Recaro’s lean boss Esther Smart talks transparency and no blame culture

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Five years into the process of transforming seatmaker Recaro into a lean organisation — one that works along the principles evolving over decades at carmaker Toyota — Head of Lean Enterprise Esther Smart is pleased with where the company has come, but clearly relishes the challenges remaining. In an aircraft interiors industry plagued with production delays and quality problems, Smart is part of a team making Recaro a bright spark of on-time, to-spec seat delivery.

Coming from a US company, Smart tells Runway Girl Network, she was the first full-time employee for lean at Recaro. “I started, actually, in industrial engineering, because the leader there had a good understanding of Lean. He’d just freed up a position, and said ‘I need somebody for lean’. So he pulled me in, and by the end of the year in 2013 the decision was taken by Recaro Aircraft Seating, by Mark Heller and his team, to transform Recaro into a lean enterprise.”

Recaro kicked off a lean pilot in 2014 to reduce lead time for a certain seat model, and with a 37% reduction to date the exercise clearly paid off.

As useful as lean is, Smart agrees that it’s challenging to define, calling it “a holistic system. It aims to eliminate or reduce waste in your doing, in your actions. It’s increasing efficiency, but it’s also very important as a cultural philosophy for companies. If the culture does not change towards the behaviours of lean and into lean thinking,” Smart says, it will not succeed.

Lean principles are implemented across Recaro’s sites and throughout the organisation. Image: Recaro

At its core, lean a set of methodologies and practices to reduce waste in a process. In Recaro’s application of the principles, the most visible change is a shop-floor set of hand-written notes on wall-mounted production control boards, giving anyone in the business an at-a-glance 360° view of production goals, real production, and issues arising.

Writing by hand and creating clearly visible tracking systems are key elements of the system. Image: Recaro

Also necessary are the honesty and trust required between employees, supervisors, colleagues and management. Smart calls it “no judge, no blame”, highlights that it is crucial to the success of lean manufacturing, and acknowledges that it can feel almost shocking in its openness at first.

“When you tell me I create this drawing until Friday, and you put down the date on your card, you really believe what you’re doing there,” says Smart. “This is why we hand write [on the boards], because printing it out you wouldn’t even look at it. You put the card there and you show everybody: this is my promise. This is what I want to achieve.”

A no-blame, transparent culture is challenging to create but reaps production rewards. Image: Recaro

Leadership and lean adoption needs to come from the very top of an organisation, Smart explains. “First of all, you have to convince and to really train the leadership on their new role. Employees learned, over the last four years, that they really don’t have to fear anything, and that it is very good for them if everybody shows what they work on, and how long it takes them. So, if they’re over burdened, somebody can take off the load off their shoulders. It gives us the possibility to say: ‘she’s got much more work to do than he does, so why not swap something over?’.”

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Once that trust is in place, transparency brings benefits across the organisation. Recaro uses production control boards to manage its shop floors, but it’s more than just checking that key performance indicators are on track: it’s about flagging issues as early as possible, identifying ways to resolve them, and then doing just that — without apportioning blame.

If lean methodologies are about removing waste, one example in the seatmaker context is design changes. Without adopting lean methodologies, one business leader told Smart, problems in seat design changes for one programme would have, she says, “crashed dramatically’.

The transparency, pragmatic problem-solving and no-blame culture extends across sites in Germany, Poland, China and the US, and even to Recaro’s own suppliers.

Derived from lessons learned by carmaker Toyota, it’s perhaps unsurprising that an aviation manufacturer with automotive heritage like Recaro might be a keen adopter of lean methodologies — but they have brought Recaro much success.

Senior management buy-in — like from director of operations Mirjam Bruhns, left — is crucial to lean’s success. Image: Recaro

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