Kelly J Sullivan, Senior Project Manager at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, discusses how often we forget the contribution lean gives to improving people’s lives and looks back at a challenging and rewarding implementation he took part in at Chippewa River Industries. 

While working for Curt Manufacturing as an engineering and quality manager, I was tasked with reducing the company’s costs while maintaining quality of its products. The organisation operates in the automotive industry, producing receiver hitches, ball mounts, and aftermarket products.

It was while I was working on this project that I was first introduced to Chippewa River Industries (CRI) by a mutual friend and I started contemplating the idea of possibly outsourcing some of our current jobs to the organisation.

CRI is a Community Rehabilitation Program. It is a non-for-profit organisation that provides vocational and life skills services to nearly 400 individuals with severe disabilities, which are considered the company’s “clients”.

From the very beginning, I was amazed at what CRI does for the community and for their clients. Too often during a lean transformation we are solely focused on the outcomes of the process and we forget how much lean, or TPS (Toyota Production System), does for the people working within an organisation. One of the founding principles of TPS is respect for people, and never has this been more important to a company than at CRI. To make the day more productive and rewarding for the clients turned out to be a truly humbling and rewarding experience.

In 2005, I left Curt Manufacturing and joined University of Wisconsin-Stout as a senior project manager implementing lean transformations throughout Northern Wisconsin. At that time CRI was owned by Chippewa County and its manager, Dave Lemanski, contacted me about a possible lean transformation at CRI.

I must admit, this was one of the few times in my consulting career that I had a slight concern and found myself wondering whether lean could work in this environment. None of the supervisors had any past experience with lean, and some had no experience in a manufacturing environment either. The mix of clients changed daily; how would the supervisors be able to handle this? The product and the customers also changed frequently, as some of CRI’s biggest customers experience very seasonal demand.

Dave knew that there was a chance CRI might break away from the county and become a stand-alone non-for-profit organisation in the near future. He also knew that they needed to become as efficient as possible while fulfilling their core purpose of providing rewarding experiences for their clients.

Dave and I met to discuss the lean transformation at CRI; we decided to start the process with an eight-hour lean education programme for all of the managers and supervisors at CRI. After this, we met with the team to discuss what product family to complete a value stream map for. We decided to map out the greeting cards line, and the results were dramatic: a 60% reduction in lead time and a 40% reduction in changeover time. The supervisors were thrilled to realise that in just two days they had brought huge changes to their lives and reduced the amount of overtime, which meant spending more time with their families.

After this successful implementation, the management team met again to determine that the next lean initiative would be a four-day 5S implementation on two different production lines.

This was critical for the supervisors of the production lines, since having the right tools in the right place proved to be crucial for people working there. Compared to most manufacturing environments, the clients did not know where the tools were before they had to perform a task and where they needed to be returned after the tasks were completed. When CRI installed shadow boards and made it visually apparent where the tools should go, the look of joy on the clients’ faces was priceless. The most rewarding part of this was involving the clients to determine where they would like the tools to be located on the shadow boards. They would proudly let everyone know that they decided where to place the tools.

It is the beaming smiles on the clients’ faces that inspired all of the CRI team and make them understand that they were on their way to transforming lives in many different ways.

The use of lean tools quickly turned into a new management style at Chippewa River Industries. With this new-found enthusiasm, they decided it was time for a new strategic plan, since they had just become a stand-alone nonprofit company. Because they were not a county entity any more, their first priority was to generate more revenue to make sure they could stay a successful company. I saw the biggest impact of lean management on the amount of supervisors and managers. When they looked at a potential new customer, they would first analyse their internal process and ask the question, “Does this step add value to the customer?” If the answer was, “No,” they would analyse the process until they could answer, “Yes.”

CRI is always looking at new process improvement tools and now utilises many UW-Stout senior-level classes from computer simulation and other courses to always improve their performance and management styles. One of the most important tools they use is poka-yoke. They realised with the clients on the production lines that they need these controls built into their processes. The sheer volume of products being produced does not allow for inspection to be their form of quality control.

What has lean done for CRI and its customers

Dave Lemanski is now the CEO/president of CRI and leads by example by always going to the gemba and working with the team to continually improve every day. Speaking with Bill Peterson, director of operations and sales, he said: “The less a product is touched, and the faster the turn-around time for our customer is, the greater our profitability is for a job. Lean principles have helped us to identify and eliminate the non-value added touches and streamline our production lines. It also allowed us to blend the proper staffing, methods, and equipment to complete each job in a safe and profitable way.”

When I asked Gregg McArthur, President of McArthur Towels and Sports, a customer of CRI, about how CRI has changed since lean was embraced, he told me: “My company has outsourced a significant amount of work to CRI, Inc. over the years. Their on-time delivery, quality, and efficient operations provides my company with a turn-key operation. Leaning their enterprise has allowed them to keep up with our growing market. Our license-based markets are extremely time- and quality-sensitive. CRI’s operations have allowed us to meet the demands of our customers with consistency.”

CRI’s mission statement is: “To be the preferred partner of innovation services that enriches lives and build stronger communities.” Since the whole purpose of existence for CRI is making the lives of their clients better, I feel this quote from a parent, Chris Jakubowicz, sums up best why this is the most rewarding lean transformation I have ever been involved with: “CRI, Inc. has been a great place for my son to work. He enjoys going to CRI each day and often talks about what he does for their production department. Having this option for him to work is important to him and the rest of our family.”

To learn more about CRI, visit their web site at