NOVEMBER 2017 The FABRICATOR Industry Research Project 9
Lean, yet counterintuitive, thinking
President, ETM Manufacturing
Shortly after Rob Olney purchased ETM Manufacturing in 2006, he invested heavily
in training and dove head first into lean manufacturing, adapting it to meet the custom
fabricator’s unique needs. The small shop set up replenishment programs with customers and organized the floor into multiprocess cells, carefully designed to minimize
For instance, the company has a cell that resembles a cursive W. Cut parts emerge
from the laser and are fed into a wet deburring machine just a few feet away from the
press brake. That press brake creates the middle apex of the cursive W. Its operator
need only turn around and walk a few steps to find his next batch of parts. He then
turns around again and hands off bent parts to the hardware-insertion press operator.
So now, more than a decade later, what remains the greatest constraint at ETM?
Olney paused to think, then gave an unusual response. “I think it has been, currently
is, and always will be culture.”
He added that ETM doesn’t have a culture problem at all. People are happy and
engage in their work. It’s just that many attributes of lean manufacturing are counter-
The company’s experience with 5S helps illustrate this. The shop didn’t implement
it from the get-go simply because it didn’t seem to provide
a huge, immediate benefit, particularly in a small shop like
ETM. In 2006 it had 14 employees, and today it has 21. People could see where tools were, and they knew certain products on the floor were work-in-process. Why go through all
the trouble of labeling it all? Multiprocess cells, on the other hand, seemed like homeruns, as jobs flowed immediately
from one operation to the next, and throughput shot through
But over time people came to a realization: “If we are always thinking about where to put things, our mind is occupied with muda, with waste,” Olney said. “We’re not focusing
on improving the system.” They may not have thought long,
maybe only for an instant, but people still had to think about
where tools went. This in turn added unwanted variation.
Now, with 5S—including tape on the floor for WIP and shadow boards for tools—
people don’t think about where tools and materials go. “They’re now just focusing on
the system and, most important, how to improve it,” Olney said.
That improvement continues to evolve. For instance, five years ago many of ETM’s
customers worked with the fabricator on a configure-to-order arrangement. The fabricator would fabricate the shell of an enclosure common to the product family, and
strategically keep these shells in WIP inventory. A customer placing an order would
trigger those enclosure shells to be pulled from inventory and configured.
Today the product range is too broad for such an arrangement. So now, ETM fabricates the entire product from beginning to end, with no partially built WIP buffer, and
still meets the customers’ demands for shorter and shorter lead times. According to
Olney, without ETM’s continuous improvement program, this feat just wouldn’t have
WHAT REMAINS THE GREATEST
CONSTRAINT AT ETM? OLNEY
PAUSED TO THINK, THEN GAVE
AN UNUSUAL RESPONSE.
“I THINK IT HAS BEEN,
CURRENTLY IS, AND ALWAYS
WILL BE CULTURE.”