Lean leadership and the Topper Industrial journey

Ryan Brown (President) & Ed Brown (Founder and Father of the Fork Truck Free Movement in North America) Topper Industrial

Ryan Brown (president) and Ed Brown (founder and father of the Fork Truck Free Movement in North America) Topper Industrial

Manufacturing journalist Tom Cutler talks with Chris Mosby, a Certified Lean Six Sigma Master Blackbelt

For more than 20 years, Topper Industrial, based just outside of Milwaukee, WI, has been a leader in the material handling equipment industry.

The company’s product roster features industrial carts, conveyors, lifts, lifts and tilts, shipping racks, containers, casters, and cart components.

From mother-daughter carts to quad steer carts to tilt carts and rotate carts, Topper’s material handling solutions make delivering material line side more effective through more efficient practices. 

Topper Industrial has a team of experienced professional experts able to assess and provide the right product for all material handling equipment requirements. Topper Industrial executives thought they were lean. And then their lean manufacturing journey began.

Manufacturing journalist, Thomas R. Cutler, recently interviewed Chris Mosby, TPS master trainer and certified Lean/Six Sigma Master Black Belt, about his work with Topper Industrial.

Mosby has been a Lean/Six Sigma trainer for more than two decades in multi-faceted, fast paced manufacturing environments. Mosby’s experience includes management assignments in quality, production, logistics, healthcare, and maintenance/engineering.

Mosby worked closely with the Topper Industrial management team as they took a lean journey to become increasingly efficient.

Ed Brown really thought the company he founded was lean. He was open and willing to discover there was room for improvement. Perhaps that open-minded attitude is what frames the condition for lean transformation and genuine leadership.

Mosby shared with Cutler that both Ed Brown, the founder of Topper Industrial and father of the North American Fork Truck Free Movement, and his son, Ryan, president of the company, empower all of employees to take ownership in achieving productivity gains, improving quality, cutting costs, and improving processes.

Never before has this commitment by leadership been more important as the company is about to double in size, plant facility, staffing, and revenue. The Topper Industrial Tube and Pipe Division is slated to open July 1, 2016.   

Cutler, who has written extensively about why lean manufacturing programs fail or succeed, has argued for decades: lean is about leadership.

Lean manufacturing initiatives cannot prevail unless the company leadership is fully committed. It is often uncomfortable, awkward, challenging, and frustrating. That said, once lean continuous process improvement becomes a habit, a lifestyle, there is no turning back.

Mosby shared the critical role of the Browns’ leadership in providing the entire team (nearly one hundred employees) an extraordinary level of support and influence with the lean journey. “Ryan and Ed truly treat their employees the way they would like to be treated. They believe that people for the most part want to do a good days work for a fair wage. They empower their employee to strive to be better and it shows in the products that come out of here.”

The Topper Lean Journey: Step by Step

Mosby noted that the first thing we did was assemble a Lean Steering Committee to develop goals and targets for the shop (safety, quality, delivery, and cost). Mosby takes up the story.

We developed a training plan for the entire shop. The entire leadership team went through a week of basic lean training. Within the first couple of weeks we began a one day introduction lean training for all employees.

In two months’ time we trained all employees on the basics of lean. We established a pilot training area (the canteen) where we were able to show “real lean tools” in an area that was familiar to all. Included in this area were tools such as Kanban, standard work, visual management, 5S, and other well-established methodologies.

We did this so we could show how some of these tools could be transferred and used (Yoketen) to other areas.

The first major process change came with the development of the container line (Topper Industrial’s first assembly line). We used Takt time and balanced that time to the cycle time of the operators and made the containers in a one-piece flow method. There were constraints using kitting, pull systems, and it had to be fork truck free.

This was a new way of building for Topper Industrial

Here is a quick breakdown of before and after the process change:

Before: Job shop method: The process required 20 operators to build 90 units a day

After: Assembly line method: The process now requires just 13 operators to build 90 units a day

No lean journey is a success without encountering resistance. Mosby explained that initially resistance came from employees who had failed lean experiences in previous companies. When we introduced the lean initiative at Topper many who were resistant at the beginning of the process, suddenly found lean to be a new process for which they had never been fully taught.

Cutler described that shop floor workers are sometimes afraid that lean (eliminating waste) means eliminating jobs. This was not the case at Topper. The shop floor workers were among the most receptive to the lean initiative. Mosby said it has been a complete change for the guys; the 6S program means that every day at least four groups of two workers are asked to do a 6S audit.  The next day those same groups were given the time to fix one of the issues they found and repair the best way they deemed fit. This empowered the team to be solution finders (rather than fault finders).

The new tube and pipe division intersects perfectly with the lean programs in place. The team is taking many lessons learned and are including them right and making it part of the launch; layout, processes, standards, and more.

Mosby, who has used Lean Six Sigma methods in a variety of manufacturing cultures, told Cutler what surprised him most at Topper Industrial was the fact that, “I have been allowed to try things that I never would have in a typical lean transformation, and I am a big advocate of empowerment. So I wanted to try an experiment with empowering people to take ownership.”

Topper Industrial

A clean canteen at Topper Industrial part of the Lean Journey

The Lean canteen at Topper Industrial

The canteen at Topper has a cleaning schedule that everyone (from Ryan and Ed to the newly hired) participate. Every two days someone new cleans the canteen for two days. Day one the employee is trained on how to clean the canteen, using the canteen’s standard work, visual management, 5S, shadow boards to reinforce the lean training provided. Day two the person cleans the canteen independently. Sounds simple, but this single exercise has resulted in an immaculate canteen, manufacturing cells, plant floor, and entire operation. If a company can have a lean canteen, the rest of the operation is simply continuous process improvement.

Author Profile: Thomas R. Cutler is the President & CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based, TR Cutler, Inc., (www.trcutlerinc.com) Cutler is the founder of the Manufacturing Media Consortium including more than 6000 journalists, editors, and economists writing about trends in manufacturing, industry, material handling, and process improvement. Cutler authors more than 500 feature articles annually regarding the manufacturing sector and is the most published freelance industrial journalist worldwide. Cutler can be contacted at trcutler@trcutlerinc.com and can be followed on Twitter @ThomasRCutler.

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