It is great to be back blogging at Evolving Excellence after a long hiatus. For those who have been around long enough to remember me, I am looking forward to catching up on what I have missed over the last few years, and I have plenty of new yarns to spin for you. For the relative newcomers who don't remember me, I somehow developed a reputation for being something of a lean curmudgeon, prone to go off on an occasional rant … a reputation grossly undeserved, by the way, since none of the threatened lawsuits ever actually went to court so how bad could things have been?
My absence was brought about by having taken gainful employment with the Wahl Clipper Corpin Sterling, Illinois. In order to be sure no one thought my ranting expressed the official viewpoint of Greg Wahl or anyone else at the company, I was asked to refrain while I worked as VP of Global Operations. No one who knows Greg, or the other Wahl family members, would make the mistake of thinking that my blathering could be their doing. The Wahls are gentlemen, every one of them, and not the blustering sort.
Before I take on the the rest of manufacturing, I thought it appropriate to share a few of the extraordinary lean lessons I learned from my time at Wahl. First and foremost, however, you should know that Wahl is like most of the true lean companies – they fly well below the radar. This is a luxury that family owned businesses enjoy. They are self-sufficient and don't have to worry about what Wall Street or anyone else knows or thinks about them.
Second, they are rampaging through the US consumer market for hair clippers with results that makes Sherman and Attila the Hun look like sissies. They are doing that with products made, for the most part, at their Sterling plant. Wahl has pretty much taken over the shelves at places like Walmart, Target and Walgreens; the competitors they are driving out are 100% Wall Street owned and 100% Chinese manufactured; and those competitors are 100% lower cost and lower priced.
You might want to reread the previous paragraph since it stands just about everything they teach at the Ivy League MBA programs on its ear. So much for American labor costs, price being everything which means cost is everything, price volume assumptions, and the rest of the multi-syllabic hot air we hear to rationalize poor manufacturing management these days.
So how does Wahl perform these amazing feats of derring do? Through a total commitment to lean, of course. To the external eye, they run kanbans everywhere, execute 5S, kaizen events, and continually rearrange the factory furniture to put more product into 1 piece, continuous flow.
Peel back the onion a layer or two, and you will find that there is more to it than that. Most of the organization is structured in value streams, rather than the old functional silos, and Wahl has wholeheartedly embraced Lean Accounting. It has become routine at the annual Lean Accounting Summitto see not only Greg Wahl – CEO and Chairman – but the operating and sales and marketing management team, as well. Last year, the accounting team from the Wahl plants in China, Germany and Hungary were there, as well.
But the onion has to peeled back yet another layer to get to the heart of why Wahl succeeds when the overwhelming majority fail. There is a core management philosophy – a culture, perhaps – that embraces things like …
All decision need to be made with equal parts: the head, the heart and the gut. The head means that, of course, decisions must be fact based and have to make a degree of financial sense. The heart means that the decision must consider people and common decency. Money does not outweigh doing the right thing. I should mention that the Wahl family is very involved in the Catholic Church and has pretty much created the local Catholic school system in Sterling. I am not saying that you need to be Catholic to be lean, but I am thoroughly convinced that you have to recognize the existence of something bigger than yourself. And finally, the gut, which means that decisions have to pass the common sense test.
Wahl management does a lot of what they call 'farmer checks' – common sense evaluations using simple logic and rounded off numbers. You hear people using the phrase "it is what it is" quite often at Wahl – deal with facts, rather than what you might want a thing to be, and don't spend much time pointing fingers or worrying about how it got that way.
A service center that cannot possibly justify itself financially but keeps Wahl talking face to face with real live customers. No layoffs in over 30 years. A million stories demonstrating the personal commitment and friendship the Wahl family enjoys with every employee.
The common thread through all of this is that Wahl Clipper demonstrates the great quote from Henry Ford that I have very often cited – "Profit is the inevitable conclusion of work well done".
The Wahl management team spends all of their time and energy worrying about the quality and value of the product, about the satisfaction of customers, and the long term health and welfare of employees, and they let the money take care of itself.
And take care of itself it has, very, very nicely. And they took very good care of me, too. I owe a debt of gratitude to Greg and the rest of the Wahl team. It's great to be back on the lean consultingtrail, but I will miss working with the wonderful folks at Wahl every day.