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How a 139-year-old foundry is “LEAN-ing” into the future of castings

LEAN Castings Culture

Several years ago, C.A. Lawton faced a significant challenge: Become dramatically more capable to meet customers’ rising expectations for quality and speed, or begin a slow slide into irrelevance.

Its solution? Make a complete commitment to LEAN, a methodology that emphasizes simplifying and accelerating work processes while simultaneously improving product quality. It’s very fundamental – about being a LEAN-centered company, not just doing some LEAN manufacturing techniques.

“Historically, we always made good castings and served customers relatively well. But as a manufacturer, we weren’t as good as we should be,” recalls Barry Adamski, Lawton’s chief operating officer. “If we wanted to attract and retain more first-rate customers, we recognized that we needed to radically upgrade the efficiency of our operations.”

After looking at a number of possible avenues, Lawton management selected the LEAN methodology in 2016. “We dabbled with it for the first year, and then finally made a total commitment to it in 2017,” he adds. This was no small feat, because change brings lower productivity, and with it, lower revenue and frustrations in the short term. “Most manufacturers aren’t willing to take such a risk to build a better future, especially in a high mix, low-to-medium volume environment.  We decided it was essential if we wanted to grow and succeed as a company in the years ahead,” he recalls.

During the last year, LEAN implementation has gained a lot of momentum at Lawton. Steps completed so far are many, including:

  • A 6S events in the foundry, machine shop and pattern shop.
  • Flow or pull system analysis and reorganization of the foundry.
  • Kaizen has been applied to many non-production processes such as quoting, contract review and shipping, improving their efficiency.
  • The pattern shop has been reorganized to significantly speed the process of making styrofoam tooling.
  • Supervisors and hourly workers have been trained in value stream mapping.

Like most businesses, Lawton’s managers have historically focused on “the numbers” – meeting its primary financial and operational goals. But when the production of castings got delayed, the foundry had to resort to heroic efforts to get jobs done, causing many disruptions, including fatigued workers.

In contrast, LEAN emphasizes creating a much simpler workflow, so meeting your numbers doesn’t have to be a monumental effort. “In a LEAN organization, work flows more easily in response to the demand. We believe we can invest the time to do the work perfectly, with perfect safety, because we’re using the right process,” Adamski points out. “Hitting the numbers becomes a side effect of having a remarkably simple but effective process, not an end unto itself.”

“We believe that LEAN is actually the best way to serve our customers,” he continues. “If we can get casting jobs done in half the time of our competitors and at a higher level of quality, we believe we’ll win more top-notch OEM customers.”

Culture change isn’t easy

LEAN represents a major culture change at Lawton. It’s a long, challenging journey, but the company’s leadership is committed to transforming it into a safer, faster, more productive and successful manufacturing company. “We’re in the second year of a five-year process,” Adamski explains. “Because of the amount of operational change LEAN requires, it’s not a linear process. It’s often six steps forward and four back. In the world of corporate change management, that’s actually a win.”

“Think about it,” Adamski continues. “What would you do if someone came to you and said, ‘We’re going to take everything you’ve been doing for years, get the input of you and your peers, and then radically reorganize it? ‘And after we collectively design new processes and procedures, there will be only one true way for you and your peers to do your work.’”

“That’s in the shop and in the office,” he emphasizes. “Keep in mind that one of the tenets of LEAN is that roughly 95% of everything you do in your work doesn’t add value to the finished product. Naturally, this causes a lot of pushback from employees, at least initially.”

He adds that employees also tend to have misgivings at first because they want to see if company leadership will stay committed to the latest improvement initiative. “Like most companies, Lawton employees have been through many of these over the years. Employees begin to view them as the ‘flavor of the month’ projects that company leadership launches, but then only stays committed to a handful of them over time. This, too, will pass, they think.”

“But after they get over the initial shock of their new LEAN processes and procedures, they can see for themselves that they’re more productive and experiencing much less stress,” Adamski points out. “There are far fewer delays and interruptions, and less rework. They soon realize that it’s a much better way to do their jobs.”

Partnering with a premier manufacturer around LEAN

As part of a new LEAN partnership between Lawton and one of its elite customers in the climate control industry, two people from Lawton’s kaizen promotion office recently embedded with their counterparts for a week to share their LEAN progress, programs and experiences. That came a few weeks after three members of their team entrenched at Lawton for six days over two weeks for a very difficult but important kaizen event.

The mutual investment in improvement and excellence has been remarkable.

“They brought back many ideas we can use at Lawton,” Adamski recalls. “What surprised us the most is that even though they are a much larger company and farther along in their journey, they’re facing many of the same challenges implementing LEAN that we are.”

Another big surprise was the way in which the Lawton team was openly welcomed and supported by their partners. “Our people got an amazing amount of involvement and support from their counterparts, and from their bosses. Someone higher up in this company is clearly impressed by our commitment to LEAN!” he adds. “Plus, the potential of two organizations working together on the right manufacturing principles is huge!”

This type of partnership requires an unusually high amount of candor from both partners, Adamski cautions. “When you’re walking their production line, you get to see their manufacturing processes, warts and all. You must be willing to be vulnerable. But that’s how you can help each other improve, so both companies can ultimately perform at higher levels.”

As part of this partnership, Lawton’s kaizen office will meet monthly with their OEM partners to identify and implement the most valuable areas for mutual improvement.

Lean’s impact stretches beyond manufacturing

According to Adamski, the top management team of Lawton is taking LEAN very seriously – to the point that it’s already part of the company’s recruitment process. Interviewees hear about its LEAN journey, both verbally and in writing. Interviewees are told that part of their job description will be to follow the LEAN 6S process to improve their work areas and processes. “We must attract people who will support our LEAN approach,” he points out.

In addition, as the company continues to prospect for new OEM customers, those that are implementing LEAN or a similar version of operational excellence or continuous improvement are likely to get greater attention.

“We’re in business to develop long-term relationships with our customers, not just do piece work for them. That’s been a core philosophy of Lawton throughout its 139-year history. We believe we’ll be more successful by targeting OEMs who have a similar culture and values – including a commitment to LEAN,” Adamski concludes.  It’s the cornerstone of our business strategy, not just a manufacturing improvement thing.”

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