Dordt College News

Zevenbergen shares his lean enterprise expertise with several local businesses

May 10, 2009

When Dale Zevenbergen leads a continuous improvement event, he helps employees visualize the entire production process to give them a better sense of how things fit together and where the extra steps come in.

In lean times it makes sense that businesses would want to know more about lean enterprise.

First-year business professor Dale Zevenbergen is a strong advocate and experienced resource person for the business model known as lean enterprise. He teaches its concepts in his Operations Management class, but he also works with local companies that want to learn more about how the approach can help them do what they are doing better.

Lean enterprise is a system for organizing and managing product development, operations, suppliers, and customer relations, says Zevenbergen. It also helps a company serve its customers better, produce better-quality products, and use less human effort, less space, less time, and less capital.

Zevenbergen has recently been working with a couple of local companies to help them assess their work flow and figure out how they could improve it. For Zevenbergen, who regularly participated in Continuous Improvement events at Pella Corporation before coming to Dordt, leading people through the process is something he can almost do in his sleep. But for his students, it is an invaluable learning opportunity. Although they get no special credit for their participation, Zevenbergen’s students learn more and learn it more quickly than if they studied it only in class.

“Plus it’s a good way for Dordt to assist businesses who support the college,” says Zevenbergen.

Lean proponents say that in most companies only a small number of the steps in their processes are crucial to creating the product the customer is paying for. The key is meeting customer needs, according to this model. Anything that doesn’t improve the value or quality of the product for the customer should be re-examined or eliminated—to create a “leaner” operation.

To get lean, companies ask people involved in a particular process to sit down together, diagram every step they go through, from concept to delivery, and identify waste and inefficiencies. This highlights small details that can be corrected quickly and allows them to make immediate and significant improvements, says Zevenbergen. In the meantime, the company can work on longer term changes it wants to make. Other pieces of the process involve keeping inventory low by producing only when there is demand and by continually reassessing efforts to reduce effort, space needed, time, cost, resources, and mistakes.

“One ‘event’ helps them determine whether this is something that will be helpful for them,” says Zevenbergen.

In his recent work with Trans Ova Genetics in Sioux Center, Zevenbergen worked with Dordt Alumnus Harry Groenendyk. Together they mapped the process (under study), identified where there was wasted time/effort/space, and came up with ideas for improvement. The company and its employees can now set priorities for how to act and begin making changes.

“It’s a pretty simple concept but can be difficult to implement and maintain unless the company embraces it as part of their culture,” says Zevenbergen, who estimates that while at Pella Corporation he was part of more than seventy Continuous Improvement events. But he is convinced that the benefits of cost savings, improved products, and employee ownership for their work makes it worth the effort.

People who do the work have the best sense of how things are working. They need to be valued and heard, says Zevenbergen. When they are, they feel much better about their work. That benefits the company and empowers people to come up with good ideas that will improve their work. Although some decisions still need to be made by company executives, in a continuous improvement event, titles need to be left at the door, says Zevenbergen. “It flattens an organization—and makes it work better.”

Zevenbergen acknowledges that it is easier to implement lean enterprise efforts in a company that is growing. It’s obviously easier for employees to take an honest look at eliminating waste in a process if it means they will go on to another assignment rather than lose their job.

“But lean enterprise can be and has been successful even in companies that are not growing and in union settings, says Zevenbergen, acknowledging that it builds in other challenges and requires another level of communication and participation.

Zevenbergen looks forward to working with more businesses, taking with him more students, and maybe opening the door for more internships for his students. And, just maybe, he says, colleges could think about this model of assessment in the future.


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