Q&A with Richard M. Calvaruso

Richard M. Calvaruso is the lean leader of GE Appliances in Louisville, Ky. He will be giving his keynote presentation at the Engineering Lean and Six Sigma Conference 2011 at 12 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13.

IIE: Why do you think lean and Six Sigma have become so pervasive?
Calvaruso: I’ve done both, and they both have a place. They’re quite a bit different, but it kind of depends on what problems you’re trying to solve. The reality is no matter what you do or what you make, you’re going to have some problems. So lean and Six Sigma are both focused around helping you solve those problems – getting to the root causes, trying to make processes better. They’re very good at doing that.

Do you think they are being applied enough or too much?
We definitely don’t do enough of it. … It’s kind of hard. So you have to go out there and do this every single day. Both of these things are not something you just come in and do and then say OK I did that – I did my Six Sigma or I did my lean. They’re both really the way you’re going to run your business. So we still have Six Sigma black belts, and it’s very operationalized in GE now, but we’re getting into problems where we’re having to analyze data to understand what’s going on, whether we’re doing design changes; we run lots of design of experiments and we do FMEAs.

And then lean thinking is newer to us in GE, but we’ve been doing it since 2005 and it’s endless. You’ve got so much opportunity you never even thought of. So they complement each other. And what I tell people is the Six Sigma tool sort of helps you improve what I consider the value-add part of the process; and the lean tools help you eliminate the waste. So you don’t really need to use Six Sigma methodology to get rid of wasteful activity. So that’s how they complement each other.

Is there anything missing from most implementations?
There are two sides to the whole system. Part of it’s the process side – the tools – that you can learn and you can teach organizations. But the other half of it is the people side. So the job of the leader is to balance those two – how do you balance people and process? A lot of times people focus on one or the other and where the opportunity is to try to get both of those balanced together. If you get them both balanced together that’s something I think a lot of places struggle with. They go, “Let’s learn the tool. [OK, we’ve got that],” but then they don’t seem to get the benefit they thought they were going to get. And it’s because the people side is equally important.

Can you tell us about an interesting project you and your team have worked on?
My job for the last three or four years has been 100 percent the lean guy. From the lean side, we don’t even think of lean as a project per se because it’s really continuous improvement. But there are lots of activities we’ve done so probably what I’ll highlight for the conference is we’ve built what we call some lean model lines. We manufactured appliances for 50-plus years, and some of the ways we were doing it in the past were traditional manufacturing methods. So the more we learned about lean and the more we started to apply some of the lean thinking, we realized that we just weren’t going to see the whole benefit because we were just doing bits and pieces here and there. So what we said is let’s go focus and let’s go build a whole new line to make a product. So we did this on a dishwasher plant, and we basically started over. And we took a cross-functional group of people from hourly production workers to engineers, people from quality, supervisors ….

We started that in late 2008. We put that line in production in April 2009, and it’s been huge. We’ve just seen tremendous results. … The lines used significantly less space, significantly less inventory, lots of productivity, double-digit productivity since we put the line in each year. But the bigger part of what that line did is it opened eyes for people so they could actually see what the real opportunity was. [It showed people], “Wow, this lean stuff can really help drive some big change.

We kind of had silos in the past and functions would do their part, and then they would hand it to the next function. We’ve taken all those silos out and put all the people in one big room literally. We took all the walls out and all the cubicles and said you all own the whole thing. So that is a huge undertaking. We’re investing lots of money, reinvesting in our whole business, and … every single product we make in light and appliances is going to be re-introduced in the next two or three years. We’re using this whole lean thinking from the beginning. We use a lot of Six Sigma tools in the rooms. Six Sigma for us is just kind of part of the way you work; you know it’s kind of like breathing, right? You just kind of do it; you don’t think about it. So that, because GE’s been doing Six Sigma since 1996, becomes sort of ingrained. But the lean stuff is where we’re really learning a ton right now.

What do you plan to discuss in your presentation?
It’ll be transforming appliance manufacturing … with lean thinking. I’ll talk about what we’ve done organizationally, how we’ve put in lean leaders and kaizen people in the factories and how we use our lean coaches. And I’ll probably talk about how we went through this process of developing a model line, show them what a model line looks like, show them some of the results.

I’m going to really focus on the transformational lean in our manufacturing operations. To try to get that initial momentum going, [it’s] really hard because people don’t understand what you’re talking about. They’re like, “What are you trying to do? We don’t understand. We think the current way works much better.” But if you can show them something, then it’s, “OK I got it.”

For more information about Calvaruso and the other conference keynote speakers, go to the Keynote Speakers page.

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