Sounds Like Lean in Michigan


TOM WALSH: Custom vehicle builder Spartan Motors has a can-do culture

The article doesn't mention “Lean,” but it's nice to see a positive story coming out of the manufacturing world in Michigan. No surprise, it's from a small company instead of one of the Detroit Three or the traditional suppliers. It's about a company, Spartan Manufacturing, that employs about 1,000 and builds heavy military vehicles.

Do they have some wiz-bang automation or special technology?

It's not about some unique proprietary product or whiz-bang new technology. Spartan's factories have virtually no automation.

John Sztykiel, Spartan's president and CEO, says it's all about culture and the customer.

That starts sounding like a Lean factory, in a way, right? The factory isn't outsourcing everything it can or trying to rely on cheap labor. They are partnering with their employees and working together to solve problems and to meet customer needs.

It sounds like a very egalitarian culture, which I think sets a good example for teamwork:

None of Spartan's nondescript buildings — named Plant 1, Plant 2 on through Plant 8 — is an obvious headquarters. So I drove up to Plant 1, only to be told Sztykiel's office was in Plant 3 on the next street over. Neither he nor other top officers have preferred parking spaces.

Hourly production workers are paid a base wage of $14 to $16 per hour, and everyone is eligible for a quarterly bonus based on return on invested capital.

That's not a really high UAW, but it also seems like Spartan is not trying to be cheap with their employees, either. It's a good sign that turnover is low:

Spartan executives say that worker turnover company wide — there are also 400 workers at three other locations in South Dakota, South Carolina and Pennsylvania — is only 5% per year.

“I used to think we were in the automotive business,” Sztykiel said, but he has recently decided that Spartan is in the business of solving complex problems for its customers. “And we have a lot more confidence in the American worker to solve complex problems than other companies do,” he added.

That's outstanding. They are putting trust in their workers to solve problems. Isn't that what any work or any Lean effort is about, solving problems and improving continuously? I wonder what formal problem solving methods they use, if any?

Again, there's nothing to indicate that Spartan is using Lean methods, but it sure sounds like the culture and the environment would be ready for it.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Spartan definitely uses lean methods. I wrote about them more than five years ago in the Lean Manufacturing Advisor newsletter. The article included a quote from their CEO who said “We believe in the power of the individual to identify waste. We give them clear direction and definition of what waste is. We think it’s more beneficial to have all associates in the company saying here’s waste, and eliminate it, even if it’s one dollar. There is no waste too big or too small.”
    If anyone is interested, I can supply a copy of the article.


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