Striving for excellence

Oct. 22, 2015
A look at A-dec's history and continuous improvement culture

A look at A-dec's history and continuous improvement culture

Provided by A-dec

When you truly care about something, it becomes your passion. You find yourself taking the initiative and giving it your all. Fearless commitment. A sense of purpose.

The inspiration to "get it right" helps explain the values shared by A-dec cofounders Ken and Joan Austin. It is this passion that has propelled A-dec's continuous improvement journey for the past 15 years.

It all started a half-century ago. While on a picnic, a barely-employed Ken Austin mentioned to his wife Joan how air-vacuum technology could be used to create a simpler and more compact oral evacuator device. Within months, the country's largest dental manufacturer, S.S. White, agreed to distribute A-dec's "AVS #1." What started out as a way for Ken to stay employed turned into a success story that combines family with a passion for getting it right. The Austins' vision not only helped revolutionize the world of dentistry-it would also create a legacy to make the best better, one solution at a time.

Fifty years later, A-dec has grown into one of the largest dental equipment manufacturers in the world. A-dec distributes handpieces and designs, builds, and markets dental chairs, stools, delivery systems, dental lights, and cabinetry. A-dec's primary focus is to create equipment innovations that help doctors perform healthier, more efficient dentistry. This philosophy also carries back into the heart of how the company works.

It was A-dec's core values (e.g., concern for people, commitment to productivity and quality, dedication to improvement, keeping things simple and basic) that led the company to explore the benefits of Lean principles nearly 15 years ago. The adoption of Lean practices in both manufacturing and office processes was a natural fit. As A-dec experienced growth in both sales volume and number of employees throughout the 1990s, it wanted to find a way to help stay as efficient and effective at designing and producing dental equipment as possible, while maintaining the highest standard for quality.

Lean is a natural fit for a company like A-dec, which believes in putting employees first. By giving employees the support and tools necessary to improve their processes, continuous improvement becomes a natural part of how they work. In the early days, with the introduction of new tools and concepts, A-dec made a promise to all employees that no one would lose their job because of an improvement project. This important mindset helped lay the foundation of a continuous improvement culture.

As the continuous improvement culture has evolved, so has its focus-from tools, to systems, to people. The Lean culture continues to be fostered at A-dec in a number of ways. A-dec uses an employee suggestion system called Opportunities for Improvement (OFIs). OFIs are blue tickets found in every department that document an individual's idea for making their process or department better. The employees present their obstacles, brainstorm solutions, and are given the freedom to implement approved changes. In their team-based environment, ideas are generated and implemented at a steady rate. Support from management, along with regular meetings around the team's OFI boards, keeps the flow of ideas alive. It isn't about the savings, though. At A-dec, it's always been about doing the right thing for the customers, the employees, and the community. It's always OK to try something. If the experiment doesn't work, take what you've learned and try something new. Over time, those process improvements do turn into additional labor capacity and cost reductions.

In nearly two-thirds of the company, teams take one hour a week away from their daily jobs to focus on improvements. This allows people to form small teams to tackle small to medium-sized ideas and solve problems. They use this time to eliminate waste from their processes, address a potential quality or safety issue, and brainstorm ways to perform their jobs more effectively. In an administrative area, this also provides "thought time" to dream big. This could include looking into new technology, prototyping a new concept, or developing a new process. In the end, it builds employee confidence, provides exposure to new people and concepts, and ultimately helps build new knowledge and skills.

Lean tools and concepts have allowed A-dec to successfully achieve large challenges throughout the years. Within manufacturing, they have drastically reduced lead times and inventory levels while increasing quality and productivity. The engineering department is using Lean concepts to speed up time-to-market for new products. Human resources uses Lean to create standards for recruiting new employees. Customer service uses Lean to process orders faster. Product management uses Lean to build robust processes for determining which products are ready to become obsolete. Purchasing uses Lean concepts to partner with local suppliers for daily deliveries. While these are all quantitative measures, equally important are the qualitative measures.

A-dec first chose Lean because of its fit with the company's core values. A-dec continues to practice Lean because of the amazing engagement levels and sense of purpose it creates. People practice the concepts because they see them working around them. Utilizing Lean concepts allows employees to clearly "see" the work, expose gaps, and develop more robust processes. Along the way, it also creates a continuous learning environment for employees and continuous feedback loops for leaders. When done well, employees start to see leaders become more of a coach than a boss as they continue to encourage creativity and experimentation in their department.

Lean is a journey, not a destination. Each step along the way leads to discovery. Sometimes you have to turn back and start again, and sometimes your steps propel you forward. It is often the things labeled as mistakes that lead to the best discoveries and growth. Each day is an opportunity to learn. Because when you truly care, something interesting happens.