Recently, I came across an article about a company with which I am very familiar. I spent a good amount of time in Nappanee, Indiana this summer and can vouch for everything written in the article and more. The Aluminum Trailer Company is one of the leanest companies out there. What puts ATC in the top tier of lean isn’t just their Value Streams; and it isn’t the kanban or JIT systems they practice, or their extensive 5S or any of the other lean tools they have implemented so well.

What makes the Aluminum Trailer Company such a Lean success is the intangible, and often most difficult aspect of lean: Their extraordinary culture. From top to bottom, ATC gets lean. All the employees know what the company’s goals are, they know the objective, their roles in achieving the goals, and they know they are expected and encouraged to figure out new ways to reach the objectives.

From the front office to the production floor, the place is a hotbed of improvement, testing new methods and trying new ideas. Sometimes those ideas work and are implemented in their original form. More often they are tweaked and refined and occasionally scrapped all together, but they are always testing, trying, testing. They even have a “library” of lean books that are checked out by everyone, not just the managers and middle managers but by the men and women who work on the production lines as well.

It’s true that productivity gains and success in a Lean company generally flow from the bottom up, but culture, good or bad, flows from the top down. Employees who see the bosses show up late or leave work early are going to be resentful; if they see that the boss isn’t in much of a hurry to get things done then they won’t have any sense of urgency themselves; and if they feel like their ideas are shot down without any consideration from the folks in management then they’ll just keep their heads down and their mouths shut and collect their paycheck on Friday and dread going into work on Monday.

Conversely, employees who see their boss putting in the effort, or see that their input is heard and respected and know that they have a hand in the company’s success will go the extra mile for the company when they need to. It’s that simple. And at ATC, Steve Brenneman has been able to successfully instill an excellent culture.  He has completely embraced Tai’ichi Ohno’s fundamental pillar of the Toyota Production System which is respect for people.

Steve respects his community and he certainly respects his employees. He respects all of them on a personal level and he respects them enough to empower them to make decisions about process improvements and to take pride and ownership in the work they do. To show his respect, the employees at ATC are paid above average wages and are given a share of the company’s profits because Steve knows that employees who take pride in their work and are satisfied with their pay are a benefit not just to the company through higher productivity but also to the community at large.

The Aluminum Trailer Company has all of the pieces in place to thrive in manufacturing, all of the mechanics to continue improving but most importantly they have the key, the piece that sets companies who are truly lean apart from those who are just going through the motions, and that is a powerful culture of mutual respect and a commitment to continuous improvement at a breakneck pace.