The management philosophy "lean" is centered on making obvious what adds value by reducing everything else. This week we look at Kiwi companies' lean strategies and how it works for them.

Marina Hirst Tristram is executive director of operations at Tasman Bay Food Group, which manufactures and sells food products.

When and why did you decide to introduce lean thinking into your operation?

I'm not sure where I first heard about lean but I went on a trip to Japan about five years ago and was lucky enough to go to the original Toyota factory in Toyoda. I'd heard about Toyota's reputation about being super-efficient at making cars but didn't really know the background.

We got to watch the cars coming through the paint shop, with some very impressive robots, as expected, but I totally didn't expect to see one red Prius coming through, followed by one blue Corolla, followed by another different model in a different colour and so on. I was expecting all one colour, all one model. I suppose that's what initially challenged my thoughts around batch manufacturing, which is what we did and what I thought was normal.

Myself and two of our managers then went to Kiwi lean guru Bryan Travers' course and found out some more - that was about three years ago, and it wasn't until just over a year ago that we were ready to start.


What motivated you to get started?

It really came after the whole organisation got together and worked out a clear purpose and values. It turned out some of those values included 'continuous improvement' and 'striving for excellence'.

So we had that direction and I felt that lean would give us the framework to get there. The concept of lean sounded great, but we really had no idea about where to start. We joined the Nelson-Marlborough lean cluster and it was awesome to visit businesses like Redwood Cider Company, Sealord and BNZ and begin to understand the practicalities of actually implementing lean.

We realised two things: one, it was going to take a lot of effort and time and two, we didn't have the experience or skills to go it alone. We also heard from businesses where they'd given it two attempts and failed and we didn't want to be one of those.

We applied for Callaghan Innovation funding and found a consultant to help us. The one thing we'd already decided was we weren't in a hurry; we wanted to bed new things into our culture rather than rush things and fail.

What have been the primary practical steps you've taken so far on your lean journey?

We kicked off just under a year ago with two things: morning meetings and 5S. We have 40 to 50 people working at Tasman Bay and every morning everyone has a five-minute stand up meeting where we go through a set agenda that includes health and safety; yesterday's production, dispatch and sales versus plan; issues for today and a few other things.

We've learned that production likes to know how sales is going and sales get an understanding of the challenges of production. I think this knowledge will help us in the future when we really get into some lean techniques that will challenge the way we do things. The communication is great - it has brought us closer as a team, and it's amazing what everyone can learn in a five-minute meeting.

The other lean technique we learned straight away is 5S: sort, straighten, shine, standardise and sustain. We were already pretty proud of our site because it's only eight years old but once we learned about 5S we've taken ourselves to the next level. I can now say that everything on our site is there because we need it. Our space is used for 'value adding', everything is in its place and there's no junk lying about.

We've also implemented 'problem boards' - the beginning of our team deciding what creates waste and what they can do to improve it, and recording repetitive problems to find the biggest problems on certain products. One example here is with our fruit bars; they might get burnt bases or casing cracks and by recording these things we then know what we need to work on first. It may seem simple but it's amazing what you think is normal until you start recording it!

We've also implemented some kanban [inventory control system] and are beginning to implement KPIs.

What benefits are you seeing so far?

Early on everyone was busy and it was hard to see much progress. The morning meetings structured our communication, which was awesome and we do really feel on the same page now.

The problem boards have been really successful and a great medium for the whole team to record problems and suggest how things can improve. This initially produced lots of things for our engineer to resolve but now we're all beginning to think about efficiencies and the problems are beginning to be centred around reducing waste and increasing efficiencies.

What have been some of the challenges of introducing lean into the business so far, and what factors have helped you meet those?

There have been a few. First of all, there was a lack of experience and knowledge and our consultant has been great in helping us with this, as well as helping us keep up momentum. There are seven of us pushing lean through the business too, and we help keep things moving.

I think sustaining the concept in the business is a challenge, so we're trying to take things slowly, letting each technique bed in and become part of 'the way we do things round here'.

Last of all I think there's the challenge of embedding it in the culture. We've worked hard to make lean part of what we do, talking about it all the time, involving everyone and helping managers that need help.