Unextended Lean – The Whirlpool Experience

Last August Whirlpool announced it would be closing the Evansville, Indiana plant and building a new plant in Mexico.  A recent article here talks about how they have been removing equipment slowly from the plant and re-installing it elsewhere, all while continuing to make product.  Evolving Excellence has had previous posts regarding Whirlpool and this facility in particular way back in 2006.  Paul Coburn, vice president of Whirlpool’s Evansville Division is quoted:

In the last six months we have delivered strong results in spite of having to see a good deal of our equipment taken out of the building and moved to its new location. I believe that it is a testament to your character that you have continued to work hard to preserve the positive reputation of the Evansville workforce during this period.

Having been a direct supplier to Whirlpool in a past life (not the Evansville plant) I saw two major items that I feel were hurting their success with Lean Manufacturing.  The first was “respect for people”.  I think you can see this in the above quote.  Yes, Mr. Colburn is giving the Evansville plant accolades but at the same time each employee has to deal with the slow agonizing pain of slowly seeing their factory move piece by piece.  Besides their own people, they also exhibited little respect for their suppliers (at least us).  They were the closest non-automotive customer to GM-Lopez era of supplier relations.

The second is extending Lean outside of their four walls.  When I toured the plant we worked with I was so excited to see how far along the lean journey they had traveled.  There was single piece flow, pull systems, water bug replenishment, Hejuenka boards, etc.  The problem that we experienced was they did not extend beyond their factory back to ours.

The biggest issue is that they still relied on an MRP system with electronic data entry between our two facilities.  Even though we installed pull through our facility and back to our supply base, we could not get Whirlpool to connect to our plant.  MRP/EDI would drop in orders for thousands of parts every Monday then on Tuesday, the planners would back them out and “correct” the orders.  We eventually used our finished goods supermarket to level the bullwhip it created back to us.  However, much waste could have been eliminated and costs reduced if they would have just linked their pull systems to ours!

I have no doubt that because of the lack of extending lean to people and outside their four walls to suppliers is a major reason they felt they had to move this factory to Mexico!  To really get the waste out and succeed you need the entire supply chain and every person in the chain pulling together!

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