Managing Directors of Ringele AG: Andreas Zurbrügg (left) Urs Leuenberger

Ringele — Solutions in sheet metal

One percent better every day

Does LEAN work in a medium-sized production company with small to medium batch sizes and highly complex products? Of course – as the example of Ringele AG shows. But it takes time and consistency in implementation.

At Ringele AG, it's the many small ideas that add up to a big effect. They are collected in the so called CIP, the continuous improvement process. At regular intervals, the CIP teams in the individual business units sound out which suggestions seem sensible and feasible. The implementation is supported across the company by what's called the Panther team, which consists of four employees with a passion for change. 'Panther', in this case, symbolises the characteristics of the big cat – namely fast, lean and persevering.

Andreas Zurbrügg, one of two managing directors of Ringele AG along with Urs Leuenberger, sees the panthers as accelerators and critical discussion partners. They are explicitly not problem solvers; according to Zurbrügg, instead they accompany and support colleagues in implementing their optimisation ideas and motivate them to keep the company's requirements in mind: "It is always better if 100 people take one step than if one person has to take 100 steps."

The LEAN culture concerns the entire workforce. There are instigators, accelerators and supporters, but the philosophy of continuous improvement has been internalised by every single employee and is lived by each of them, every day. This collective movement has led to countless improvements over the past 10 years. Production and administration are being optimised and made more efficient in a permanent process – this is how it is possible to survive in global competition at the high-wage location of Switzerland.

"LEAN is not a project that is completed at some point", emphasises Andreas Zurbrügg. He speaks of a culture of permanent dissatisfaction with the current state. LEAN is a process that only produces an effect when it becomes a daily routine. Optimisation and increased efficiency are an everlasting aspiration; it is about always getting a little bit better. "This was and is a strenuous path, because it means constant change. There is no leaning back, even if you have just achieved a significant optimisation in one production step", says Urs Leuenberger. The next thought must be: How can we become even more efficient now?

Time for improvement

Every employee is asked to submit at least 15 suggestions for improvement per year. Once a month, the machines are shut down for half a day so that everyone in the staff can work on LEAN and come up with new ideas. Among other things, the aim is to minimise waste, eliminate ambiguities in process flows, avoid machine breakdowns, and staffing with inadequately trained employees. "If everyone does this together, on a regular basis, you can discuss with other colleagues on that day and act across departments", Andreas Zurbrügg says.

In this way, it has been possible to cut the time for some manufacturing steps in production from more than an hour to just over 10 minutes. One way this was achieved was by introducing so-called "shadow boards", where the employees have all the tools they need for the respective production step within reach.

The LEAN concept also includes avoiding downtime, such as to repair machines. "At Ringele, machines are continuously and preventively maintained at fixed intervals", explains Andreas Zurbrügg. This practice is known as Total Productive Maintenance.

These and many other small improvements add up to generate Ringele AG's high productivity. One recent example of this was an idea to package cover plates with intricately machined surfaces. "We had the problem that these sensitive parts scratch easily during transport within production", Urs Leuenberger explains. But packing the parts elaborately would have required much larger packages and considerably more time. A simple solution to the problem was to fill the transport boxes with foam, into which the sensitive metal sheets could be inserted in a scratch-proof way.

„There is no leaning back, even if you have just achieved a significant optimisation in one production step."

A new corporate culture

„LEAN doesn't mean that we all sweat even more when we work, but create even more."

The consistent commitment to LEAN has changed the corporate culture permanently. According to Andreas Zurbrügg, this also applies to the way mistakes are handled: "We have eliminated this word in our company; instead, we talk about opportunities. For example, if a customer were to complain, we see it as an opportunity to improve further."

For Zurbrügg, however, no longer talking about mistakes does not mean ignoring them: "We can't be satisfied with saying that we'll just do better next time. No, we have to reflect very carefully why something didn't work and with which improved tools, devices, or processes we will work better in the future." Through LEAN, the corporate culture is holistically and sustainably orientated towards long-term optimisation of results. Zurbrügg speaks of a "flywheel effect, as new solutions always build on what has already been achieved".

LEAN ultimately means making something complicated and difficult quite simple – or as Urs Leuenberger perhaps puts it best: "LEAN doesn't mean that we all sweat even more when we work, but create even more."

June 2023