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Chairman and CEO Craig Shular has put the Parma-based global company on a “lean journey,” adopting the concepts of lean manufacturing made famous by Toyota. Lean focuses on the customer while it empowers employees and knocks down walls between workers and managers.


Chairman and CEO Craig Shular has put the Parma-based global company on a “lean journey,” adopting the concepts of lean manufacturing made famous by Toyota. Lean focuses on the customer while it empowers employees and knocks down walls between workers and managers.

Craig Shular has been the chief executive officer of Parma-based GrafTech International since 2003 and has built a team credited with taking the company from the brink of bankruptcy to profitability and growth. With 11 state-of-the-art factories on four continents, GrafTech manufactures graphite industrial products — everything from multi-ton electrodes for steel making to fuel cell components to paper-thin heat dissipaters for smart phones. These are excerpts from a recent chat between Shular and Plain Dealer reporter John Funk.

The Question: Toyota took U.S. lean manufacturing techniques — the just-in-time production — and improved it. What is lean?
The Answer: It’s not just for production facilities. It’s for accounting, for human resources, the legal department, research and development, for every department.

It’s about involvement. About empowerment. Everybody gets involved. Everybody’s ideas are important. It’s about respect for the individual, so the individual has enough confidence to express ideas.

The Question: I heard you mention a word, “kaizen.” What is a kaizen?
The Answer: It’s a Japanese word. It means continuous improvement. It’s customer-centered.

The Question: How do you make that happen? Do you hold kaizen meetings?
The Answer: Yes, about 250 a year worldwide in our total company.

The Question: Tell me about your kaizen.
The Answer: In my kaizen, the issue was (production) line speed. The men and women at the plant developed the ideas, then ranked them and then began the kaizens.

The Question: What was your role as CEO in the kaizen at Lakewood?
The Answer: I was just another member. Everybody is equal in a kaizen. The leader was from our Office of Lean. There was also an accountant, an engineer and a scientist.

I got no phone calls in the kaizen. Everybody has to commit 100 percent. Our charge was to develop continuous improvement for the line. I learned night and day, right there, the production, the running and maintenance of the equipment.

Five days, we worked 10 to 12 hours a day. It was a very intense, energized and exciting week. That kaizen increased efficiency in Lakewood by 20 to 30 percent.

The Question: What happens to the results of all these kaizens?
The Answer: All 250 get reviewed by another cross-functional team. They get evaluated. The list is cut to the top 20, then the top three that had the best continuous improvement.

The three that have the best results go to the Kaizen Olympics. And we have a global vote. All the plants are plugged in.

The Question: Plugged in? I’m thinking you are talking about the new learning center, the distance learning equipment?
The Answer: Yes. Last year Brazil (factories) won the gold, Clarksburg the silver and Lakewood the bronze.

The Question: What is the value to the company in this global competition?
The Answer: In lean companies it’s very important to recognize your success. It’s rewarding.
The Question: How do you feel about it, the kaizens, the olympics?
The Answer: It has been very rewarding as a leader. I get to see my people and my teams achieving results. I get to see them motivated, enthusiastic, successful. I get to see them earning bonuses.

I have seen team members who were not that involved but were good employees and did their jobs. I have seen them rise and get projects. I have seen them get promoted because of lean.

The Question: You mentioned bonuses. Do you pay your workers on a piece-work basis?
The Answer: No. But in 2006-07, we started paying bonuses, all 2,500 employees are eligible for the bonus.

The Question: How do you determine bonuses?
The Answer: In lean everybody has a target. You understand how you fit into the team, so you have understandable, clearly delineated targets that can be measured.

Published: Sunday, July 25, 2010, 8:32 AM Plain Dealer