Lean, Leadership, and Employee Engagement at Whirlpool


I recently read this article on the IndustryWeek website:

Whirlpool's Green Takes Aim at World Class Manufacturing

Byron Green, the vice president of manufacturing for Whirlpool's 14 factories in the U.S. and Mexico, said:

“…manufacturing was littered with companies that saw lean as a collection of tools that could be deployed for a quick win. Successful companies, he said, instead see it as a bedrock of their culture.”

I think this is very true in healthcare and other settings. As Toyota leaders say, Lean and the Toyota Production System are a culture and a philosophy, not just a set of tools. Lean is also not a quick fix or silver bullet. Although Lean concepts might seem simple (often deceptively so), it's challenging and it takes time to change or transform an organization and its culture.

Since joining Whirlpool, Green has been on the road a lot:

“I have to be on the floor and present, and talking about the strategic things that we want to do to move forward,” he said.

Note that this is the OPPOSITE strategy of the Sears CEO Eddie Lampert who is said to:

“rarely visits stores and has urged executives to adopt a similar policy, arguing they can collect more data more quickly by connecting with store managers over videoconferences, former executives say.”

But, back to a company with a future… Whirlpool's Green talks about the need to engage employees on the shopfloor and that's part of the shift that's coming in their new approach to Lean:

The input comes from the bottom to the top versus the top down,” he says. Whirlpool wants to create workplaces where employees are safe, focused on achieving business goals and feel that they are working at a place where they “want to work.” To help measure employee engagement, Whirlpool has implemented an active suggestion system.

“We have a base of some 20,000 employees working for us every single day. That workforce has a tremendous number of ideas. We need to capture them and really react to them,” he told IndustryWeek.

I agree with him on this:

Green said not acting on employee suggestions is a “tremendous demotivator” and a “failure of leadership.” He said manufacturing leaders have to become more like teachers, taking information from employees and working on problem-solving.

When employees feel that speaking up is “futile,” it's understandable why they would give up.

At KaiNexus, our customers like Whirlpool do a lot to engage every employee so they speak up with ideas for improving their work… and the other key is responding, coaching, and collaborating with staff to help turn their ideas into implemented improvements. We simply provide a platform that helps facilitate that work.

Green also says:

“If you're not continuously improving, somebody is going to catch you – your competitors.”

It's always great to see examples of these leadership beliefs… whether it's in manufacturing or in any industry or setting. This is all pretty universal stuff, don't you think?

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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.



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