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At a glance
Lowell Puls boiled down his Lean Enterprise management approach to these basics:
•Understand the demand in your market
•Align your resources to meet the demand
•Work all of those resources at the market pace to satisfy its needs

Keeping businesses on track

Auburn author says inventory control key to growth


Consultants can do only so much to turn around an ailing business for the long term, an expert says.

Managers have to embrace recommended changes and make them an ongoing part of the company’s workflow, said Lowell Puls, author of “KISS: Keep It Simple and Sustainable: Lean Leadership Methods that Build Sustainment.”

The Auburn man, whose name is pronounced “pulse,” based the 166-page book on his 38 years of manufacturing experience.

Puls, who has overhauled several struggling businesses, has sometimes been disappointed when he’s returned later to find they’d fallen back into bad habits. That frustration fueled the first-time author to self-publish late last year. The business book, which retails for $27.95, is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble in hardcover, paperback and electronic versions.

He’s also working on two more books, including a workbook on the Japanese 5S method of managing a workplace: Sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain. Puls recently met with an illustrator and will soon select a publisher for the workbook.

The 58-year-old Iowa native put himself through college by working on a factory shop floor between semesters. After earning a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology from Northern Illinois University, Puls spent two years teaching industrial arts. He left education at age 25 to become production supervisor for AM Multigraphics, a printing operation in Mount Prospect, Illinois. While he was there, Puls participated in a company turnaround through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization and out the other side.

Meanwhile, he earned a master’s degree in business administration from Loyola University by age 29.

Puls went on to work for specialty sheet metal manufacturers, where employees following blueprints to make metal prototypes of new designs that became parts in the F-16 fighter and some of the first computers.

“I’ve always been pretty hands-on, so I’m pretty good at getting things to work right,” he said.

Over the years, Puls worked his way up to a division presidency and had global responsibilities.

“Along the way, I think I learned some good lessons, an efficient methodology for turning a business around,” he said in a phone interview from his home. “I learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of how factories work.”

Puls’s resumé includes Eaton Corp., which makes parts including heavy-duty truck clutches for manufacturers such as Freightliner, Peterbilt and Volvo. He turned around two factories for them, including guiding the Auburn plant to improving its on-time delivery to 95 percent from 50 percent in 10 months.

In another case, Puls was hired to turn around a Caterpillar Inc. supplier that was more than one month behind on deliveries. Puls was able to get the operation caught up in 70 days.

In a third example, Puls revamped production for Milsco Manufacturing, a Harley-Davidson seat supplier. That was a two-year project.

When factories fall behind on production, the deceptively easy answer is to hire more workers and assign them to more shifts. But that’s not always the right answer, Puls said.

Solutions can be much more complex, he said. Fixing the problems can sometimes mean physically moving manufacturing equipment, for example. But sometimes a company needs an outsiders’ perspective.

“Generally, the solution is pretty clear pretty quickly,” Puls said. “None of the three (companies mentioned) had matched their production systems to the rate of demand in the marketplace.”

Manufacturers that don’t fall behind can sometimes get production out of whack in the opposite direction, churning out products that pile up in their warehouses.

Brian Sutter, marketing director for Wasp Barcode Technologies, said many people fail to appreciate how important inventory control is to a business.

When inventory is misplaced or outdated, a company can end up having to take a loss on the products, he said. For a small manufacturer that makes $100,000 to $200,000 a year in profit, writing off $80,000 in bad inventory is a significant loss, he said.

Wasp, a Plano, Texas, company, sells computer technology that allows clients to generate purchase orders when it places orders with suppliers. Items are scanned in at delivery, immediately alerting officials if not all the products were included in the shipment. The system can also generate monthly or quarterly inventory audits, Sutter said.

The other inventory trap that too many companies fall into is building up too many items in the warehouse, typing up valuable working capital, he said.

Puls agreed. The Lean mantra says that, “Inventory is evil,” he said.

The reality, Puls said, is that every operation has an optimum level of inventory that companies dare not fall below and need not go above.

Typically, manufacturers pile up products for a reason, he said. Maybe a particular machine keeps breaking down and the inventory is a cushion to allow the company to keep shipping products while the equipment is repaired. The best solution, Puls said, is to directly address the real problem before things spin out of control.

Every time a factory fails, workers are forced to find new jobs, sometimes in a different industry, he said. That disruption doesn’t have to happen if leaders engage their workforces in the significant changes that need to be made, Puls said.

The best leaders leverage “the collective knowledge and power of the entire organization,” he said. “The broader the engagement, the faster the results.”

Poor leaders, by contrast, insist on keeping too much control for themselves, he said.

Puls described himself as analytical and dogged enough to keep working on a problem until he finds a solution. After all, he said, he’s a former Division I college wrestler.

“So there’s not a whole lot of quit in me,” he said.

And there’s not a lot of doubt, either. Puls is certain that his approach of matching output to demand works.

“In every environment,” he said, “you will find situations that will compel you to abandon some or all of those principles. And when you do so, you will be wrong.”