A Better Wheelchair Van, Quicker?

Posted by on Monday, June 29th, 2009

Is it possible? Can we produce a higher quality wheelchair van in less time than it took just a couple months ago? If you would have asked me this six months ago, I would’ve said something like, “We’d obviously like to, but we don’t know how.” Ask me that now and I’ve got one word for you: “Definitely!”

When we started implementing Lean Manufacturing principles, one of the first things we had to learn was how to properly identify what exactly was happening on the Rampvan production line, where we convert the Toyota Sienna minivan for wheelchair access. Without getting too much into a class on lean manufacturing, we spent A LOT of time over the past 6-8 months going over and over the Toyota Sienna line, looking at each of the stations, tracking exactly what was happening and then measuring, timing, documenting…. and then measuring, timing, documenting some more.

It sounds arduous, but it really wasn’t. The more we saw of what was actually happening, we not only became more familiar with the process, but we also saw infinite ways to improve it. And the cool thing about it? More times than not, you’d be out there on the line watching a process and interacting with the team members and they’d point out something only a person that does it daily would notice. Things like, “if I had more light under here…” or “if we did this back there instead of up here, it’d be way easier…”. Little things like this add up to BIG improvements over time.

Often when corporations hear the word “improvement”, thoughts such as major modifications, costs, revamping, costs, building addition, costs, investing tons of money…. come to mind. The bottom line is, companies often focus on the big improvements WANTED (perhaps not always NEEDED) and often those improvements have no clearly defined benefit to the customer or the product itself. What does this mean for the customer? You guessed it – a higher priced product to absorb these costs.

So how does Lean help us avoid this trap? How do we aim to keep our price points and margins in check? Very simply, we focus on eliminating these costs! Once we began to look at these processes in a new light, see these small improvements and start implementing these changes – even something as small as giving a guy a flashlight – they started adding up. It all equals better utilization of the production line, the line side space, and more efficient flow of vehicles and parts. As it stands today, we’ve reduced the entire Rampvan production line to about 2/3′s of the original size – good for BraunAbility, and better for the you, the customer. This means that a van completely cycles through the conversion process in a little over 5 days, instead of approx. 8 1/2 days compared to last fall!

Okay, it’s quicker. But is it better? I’m proud to say that first time pass rates are the highest they’ve ever been, and rework costs and time are down. The quality department has seen a significant reduction in the surprises that show up in final check out and the vans are more consistent now than they’ve ever been.

So yes, we can definitely produce a better handicap van for our customers, quicker. And the best part about all this? We’ve only just begun implementing Lean. Wait ’til you see what’s coming next!

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