Fisher partnership with Kaiser Aluminum helps company build lean enterprise

Kaiser Aluminum, a leading producer of fabricated aluminum products, was determined to elevate the execution of the company’s operational strategy throughout its business units and implement widespread lean management throughout the organization. To help with the process, the company turned to Fisher College of Business.

Now, two years into a customized lean management program developed at Fisher, company executives say Kaiser Aluminum is transforming itself into a lean enterprise and are hailing the Fisher partnership as a success.

Fisher’s Executive Education program, working in collaboration with its lean management training partner, Productivity, Inc., developed a certification program designed especially for Kaiser Aluminum’s managers.

The curriculum in the four-month leadership training program addresses the specific operational challenges facing managers at Kaiser Aluminum facilities. Managers learn methodologies to tackle those issues, and during the program develop solutions that are implemented in their business units.

“It is very practical, interactive work,” said David R. Conrow, vice president, Kaiser Production System, who worked in partnership with Fisher faculty and Productivity, Inc. to develop the program. “They actually apply their learning to their individual business units and deliver a product at the end of the four months. It enhances their learning and it proves that the methodology works.”

The approach is in contrast to previous attempts to implement lean strategies—random training programs for managers and use of consultants, according to Jack A. Hockema, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Kaiser Aluminum. Hockema was the keynote speaker for the Center for Operational Excellence professional development seminar on Friday, February 22.

“I was not at all satisfied with the progress we were making on lean,” Hockema said. “It was very spotty and very inconsistent throughout the company.” Hockema created Conrow’s position to lead Kaiser Aluminum’s effort to implement the lean management strategy.

Conrow conducted a thorough examination of plant operations identifying the gaps and benchmarking the best lean companies in North America. He then developed a plan of action that included the methodologies needed to make Kaiser Aluminum a lean enterprise.

“That’s how I came to Ohio State,” Conrow said. “Our goal is to get this consistent methodology across the organization and integrated into our management system. We needed something constant and we really thought Ohio State offered that. When we looked and assessed, we thought it was the best program available.”

Hockema said a solid education program was an important foundation for implementing a lean strategy. Kaiser Aluminum is also a corporate member of Fisher’s Center for Operational Excellence, a partnership of business leaders committed to achieving operational excellence through education and research.

“We didn’t want to depend on the instant gratification that we might get from a consulting group that comes in and does the work for us and then leaves—then we migrate back to less than excellent ways,” Conrow said.

The Lean Manager Certificate program, under the academic leadership of the nationally recognized lean management scholar, Peter Ward, the Richard M. Ross Chair in Management, and the program’s partner Productivity, Inc., were invited to observe and study Kaiser Aluminum’s operations and business process.

“From a Fisher perspective, a great thing that comes out of this relationship is that we can take real world practice back into the classroom,” said Ward, director for the Center for Operational Excellence and chair of Fisher’s Management Sciences Department.

“We have learned a lot from our interactions with Kaiser Aluminum managers,” said Ward, who was awarded the Operations Management Scholar for 2007 by the Academy of Management. “It is very helpful for providing context to me and other faculty members. We have been able to tailor all of our educational programs because of this relationship.”

Conrow added: “We felt like in the long-term, this was a relationship where we could have give and take. We could continue to customize and improve it and work together with the excellent resources here at Ohio State and the Center for Operational Excellence.”