Terri-Jane Yuzda


Freelance Columnist

A Lean Machine Offence

Former CFL Lineman Helps Companies Streamline for Profit

During nine years as an offensive lineman in the Canadian Football League, Chuck Harrison, P.Eng., made a point of listening to his coaches.
Today, though, he does the talking, Alberta business executives do the listening – and it appears that many of them profit from the experience.

Mr. Harrison, who suited up for the Ottawa Rough Riders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers before retiring in 1975, is an industrial engineer who now carries the ball for the National Research Council.

He's one of about 25 engineering and technical consultants who share a broad range of expertise with established small- and medium-sized Alberta businesses seeking guidance through the NRC's Industrial Research Assistance Program. Another 225 NRC experts provide similar services throughout the country.

Mr. Harrison’s specialty is a strategic approach to manufacturing that strives to eliminate inefficient procedures. "We work with companies that want to help themselves," he explains.

It’s an all-out blitz Mr. Harrison teaches, really, on wasted time, wasted resources and wasted operating dollars.

The Low-down on Lean
Known as "lean" manufacturing, the strategy has created a significant buzz in industry, and for good reason. The common-sense strategic theory dates back to Henry Ford but has gained recent currency through books such as Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, by Jim Womack and Daniel Jones.

Many members of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters are among the believers and corporate decision-makers who've embraced the streamlining principles. They aren't shy about sharing their enthusiasm.

Louis Kelemen, P. Eng., began attending Mr. Harrison's workshops several years ago. His Calgary-based furniture manufacturing company, Simo Corporation, generates almost $12 million in annual sales.

Mr. Harrison’s expertise "has helped Simo turn around its bottom line and has positioned us well to compete in the new world economy,” says Mr. Kelemen, the president of Simo.

How so? There's no way to sum up the finer points of the Harrison approach in a short space. Suffice to say that lean has everything to do with training your employees to help you spot and correct procedural inefficiencies, inside the office and shop.

When Inventory Equals Waste
The most notorious enemy of productivity is excess inventory, Mr. Harrison says. “If a company carries too much inventory, it's costing money. When I see too many shelves, I see waste," he explains.

"If you have $1 million worth of inventory sitting on shelves, you're paying for space, heat, lighting, as well as for people to move it around."

But by cutting back on unproductive storage and shipping procedures, companies reduce costs by as much as 30 per cent.

Take the example of Calgary's Kudu Industries, the most-cited "lean" success story. A 16-year-old manufacturer of cavity pump systems, Kudu almost hit rock bottom when the price of oil crashed during the late 1990s.

But CEO Robert Mills started exploring the lean philosophy the following year. After streamlining production methods and simultaneously cutting costs, Kudu sales more than doubled inside of five years.

It now carries a far lower-valued inventory than it did in 1998, and can compete when oil prices are low or high, Mr. Harrison says.

Lean Opportunities
Kudu isn’t the only company learning lean. In conjunction with the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, the National Research Council has invited interested business leaders to meet in networking groups of "lean" supporters around the province. Participating corporations pay a fee to join each "consortium" (two in Calgary, one each in Red Deer and Edmonton) but generally find it's money well spent.

In Calgary, such companies as SMED International, NovAtel, ATCO Structures and Standens Ltd. Participate. Even Canada Post has bought into the concept – lean principles can successfully apply to non-manufacturing businesses.

"It's about members helping members," says Mr. Harrison.

There's another point he'd like to stress: "Lean means inviting your people to participate. You've got to train your employees,” he says.

"People think lean and mean go together. But under the lean philosophy, people shouldn't have to fear for their jobs."

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