Lean Louisville Sluggers

Louisville Slugger: The sweet spot:

As the article points out, Kentucky is quite the hotbed of lean manufacturing, with the influence of the Toyota Georgetown plant. Another company claims to have been at it longer, Hillerich and Bradsby, the maker of the famous Louisville Slugger baseball bats, who started their journey with W. Edwards Deming back in the 80’s:

“An NBC television program on W. Edwards Deming titled, ‘If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?’ stoked Jack Hillerich’s interest. In 1984, he and another company executive attended a seminar taught by Deming.

‘We said, ‘OK, the Asians are coming. We better improve the quality of the product,” says Hillerich. ‘We went to Deming’s seminar, and he didn’t talk about the quality of our product – not for one second. He talked about staying in business. He talked about the fact that if you don’t change, you won’t succeed and you won’t be here tomorrow. And, he talked about quality of management.

‘We were thinking that we needed to make our products a little bit better with more quality. We came away thinking that we needed to improve the overall quality of our company.’

Hillerich eventually sent 40 employees (20 from management and 20 from the union) to five-day Deming seminars.

Around the same time, he also instituted elements of Total Productive Maintenance, just-in-time manufacturing and Japan-style continuous improvement.

I love how they focused on getting better instead of making excuses that Japanese companies like Mizuno had an unfair advantage.

I love how their focus is on people, their employees, that Lean is a mindset, not a cost-cutting toolbox.

“We live this stuff every day,” says Hillerich. “It’s to the point where people on the plant floor aren’t even thinking about it, but they are doing it.”

Adds production coordinator Brian Hillerich, who is Jack’s nephew and Bob’s younger brother, “Continuous improvement has always been the mantra here.”

Louisville workers consistently develop innovative ideas that eliminate problems, and improve productivity and reliability.

When I work with organizations, I preach that we need to progress from our initial “Lean Projects” to a “Lean way of business” until we get to a point where Lean is “just the way we do business” rather than some foreign concept. It sounds like H&B is there.

For all of the continuous improvement talk, a few concerns jump out in the article. One is this picture to the left, what appears to be a large batch of bats waiting to be loaded into a sanding machine. Why such large batches? Why not have a sanding machine as part of a baseball bat cell? Does H&B still have a departmental layout?

Another concern is their talk about driving towards automating as much as they can. What will they do with employees who are replaced by the automation?

Big questions, I hope they are solving them in a way that won’t undercut the Lean mindset and Lean business success.

“Over the past six months, we have doubled our workforce,” says Stewart. “Half of our workforce averages 35 years on the job; the other half has six months.”

Sounds like a great opportunity for leveraging the experience, via the Training Within Industry program, to help bring along the new employees!

The Louisville facility’s old guard has begun to retire, and the retirements will only increase in the next few years.

Production is bracing for the departure of craftsmen who have operated bat lathes, painting equipment, foil-branding machines and fire branders for decades.

“Once these people leave, I will be in a world of hurt,” says Brian Hillerich. “That’s not too much of an exaggeration.”

The plant is open to the public for tours, nearly every day, so maybe one of our Kentucky readers can visit and give us a first-hand report??

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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3 Comments on "Lean Louisville Sluggers"

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Louisville Slugger’s aluminum bat factory in Ontario, California is closing down with all of their manufacturing operations moving to Taiwan. They tried implementation of Lean concepts over the past years but finally gave up and moved off-shore.

  2. Andrea says:

    I’ve been lucky enough to get a personalized walk through (what can I say; I’ve got the Louisville connection.) It really is an amazing factory. I didn’t know a thing about Lean when I was there though (well, ok, I knew it was about removing waste in processes) so I’m not sure if my memories will help answer any of your questions. I can help fill in some details though.

    First, the building is in the heart of downtown. The article says Main St. but I’m not sure that really conveys the fact that their factory is in the same area as the center for the arts, and Humana headquarters. It’s actually two old downtown landmarks that are now joined by a lovely covered “breezeway” kind of lobby. I’ve walked past the building a lot, and I didn’t even realize that most of the ground floor is a factory. I’ve always thought of factories as these nasty things you put out in the poor side of town. Not this one. It’s definitely pretty enough for the family who wants to do the science museum/Imax/Slugger tour kind of outing.

    I can also tell you that the one sign I saw in the offices was their mission and values statements, and those were so impressively people-focused that I commented to our tour guide that if even half of those beliefs were true on a daily basis, I would work here for the rest of my life. She gave me a knowing smile and informed me that they were all true, and all very much in practice. Like most of their employees he’s been with the company for decades. She knows I’m not into baseball though, and everyone I spoke with seemed to be obsessed with it. :)

    The factory itself was very smooth flowing. Everything is behind Plexiglas because of the tours, so I did sort of feel sorry for the workers in the “fishbowl” environment. I don’t remember seeing much batching. People had a small store of things they were working from, and I do remember seeing someone who was bringing a small cartload of cylinders to what looked like a lathe. The guy working the lathe had very few cylinders left when the new ones arrived. I remember thinking that was cool; the machine operator didn’t have to stop what he was doing to go get more work. We were touring in the early evening, so it may be that he was finishing up his daily work and this was tomorrow’s batch being delivered.

    Hmm, now I want to go back and take another tour with new eyes.

  3. Joe W says:

    I’ve been through the facility (a year ago) and I’m not sure I would call it “lean”. In fact, I clearly remember annoying my wife talking about how the work could be re-arranged. It seems like pretty much what it is…a traditional, craftsman based job shop. Each product is made for a specific customer, from specific wood stock, to specific lengths and weights, in a specific color and with a specific taper.

    There isn’t a real sense of FIFO or flow or anything to the work with the exception that the product seems to move from one end to another. There are bins of WIP between processes, almost all of which are islands to themselves. The batch process is, I’m guessing, a byproduct of wanting to keep identical lots of wood-stock together through the process until they become marked (about 2/3 of the way through the process) and that customer demand is typically to get a batch at a time. However, the lots are not well marked and controlled and could easily be mixed up or misdirected. The best automation that I saw was a lathe that had several (can’t remember the exact capacity) players’ bat profiles programmed. There was also some automated finishing (paint/stain/marking) operations and other lathes in the process.

    All that being said, it was a really neat process. As a lifelong baseball fan, it was well worth the time and even my wife (who doesn’t like baseball) enjoyed the museum and tour. If you go, do it for the baseball aspect, not the lean one.

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