This has been a year of tremendous growth for Omniduct. We have seen the demand for spiral duct increase greatly in our area, and we jumped at the opportunity to serve our customers.

However, we found ourselves getting further and further behind. With ever-increasing lead times, and employees facing mandatory overtime week after week, everyone was grumbling, and the pace felt unsustainable. If we were going to capitalize on the booming economy, we had to get better at what we’ve always done: build ductwork.

It was at that time that we became interested in manufacturing philosophies from outside the spiral duct industry. Through reading, I learned that many major companies such as Toyota, Nike, Ford, Harley Davidson, Intel, John Deere, and Motorola were finding success by operating their business according to “Lean Principles.”

Researching further, I discovered the principles of Lean Manufacturing and Continuous Improvement. We decided to try to apply the “secrets” of the world’s most successful companies to our relatively tiny duct manufacturing outfit. After a year of hard work, the results exceeded our highest expectations.

Omniduct spiral duct product

There are four core tenants of Continuous Improvement that we incorporated into our business and culture in order to bring about positive change.

First, we understood that the solutions to all our problems resided in the genius of our team. There was no way we could come up with the best solutions while we were shut away in the office or boardroom. We had to engage with the operators on the shop floor, those who knew the processes and machinery best, to come up with the best solutions.

Second, we had to learn how to identify and categorize the waste in our processes so that we could be intentional in reducing it or eliminating it. It’s not easy to admit that your processes are wasteful or inefficient, but honest appraisal is key to growth. In lean manufacturing, waste is defined in at least eight different ways. The opportunity for improvement became obvious when we understood what was holding us back.

Third, we got good at asking questions, and fostered a culture of curious people at our company. We had to learn to question the status quo, which is difficult to do as a 30-year veteran in the industry. We thought we had it all figured out, but admitting that there might be a better way was key to unlocking our creativity.

Fourth, we had to trust our people. We invested in them by training them and equipping them with the knowledge to identify inefficiency and the tools and skills to remove it from the process. We gave them time to get creative, test ideas, and collect data.

So, what happened? We changed everything. We rearranged the department, built stands, customized tools, and modified machines. We streamlined the procedures for changing heads and rollers, loading and unloading coils, beading, crimping, and more. Most importantly, we dedicated time to train our operators and taught them not only how to operate with the improved, efficient processes, but why the changes were better for the company, the customer, and ultimately for them.

There was no single change that revolutionized our manufacturing. Rather, it was our adoption of lean philosophy and principles that led to dozens of small improvements over the last year. The compounding effect of many positive changes lead to significant gains in our efficiency, throughput, and our bottom line.

The results of our efforts were staggering. Our spiral head change-over time was improved by over 75 percent and now we are consistently performing them in under three minutes. We reduced our coil loading and unloading times by over 25 percent while increasing operator safety.

Rollers and formers can be changed out 70 percent faster than this time last year. Overall, we saved over 800 annual hours of labor at our spiral machine alone, while increasing our throughput over last year. We have also set a new company record for days without injury; at the time of this article, we are well over 300 days.

As a result, of our improved efficiency, we now have more free time at our machines. The greatly reduced downtime means our operators work less overtime. Our product quality has increased because our operators aren’t rushing to finish the job. Customer lead-times have decreased to less than 24 hours because we have eliminated hours of daily machine setup and change-over time. Perhaps most importantly, our team members feel valued and respected because we listened to them and empowered them to make their lives at work better.

As we pursued a Continuous Improvement culture at Omniduct, it became evident that we needed outside help to become successful. Our team needed training, our leaders needed coaching, and we needed someone to keep us accountable.

As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” It was at that time that Omniduct became a founding member of the HVAC Duct Manufacturers Alliance, along with Zinger Sheet Metal (MI), Hennemuth Metal Fabricators (PA), Plenums Plus (CA), Tin Man Sheet Metal (VA), Zen Industries (OH).

Through the Alliance, we gained access to seasoned Continuous Improvement coaches with decades of experience, practical training seminars for our team, and peer mastermind groups where we could share ideas and solve problems with other duct manufacturers across the nation. The training and accountability we received proved to be a key factor in our lasting success.

Our economy continues to be strong, and we all have the opportunity to grow and improve. I encourage you to learn more about Continuous Improvement and what it can do for your business. The greatest companies in the world aren’t wrong; the keys to greater profitability and market security lie in our ability to empower our people and increase efficiency. It has revolutionized our shop at Omniduct, and I am confident it can do the same for you.

This article originally appeared in the Janurary 2020 issue of SNIPS magazine.