Lean Six Sigma

Boost efficiency with lean for info management

In this installment of What Works, Crane revamps info management to boost overall operational efficiency.

Here’s how you know your digital information management system needs a reboot: Employees seek out critical business info from one another rather than from the computerized system because they know their co-workers can provide up-to-date information faster.

That’s the situation that Crane & Co., a 200-year-old Dalton, MA-based paper-goods provider known for its high-end stationery, found itself in a couple of years ago. The stationery division’s front-end processing teams work with thousands of highly customized orders every week, so quick access to reference materials for customers’ order specifications is of utmost importance.

But employees had been using a wiki file that lived on its own dedicated server to store all of that data, and most of the data was stored in a not-supremely-user-friendly HTML format. Worse, the wiki was difficult to search, making it difficult and time-consuming for users to call up the info they were seeking.
“It was nearly impossible to find what you were looking for,” says Laurie Webster, graphic services director at Crane Stationery.

Employees came to view the wiki as clunky, so they stopped updating it regularly, preferring to rely on handwritten notes stored in binders to process document important changes to order and production information. And as team members then began to see the wiki as out of date, they started abandoning it entirely.

“People stopped using it,” says Mary Huth, Crane Stationery’s quality and continuous improvement manager. By about five years after its implementation, the wiki had “really dwindled to less than 10 regular users” out of upward of 75 people who should have been using it, she adds.

Crane recognized that it needed a new information management solution, and it found itself in the position to implement one in 2014 after receiving a grant from the Massachusetts Workforce Training Fund. The fund’s two-year training grants, valued at as much as $250,000, are intended to elevate workers’ skill sets and enable Massachusetts companies to be more productive, grow their business, and keep jobs in the state. Crane decided to spend the majority of its grant on lean initiatives, Huth says, and streamlining information management was a top priority.

Crane teamed with the not-for-profit Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP) for help with that task and with enhancing its continuous improvement efforts more broadly. “We’ve been practicing lean here for three years, but it can take years and years to perfect,” Huth notes.

The wiki-busting solution that Crane Stationery’s IT department and GBMP devised started with purging more than 450 files and recreating HTML data in more easily searchable Microsoft Word and PDF files. All data was moved to a master reference folder on a central drive, giving more employees easy access to the data when they need it. “All of the materials are exposed to everyone,” Webster says, and administrative access was expanded to include several individuals rather than just one or two.

The new system also provides an easy, organized way to request updates to documents and to delegate updating tasks. This helps ensure that the usability issues that stymied the wiki’s effectiveness won’t crop up with the new system. “There’s a big benefit to having all the departments reference this one file,” Webster says. “It has been very well-received.”

Jenna Racette, a typesetter in the stationery division, comments: “The files we need are controlled by people who work within our departments, so it is easier to update and organize them as needed. Now, if I have a simple order management question, I can easily look up the reference material instead of having to interrupt or distract order management in the middle of whatever they are doing.”

And the hard results from information management makeover? With the new reference folder, users save five to 15 minutes per order/document lookup. Nearly 80 users now rely on the system on a daily basis. “We’re more efficient in terms of the number of orders we can process per hour,” Huth says.

Vital to the success of the information management initiative was involving users in the design process, Webster notes. “They designed what they felt was going to meet their needs,” she says.

Training was vital, too: A GBMP representative presented six days of training not just on use of the new reference folder but also on applying lean principles to administrative functions. “A lot of the lean philosophy can be applied to the transactional world,” Huth says.

Information management can be overlooked as a driver of business efficiencies, Webster and Huth agree – the metrics aren’t necessarily as easily visible as those pertaining to downtime or number of goods produced per hour. But it’s a mistake not to try to streamline and optimize info management and the flow of internal communications, they say. “You need to look upstream and downstream” for ways to boost efficiency, says Webster. “You really want to look at the entire value stream and not just your own little box.”