Wiremold has been one of the classic stories of lean success. Some of the greatest lean practitioners, such as Art Byrne and Orry Fiume, came out of this company. Many years ago Bob Emiliani told the story of Wiremold in his Shingo Prize winning book, Better Thinking, Better Results, and I have always considered this one of the top books on lean manufacturing. It is also one of the few to accurately describe the power, and requirement, of the "respect for people" pillar of lean.
The executives at Wiremold, led by Art Byrne, understood that lean was not just about continuous improvement, but also required respect for people. That understanding let them create incredible lean excellence, with rather amazing and inspiring financial results. As Bob writes in the preface to the second edition,
Both "continuous improvement" and "respect for people" must be practiced, not just "continuous improvement" as is normally the case. Art Byrne and his management team understood this… and they thought deeply about what they were doing and its implications on employees, customers, suppliers, investors, and the communities in which they operated. Most executives don't do that.
Legrand managers did not bother to learn about Lean and did not heed Art or Orry Fiume's advice to apply Lean management across the corporation. Instead they found reasons not to do Lean – basically, "we're different" – and Wiremold quickly backslid. In fact, Legrand management seemed to actively dismantle almost everything that Art and his management team and people of Wiremold accomplished.
In January of 2006, a standard-cost software system was installed at Wiremold, adding headcount to the finance function and thus completing the return to batch-and-queue thinking and management. Lean management at Wiremold was extinguished just three years after Art and Orry's retirements.
And now what might just be Wiremold's final chapter is being written.
The article does a good job of describing the company's illustrious history.
With Art Byrne, a nationally recognized expert of "lean management," at the reins in the 1990s, Wiremold was revered by business leaders as one of the first American companies to successfully adopt Toyota's "kaizen" method of teamwork. The company makes wire and cable management systems. Revenue at the company grew by an average of 19 percent a year, to $471 million in 2000.
And the subsequent decline.
That year , the century-old, family-owned business was bought by Legrand, a French competitor, and executives predicted that the company's reputation only stood to improve. Instead, Byrne and two other top executives left the company, and workers on Thursday said Wiremold seemed to have gone downhill afterward.
Innovative lean tools had been discarded for traditional batch and standard costing, but what about that other pillar, "respect for people"?
Workers leaving the factory during a shift change Thursday, most of whom declined to be identified for fear of retribution, said they were still in shock over the layoffs.
"Fear of retribution." That pretty much says it all.
The Wiremold story shows how lean thinking can completely transform a company into a competitive powerhouse… and how quickly the success can be demolished by the return of a traditional mindset. The second edition of Better Thinking, Better Results tells the story.