business Note Printing Australia were in attendance.

Note Printing Australia, a subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of Australia, manufactures Australia’s bank notes and passports, as well as for a number of other countries. As Peter Ballas, head of business excellence, described, the business had been on a Lean journey for the past few years. This began when Note Printing Australia had to prepare for the roll out of Australia’s second polymer bank note series, with the new $5 note entering into circulation in 2016.

“It started with Strategic Policy Deployment. We are now in our fourth year of that process.”

This Lean tool, known as hoshin kanri, ensures that the entire business is aligned with the strategic goals set by management. However, Ballas found that in implementing the strategy, only a few employees were implementing the delivery of the tactics set out at a mid-management level, and that the wider capabilities of the workforce were not driving the overall goals.

This would become a more significant issue as the initial production of the new series of bank notes wound down.

“We were faced with a significant change in the future,” said Ballas. “Once we’d come off our launch volumes our replenishment volume is significantly lower, so we had to prepare for that change. We looked at Lean as the only viable strategy.”

Tactics that Ballas and the team implemented involved not only strategic policy deployment, but also A3 thinking, which emphasises the plan, do, check, act (PDCA) process. In addition, 5S (sort, straighten, shine, standardise, sustain) methodology, and value stream mapping exercises.

Having begun to work through these strategies, Ballas saw a change in the organisation.

“We’ve still got a lot more work to do, but off the bat we started to really see a significant engagement. Front-line workers can make a contribution in the business and are very enthusiastic about it because they see their own development and they see they’ve had a positive impact in the business. They’ve impacted strategy and they can see they also have a positive impact on our customer.”

In these circumstances, Ballas and a colleague, Frank Correa, strategy deployment and business improvement manager, travelled to AME Chicago. After returning, they shared their top five reasons why AME Chicago was right for them.

1. Go in with a plan

Stretching over five days and with sessions spread all throughout each day, Ballas highlighted the importance of knowing what he and his organisation needed to get out of the conference. In addition, there were 40 best practice tours of surrounding manufacturing businesses, so selecting those that make the most sense for the business maximised the learnings from each session.

Ballas came in with this knowledge having been to the 2018 version of the conference, held in San Diego.

“For me, the San Diego experience was go in with an intention and make sure you research the program and what’s available. See where the gaps are in what you’re doing and going with an intention to fill those gaps,” said Ballas.

2. Target your learning

Understanding that Lean is not one single gospel, that can be distilled into a single set of teachings, was part of appreciating the diversity of approaches that were on display at AME Chicago. For Ballas, this dovetailed with his own attitude to Lean.

“My understanding of Lean is it’s a holistic business system and it needs to be developed for what makes sense to the actual business and customer context it works in,” said Ballas. “I’m not a believer in cookie cutter, off the shelf claims that gets imposed on organisations. It’s more about building a system that makes sense for the business and putting in the right tools and the right philosophy at the right time for what the business needs.”

The particular issues that Note Printing Australia was confronting informed Ballas and Correa’s approach to AME Chicago.

“We’re currently building our daily management system,” said Ballas. “It’s a somewhat fragmented system that we’re trying to pull together into a connected link system. We’re also struggling to keep track of all the cost savings.

“I was looking for ways of improving or bringing in some newfound information.”

Having a clear understanding of which programs and processes they needed to improve, both Ballas and Correa targeted their attendance to these areas needing refinement.

“A lot of the workshops that I went to at Chicago were driven around looking for improvements and looking for ideas in the strategic side,” said Correa. “Getting the alignment at the executive level, the key projects that drive the strategic change for the business, as well the people centric side of trying to engage your complete workforce at every level.”

Having this in mind, Ballas and Correa applied what they heard at the conference to their own issues.

“A theme that came out, was run the experiment,” said Ballas. “You’ve got to experiment and take that risk, in a controlled manner, and do those continual steps forward.”

Using this theme, Ballas and Correa are now planning how to implement this at home.

“The next step forward is that focus on continuous improvement in a particular area for a couple of days and just see what comes out of that,” said Ballas.

For Correa, applying what he learnt at AME Chicago created a firm foundation for further implementation.

“It was a lot of validation on the path we were on. We’ve really got an aggressive target on what we want to do, we want to compress our strategic planning cycle to three months, and I was worried that was that too aggressive,” said Correa. “I’ve come out thinking this is the right thing to do.”









3. Find people who share your experience

For both Correa and Ballas, while the keynotes and demonstrations were important, a great value of being at AME Chicago, in person, was the human interactions they had.

“To me, the goal is not necessarily the information that you get in the presentation but the connections that you make, the ability to contact someone and just tease out another level of detail on what you got from the conference,” said Ballas. “That’s invaluable.”

In particular, Ballas and Correa noted how attendees from the US were more open and willing to engage than those who they would have otherwise spoken with.

“Culturally, Americans are very different to us, very sharing, while we tend to be a little bit more guarded,” said Ballas.

“They’re very open and they’re very willing to share their experiences and what’s worked as well as they’re very willing to share what hasn’t worked,” concurred Correa.

These connections have also gone towards implementing further development of Note Printing Australia’s processes.

“One network connection I made I brought into Australia,” said Ballas. “He did a workshop on site, he did two or three days of consulting directly with our executive and management team, and he ran a workshop for the local AME at the 2018 conference.”

To make this possible, however, the sharing has to go both ways, something that Ballas noted after visiting a US manufacturer.

“We visited a business for a whole day, and they opened up their books, they welcomed us, and rescheduled their monthly meeting so we could attend and watch how they did their monthly continuous improvement meeting. That’s the power of networking and it just builds, but you’ve got to get out and talk to people and share your frustrations and your breakthroughs and invariably it all comes back from what you give, but you’ve got to give.”

4. Get first-hand insights

Although keynote speakers can often be the initial draw for conferences, for Ballas it was the workshops and practitioner sessions that kept him engaged.

“You have your professional presenters, your keynotes, real pros that do the speaker circuits in the US, they’re always interesting, but they’re usually pretty high level. It really piques your interest and then you go and do a bit more research in that space, but the practitioner sessions can be really good. They can be anywhere from an hour to two hours long, and these are guys actually doing work that presents their work.”

What particularly interested Ballas was a presentation from a continuous improvement leader from a municipality in Canada who presented a cost analysis for all the projects in a town of 40,000 applying Lean inside the council.

“It was just fascinating. If he can do it with a council and get these results, there’s no reason why I can’t. He openly shared his models and information and supplied his email, and said, ‘Please talk to me because, in explaining it, I understand it better’.”

5. Grapple with a more uncertain business environment

As global and local changes change the outlook for businesses both at a local level and through global trade networks, being able to be agile and responsive to change is increasingly important. For Note Printing Australia, this is combined with changes in consumer practice.

“In the business we’re in – cash manufacturing – we’re getting lambasted with all sorts of technologies which is impacting the use of cash, creating an increasingly more complex and fickle environment to operate in,” said Ballas.

By empowering people, as seen in the people centric leadership focus of Lean, which was on display in Chicago, practitioners and participants shared their strategies for agility.

“The world’s becoming increasingly more unstable and it’s increasingly more important for businesses to become more agile,” said Ballas. “Stitched right through was the importance of people and really engaging people in the business. If you’re not doing this and doing it well, you’re going to be left out of the race.”

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