Changing for the Long-Term

Shannon Wetzel, Managing Editor

AFS Corporate Member The C.A. Lawton Co. (De Pere, Wisconsin) is on a continuous improvement journey, one that CEO Alex Lawton has charted to bring the foundry to world-class manufacturing levels. But it will take discomfort, commitment and time. Lawton is taking the long view.

“If you care about the place and the totality of it over time, you have to be willing to make yourself and other people really uncomfortable in order to do that,” he said. “Lean is our journey. It’s the most democratic approach I found, and it’s continuous.”

Lawton is a fifth-generation family business, but for a time, Alex Lawton was working in Chicago, away from the legacy. He returned to the foundry in 2003 to help the company during the post 9/11 recession. The temporary gig turned into 15 years and counting.

Coming from a career in financial services, Alex Lawton began dreaming of making their metalcasting business more sophisticated.

“Let’s be a modern manufacturer that happens to be a foundry,” he said. “It turned out to be one heck of a mountain to climb and it took forever to figure out how to more effectively deploy beyond spasms of doing better.”

About three years ago, Alex Lawton settled on using the principles of lean manufacturing to improve the business, and he wanted to do it wholeheartedly. The lynchpin to keeping Lawton committed was hiring Barry Adamski as COO three years ago.

“He was the lead and the champion and had a lot more experience and knowledge about how to do it,” Alex Lawton said.

Lawton also brought on lean manufacturing consultant Cathlin Stuntz, who worked on a contract basis with the foundry for 10 months before she was hired full time in September 2018 as the continuous improvement leader.

“I was planning on going into semi-retirement but now here I am back to full time,” she said. “I did it because of what they do and how they do it and the culture they are driving toward. I’ve been in manufacturing for 40 years and the last three years I’ve been working with up to 10 organizations as a consultant. Never have I worked with a company that is as passionate and driven behind safety and continuous improvement.”

When Alex Lawton decided to commit to changing the company’s culture and processes, he knew it would require the staff, from shop floor to management, to be flexible and open to change. But he also felt any real, long-term beneficial change would need full commitment.

“We were doing some lean things, but on the side,” said Ron Baus, director of project management. “When Barry came in, it was pushed harder. Rather than dabbling, it was all out, let’s go for it.”

The initiative was a turnaround-type project for a company that was not in dire straits, which added to the difficulty of convincing everyone the pain of change was necessary.

“We weren’t broken the same way you are in a classic turnaround,” Alex Lawton said. “We were performing pretty well, relative to many in the foundry industry. But I don’t want to be a relatively good foundry. I want us to be setting the standard and compare well to any industry. And there was no way a little bit of ‘try hard’ or a reactive focus from time to time would get us to where we wanted to be.”

The company committed fully to taking its lean journey in 2016, and since then has implemented several steps, including:
6S events in the foundry, machine shop and pattern shop.
Flow or pull system analysis and reorganization of the foundry.
Kaizen applied to many non-production processes such as quoting, contract review and shipping.
Reorganization of the pattern shop to improve the speed of making styrofoam tooling.
Supervisors and hourly workers trained in value stream mapping.

Plus, Adamski believes Lawton now has the framework and the team in place to empower individual employees to make smart decisions and find solutions to problems quickly.

“People can now look at their own job and their own work and come together as a team to create their own best practices as a group with engineering’s involvement in a kaizen setting,” Adamski said. “They agree upon, here’s the one best way.”

As part of the lean initiative, Lawton encourages its employees to submit ideas that would make their job safer, easier, better or faster at a cost under $50 and two hours or less to implement. The company posts each idea on the walls along its office halls. The project began in 2016, when employees submitted 130 ideas. In 2017, they submitted 600. In 2018, Lawton challenged to its employees to submit 3,000 ideas. They met the challenge by September. The ideas only count if they are implemented.

“Ideas are a dime a dozen, the reality is in actually implementing,” Adamski said. “One of four ideas is spectacular, two are decent and one is ‘eh.’ I’ll take that. It’s a big difference maker.”

It’s important for the full workforce at Lawton to participate in coming up with ideas and figuring out best practices so they will have ownership of the change once it is put into action, Stuntz said. Plus, those closest to the work will know the intricacies of the process.

“We are setting up the parameter for decision making—pull, not pushing, being visual, etc. Within those parameters, folks get to figure it out,” Alex Lawton said. “We try not to make it seem as a referendum on what we had been doing. The way we were doing something was not necessarily bad but maybe there’s a better way. It had its place in time, and now we are picking a new thing to do to get where we want to go moving forward.”   

A kaizen event at a specific area has the potential to be stressful for the employees who have been working in that area, but it can turn out to be a positive event.

“Part of the agreements of the kaizen is to be patient with one another,” Stuntz said. “Target area employees have to understand we are going to ask a lot of crazy questions, and the facilitator has to understand the target area employees have ownership because they are the ones who build that process. Through the week, you can see them going from being defensive to realizing, ‘you are going to listen to me, you are doing it with me instead of to me.’”

One of the biggest wins so far for Lawton and its continuous improvement is decreasing the time it took to complete foam tooling. The iron foundry has its own pattern shop and uses wood, urethane and foam patterns for its wide variety of parts. Over the years, foam patterns have become a larger part of the pattern shop and Lawton wanted to get the patterns completed faster.

“The jobs we make foam patterns for are by nature late by the time it gets to the foundry,” Baus said. “This was a kaizen that turned into a project because it wasn’t fixed in one fell swoop.”

Lawton wanted to reduce the time by 50%, but they didn’t even know what the baseline time was. In the end, the team was able to establish that baseline, determine what could be changed to streamline the process, and successfully implemented it.

As part of lean, Lawton emphasizes visual communication. It is apparent in the employee ideas wallpapering the halls, and the MDI boards stationed at more than a dozen areas of the plant. These boards show pertinent information and data specific to that area as well as related to the business’s big picture.

It is also apparent in the huge Transformation Calendar covering the span of one of the foundry’s bullpen areas of the office. Marked off by month, it gives a visual indication of what phases various projects are in and ensures employees and teams are moving in the same direction toward the company’s goals. Another wall-sized board in another bullpen is called the Accountability Board, with rows for individual employees. Tasks and projects assigned to each person are added to help keep track of responsibilities and hold them accountable for completing the tasks. But it’s not a wall of shame. Coworkers know that often, past due tasks are taking long due to other circumstances. Viewing lagging projects on the board can spur them to offer help.

At Lawton, major change was not reserved for the production of castings. Employee training and development has been turned on its head, as well.

“There’s built-in reasons why individuals and departments struggle, and we are trying to break those down,” Alex Lawton said.

 One of the tools Lawton began to employ were weekly one-on-one meetings between supervisors and their direct reports. In each meeting, the direct report has the first 15 minutes to talk about what they want to talk about, the supervisor gets 10-15 minutes to talk, and then another 5-10 minutes are devoted to discussing the employee’s development plan.

“Kaizen and Lean is all about team. We wanted to create a system of constant feedback that is more team oriented,” Alex Lawton said. “We do focused attention from your boss. Although it seems to fit the stereotype of what millennials want in a workforce, we didn’t change our system for that reason. We did it because we felt it was the best practice for human beings.”

Alex Lawton and Adamski did not want this to fizzle like so many other management fads. They stuck with an ambitious weekly meeting goal and made it a required, reported task. The goal is met between 90-100% of the time. At first, finding things to talk about were difficult and awkward. But eventually, as Lawton continued to show the weekly meetings were happening consistently, the discussions became less stunted and more helpful. Although they can take up a significant amount of time, employees look forward to them.

“It is frankly one of the most respectful, caring things you can do for a human being,” Adamski said. “Alex and I are not built to do this naturally. Our personalities had to learn. But I receive a one-on-one meeting from Alex and I cherish that time. It’s a big deal.”

The year 2018 was a period of Lawton hitting its stride in establishing lean systems and principles and building up its ability to come up with solutions.  

“To solve more problems, we need what we affectionately call, ‘engineeryness.’ So, we have been spending a lot of time on setting the stage,” Adamski said. “We have tripled our solid modeling capability, tripled our solidification/casting engineering capability, and nearly tripled our engineering horsepower.”

Potential future continuous improvement projects include robo molding, 3D printed molds and cores, robotic finishing, and expanding into new markets.

“We know where the future is going. We have to make better patterns, do better engineering, and that is going to require a level of ‘engineeryness’ a foundry of this size has not needed,” Adamski said. “In the next 3-5 years, it will be all about engineering horsepower, better project management and a larger molding line.”

Alex Lawton understands the significant changes to his company have not been easy—for him or the workforce—but with a focus on the long-term benefits, he remains committed to the process.

“We were in a situation where yes, we were doing good, but yet it was totally unacceptable,” he said. “People need better job security or better pay or we need to drive better returns for the company or achieve better performance for our customers. So we shook the snow globe a little bit. Not because we had to but because that’s what we want to do to be a good business.”  

Click here to see this story as it appears in the January 2019 issue of Modern Casting