Interview: Innovator helps Goodyear streamline operation

Akron, Ohio – Lean methods long have been applied to manufacturing processes in the rubber industry. That is not the case with research and development.

Certainly it is not commonplace. That is what made Goodyear’s quest to apply lean principles to its R&D processes an interesting journey.

“Lean-Driven Innovation,” a recently released book written by innovator Norbert Majerus and published by CRC Press, describes in detail the long quest to make the successful transformation to lean product development at Goodyear.

Majerus should know. He is the master black belt and lean champion at the tire maker who spearheaded the project, starting in 2005. By education, he is a chemist.

Jean-Claude Kihn, at the time general director of the Goodyear Innovation Centre in Akron and who since has been promoted to head the firm’s Europe, Middle East and Africa tire division, urged Majerus to experiment with some lean concepts for product development.

Majerus accepted the challenge. His goal: Create a world class R&D operation to efficiently bring more products to market faster.

A native Luxembourger who joined Goodyear in 1979 and was transferred to Akron to develop innovative products in 1983, Majerus was intrigued by the job.

“It was obvious we had to do something to respond better to the market … we had high quality products but we were slow,” the 37-year Goodyear veteran said in a recent interview.

“There was a lot known about lean manufacturing, where the focus is more on cost. Greater speed and on-time delivery are our goals.”

Applying lean principles in an R&D setting is very new, he admitted.

“We knew Toyota was using their version of it in product development. There was also a little bit of material published on how to better use technology. But for the most part, we had to start from the ground up,” he said.

Involving everyone

“This is a major change in culture,” Majerus admitted. “We learned quickly we had to understand the principles, and then we had to teach the team the principles. We had to involve all the people.”

Because of that, in the end it was much easier to sustain the project.

Goodyear “stuck to a cyclical, repeating improvement path that started with customer value, sustained or enhanced product quality, and improved R&D service and speed,” according to a company spokesman.

Its product development transformation was a long, steady process that was completed in 2011-12, although it is constantly being improved, according to Majerus.

He noted “R&D is very unpredictable; our goal is to become predictable. We encourage people to try new things. Even so, last year we were 97 percent on time.”

Mr. Majerus and his associates discovered one of the biggest wastes in product development was the time spent waiting or involved in other nonproductive activities.

“Now we concentrate on one thing and get it out,” he said. “It makes the work easier and better. We take on more projects now, and we can dedicate more resources toward innovation than we were able to do before.

“We have never launched as many products as we do now.”

Most importantly, he said, the products are launched when the market is ready for them.

Key concepts

In “Lean-Driven Innovation,” Majerus discusses the key concepts that contributed to Goodyear’s lean R&D transformation, including leveraging existing strengths; focusing on improving processes that impact customer value; setting a roadmap for change; building a team of lean experts internally; and several others.

His book shows that lean concepts and innovation can co-exist easily and does at Goodyear.

Once the company was able to implement its lean principles, the spokesman said, the tire maker’s warranty returns reached an all-time low, on-time delivery to customers improved from 30 percent to 95 percent, time to develop a tire project was reduced by more than 70 percent, and volume of engineering work per engineer increased by a factor of three.

The icing on the cake: the company received more innovation awards than ever before, even though R&D funding was below inflation adjustments during the lean implementation, he said.

Then, of course, there’s the bottom line.

While speed and on-time delivery were the engineers’ prime goal, they discovered that lean also can impact price and volume, according to Majerus.

It is the indirect influence the department has on profitability, he said.

Goodyear wasn’t looking to cut costs on product development when it launched the project, the spokesman said, but rather on improving the processes that impact customer value and on building cross-functional collaboration across the system that moves tires to the market.

Those processes include product design, materials development, mold manufacturing, production, marketing, sales and distribution.

It continues to be an ongoing process, Majerus added, and one the company fully supports.

The new R&D culture has become the standard operating procedure at Goodyear’s three global product development centres, which employ more than 2,500.

In fact the lean initiative and practices eventually were institutionalized and became the way Goodyear – from engineers to leadership – operates today, the spokesman said.