In early 2011, a team from Erasmus Medical Center, in The Netherlands, toured the AkzoNobel manufacturing facility in Sassenheim. Roberto Priolo speaks to three of the people involved to understand the value of cross-sector learning and how the lessons learned can be migrated and adapted to one’s circumstances.

Arie van den Boogaart, technicians team leader, Erasmus Medical Center

In February 2011, we visited AkzoNobel with 150 people from the Radiation Oncology  department. From the very beginning, everybody was impressed by how clean the manufacturing floor was and how dedicated to the work people seemed.

There is certainly a large gap between paint and patient. But seeing how things were at Akzo and hearing the company’s stories of improvement taught us the importance of gradually solve our problems, rather than jumping into solutions.

In the morning, a small group of people from Erasmus met Akzo management and observed one of the 30-minute meetings that take place every day to discuss the issues at hand. The team of 150 people, made of technicians, doctors and managers, toured the facility in the afternoon.

We later introduced meetings, similar to those we saw during the visit, both in work stations and for operations management at Erasmus Medical Center. What problems do we expect with our patients? How can we solve them?

We applied 5S to our work stations, and PDCA to analyse our problems more and more, in a bid to empower our workers so that they can reach a solution step by step without going to their managers for help.

The most important thing for me is that employees on the shop floor have the skills to do their job, but also the solutions in their heads. We saw all this in Sassenheim.

Seeing lean in action at AkzoNobel opened our eyes, and provided us with a different way to look at the work. Today, our technicians (we operate with three instead of four) and the rest of our staff take pleasure in their work. I have been with Erasmus a long time, and I saw a real change in people’s attitudes.

Of course a manufacturing plant and a hospital are completely different environments, but learning from others is extremely valuable. I think every company that starts off with lean should go and visit organisations in a different sector.


Freek Dekker, manager of innovation in the radiation oncology department, Erasmus Medical Center

It was the Lean Management Instituut that invited me to join a session with AkzoNobel. We saw spectacular things, and that is what helped me decide to go down the route to lean.

When we told people we were going to visit a paint manufacturer they thought we had gone crazy. A productivity programme we had tried to implement before had encountered a lot of resistance, mainly because it was top-down. We didn’t understand lean entirely back then, even though there were a couple of breakthroughs before we went to visit AkzoNobel.

The visit was in fact a way to celebrate our productivity achievements, and ended up helping us to get more people interested in lean. It was when it all came together for Erasmus.

While on the visit, Akzo showed our people four main things: continuous improvement on the shop floor resulting in, for example, a kanban system; a visual management system; and a very large fishbone cause-and-effect analisys and very strong workplace improvements through 5s.

Another highlight was meeting the guy who oversaw a big capacity improvement (Akzo had a maximum of 15,000 litres of paint they managed to fill cans with every day, but managed to get to 20,000 by using a cause-and-effect analysis with his team, right next to the gemba and without replacing machines). Funny enough, he was originally opposed to lean and he is now one of its strongest advocates.

I tried to adopt some of methods we saw at Akzo literally, but as usual the “copy and paste approach” doesn’t work. But seeing what others do can inspire you to start experiment. And it did, although we needed to adapt the lessons we learned to our own circumstances.

More than anything, the visit gave us awareness. I admired what Akzo did so much that I wanted to make it happen in my workplace as well. Even Toyota invites companies to visit its plants, so that they will leave enthused and will want to improve themselves. It’s all about the inspiration.

Gerard from AkzoNobel came to the medical center for a gemba walk after the visit. He was our sensei for the day. We had learned so much from him, and the feedback he gave us when he saw how we were doing was invaluable. AkzoNobel even helped us with the training we provided our staff after the visit, sending some of its operators here to support ours in improving their processes.


Gerard Luijten, automotive and aerospace coatings, AkzoNobel’s Sassenheim plant

The Sassenheim plant, which is devoted to automotive and aerospace coatings, has been implementing lean for almost six years now. The Lean Management Instituut approached us when it was looking for example of companies on a lean journey to show a group of healthcare professionals.

In structuring the visit, we concentrated on two things, daily meetings and planning for machine operations. We tried to show them how to make problems visible. The tools and techniques may need to be adapted to a company’s idiosyncrasies, but the principles are the same after all.

I remember how reluctant Erasmus staff seemed when they first set foot in the factory. After a very brief introduction, however, we brought them at the gemba: the moment they realised that those working on the improvements were actually operators, just like them, their attitude changed.

Akzo managers could tell them the most interesting things in the world, but until they heard them from people on the shop floor they wouldn’t get it entirely. Our operators told them how easy their lives had gotten since lean was introduced, and that was the real trigger. From that point on, a connection was established. We even sent some of our operators to the medical center to help out their technicians.

Everybody should take part in such initiatives. I did it myself. When you struggle with something, it’s good to see that others struggle with the same. It gives you the strength to persist. Different situations give you different perspectives on the results you are trying to achieve.

It is critical, however, that this knowledge exchange happens at the gemba, and not in some meeting room or through a PowerPoint presentation.