The Regensburg facility belonging to international automotive supplier Continental ranks among the best plants across Europe when it comes to implementing lean production. At the presentation of the Automotive Lean Production Awards, offered for the sixth time by trade journal Automobil Produktion and management consultants Agamus Consult, Continental finished first in the "International Corporations" category. "This award has been earned by our employees, who in the last few years have consistently followed the path to lean production that we prescribed. Through extensive training measures we've laid the cornerstone for the continuous improvement of our production processes and an increase in quality, ultimately enabling us to boost the competitiveness of the plant," said Regensburg Plant Manager Wolfgang Güntner at the awards ceremony in Munich.
Kaizen and jidoka: a challenge for the workforce
One of the most prestigious honors in the industry, the Lean Award is based on the results of a benchmark study in which Agamus Consult puts the implementation of lean strategies in the European automobile industry under the microscope. The Award is open to both automakers and suppliers. This year the jury registered "an even higher level of quality-orientation, a rigorous focus on value-added processes, and involvement of employees in the implementation phase." This was also the route adopted by Continental in Regensburg. "Concurrent with short-time working in 2008/2009 we set up an extensive training program and launched a professional development offensive," said Plant Manager Güntner. Over the past two years, more than 2,000 employees attended the various courses offered by the Lean Academy set up specifically for this purpose. Training covered the most common concepts as well as the methods and management philosophies without which lean production cannot work. Kaizen - the incremental ongoing improvement of a product or process - has since become part of the everyday vocabulary of Continental employees , as has jidoka, another idea developed by Japanese automaker Toyota, whereby product quality is not simply inspected at the end of the line but monitored throughout each individual production process. To make that possible, every single employee must be trained in the system, enabling them to spot a defect immediately and then take the initiative to stop production. While that means a short-term disruption and loss of production, the bottom line is a marked increase in quality, because faults are immediately identified and rectified. "This way we attain not one but two key goals of lean production," said Dr. Markus Fischer, Head of Industrial Engineering at Continental in Regensburg: "We obtain an improvement in quality and avoid any waste of resources."
Lean production leads to tangible improvements
The improvements achieved at Continental in Regensburg through the rigorous implementation of the lean production philosophy and the resultant optimization of the production process can be measured. "We were able to show that the introduction of lean production has had a positive impact on both our quality performance and our financial indicators," emphasized Dr. Fischer. By way of example, during the past two years set-up times for the manufacturing cells have dropped to almost half their previous level. And the cells are designed in such as way as to make them scalable, so they can be readily adapted to changes in demand level. "We gear our efforts to customer demand, which, when it comes to the start of production of a new part or system, means we don't immediately go into highly automated mode," said Fischer.
According to the jury of the Automotive Lean Production Awards, along with the other winners, Continental has made "marked improvements in performance in respect of quality, productivity and costs." The key indicators in 2011 for productivity, costs, quality, throughput times and inventories also showed that the top-ranked players in the study were able to realize much more extensive improvements than other companies.
One important factor in the successful implementation of lean activities, according to Agamus Consult CEO Dr. Werner Geiger, was the creative input of the winning companies: "Successful companies don't simply embrace ready-made solutions; they adapt principles and best practices to their needs."