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How GE Appliances Is Applying Lean Manufacturing’s Lessons Companywide

Over the past several years GE has invested $2 billion in our appliances business, reshaping the way plants use lean tools, processes and systems to improve quality, safety, delivery, cost and morale.

Now we are on a journey to expand this lean thinking enterprise-wide. The goal? To create cross-functional collaboration that leads to new operational efficiencies and drives a superior ownership experience for our consumers.

As a 24-year GE veteran, I have spent considerable time inside our walls and factories, and as GE Appliances’ first lean enterprise leader, it is my job to help associates see the vision for where we are headed together.

By sharing some of the steps we’re already taking, we hope to inspire other lean leaders who are navigating their own paths to a more agile and responsive business. It is, after all, many different perspectives that can point the way to next-level teamwork that breaks down traditional boundaries.

Lean is more than manufacturing. Lean manufacturing practices are a good start for any company, but there’s much more to this picture. At GE Appliances, we’re discovering how lean thinking can make whole systems work better from front to back. In other words, it’s not just about eliminating waste during the production process, but adopting a holistic approach to making things from concept to creation.

When everyone is involved from the beginning, when there is a constant rhythm of communication, synergy between teams, and manufacturability issues can be solved early on, it speeds our ability to bring products to market and changes how we create value for owners.

Lean is how we determine what our customer is going to pay for while also taking waste out of the system. It’s a laser-focused use of resources, whether in terms of new product features and functionality, or the efficiency of getting products to owners. It could also be ensuring the efficiency of a service or repair we offer. And just like our lean journey in manufacturing, we’re discovering our lean enterprise journey together (see video, below).

Lean is speed and simplicity. In 2013 our business began to apply a “FastWorks” framework to new product development in a bid to accelerate speed-to-market and better align with owners’ needs. This agile approach was modeled after the software industry, and values collaboration with our colleagues puts a premium on rapid learning cycles and assigns autonomy to a greater number of individuals. In simple terms, we focused on learning quickly, learning together and learning to trust one another to make important decisions.

All of it aims to reduce the risk of producing products consumers won’t respond to, and the returns have been outstanding so far. Not only are production costs down across the board, but new products are proving to be more competitive because shoppers are finding the exact styles and features they’re searching for since we’ve already listened to what they want. This success has helped us create more than 3,000 jobs and an even stronger company.

Most people would be genuinely surprised to learn that manufacturing represents less than 1 percent of the total lead time it takes us to develop a product from an idea and deliver it in a consumer’s home —which leaves us with a lot of opportunities to improve.

Lean is the complete value stream. The ideal state of the lean enterprise is where cross-functional groups align toward the common mission of maximizing customer value and the consumer experience while minimizing waste across the entire value stream. At GE Appliances, this value stream begins and ends with the appliance owner and is comprised of every function in the business. That’s to say, every employee at GE Appliances is part of the lean enterprise.

Lean is all about understanding collectively how the system works and providing a collaborative approach to how people solve problems together. That includes engineering, technology, marketing, sales, manufacturing and distribution working in close concert to improve products and processes. Every skill needed to build a new product is in the same room from the first day through product launch.

Ultimately, it’s this social aspect that draws people to lean, and it’s the involvement of all associates, regardless of their background, that keeps them engaged. Everyone is an expert who sees a problem from a different point of view, and lean enables those different perspectives to be pulled together, to see a bigger picture than what one individual or dataset could see.

Lean is inspired leadership. Our focus today is on developing our associates to become stronger “system thinkers,” which is a big key to making our management systems even more effective. We are working to engage teams that will put our lean values into action every day. These teams will have individuals in prominent roles, including value stream leaders, who focus on bringing our bigger strategy to life, along with project leaders who will work cross-functionally to drive tactical capabilities that create competitive advantages.

We are also activating fulfillment team members who will use data to lead lean enterprise thinking, as well as Functional Lean Leaders who can champion lean strategies for their teams and participate as part of a companywide Lean Council, helping others develop new strategies and share their learnings. And, there will be external coaches to guide our team members on their journey.

Collectively, these associates will serve as the “glue” that pulls our functions closer together to drive actions with speed and efficiency.

Lean is what the customer wants. It is wise to remember that it all comes down to understanding what the customer wants, then doing that as effectively as possible as not to waste time, resources or effort. And for GE Appliances, this approach is not limited to manufacturing alone. As an organization in pursuit of lean enterprise thinking, we are using tools, concepts and collaboration to improve our operational capability across all business functions, culminating in a superior product ownership experience for the consumer.

For instance, when we revealed our Café series refrigerators with the Keurig K-Cup brewing system, consumer demand quickly surpassed our production capabilities at the time. But rather than wait until a permanent assembly line was built to officially launch the product, we applied lean principles by putting a temporary line in place and letting operators modify their workstations after each shift as they learned what worked and what didn’t. This focus on respecting the voice of the individual operator and daily attention to detail resulted in a fully operational line in just months, as opposed to a year or more as the case can often be.

But in the end, it’s the product owner who will judge whether the company did a good job or not. That’s why the rallying cry for any organization cannot be about internal metrics alone — it must be a systems-centric environment and mentality that leads the way.

Going forward, this multifunctional approach to tackling the biggest projects is how GE Appliances will create even greater value for our associates, our business and, most importantly, our owners.

So, what is your organization doing to realize its lean ambitions? If you also love to learn, try new ideas and achieve groundbreaking results, then connect with me on LinkedIn to continue the conversation!

Marcia Brey is a 24-year-veteran of GE Appliances, now a Haier company, and is its first ever lean enterprise leader.