Archive for October, 2016

Lean Transformation Saves Aluminum Trailer Company

Monday, October 17th, 2016

On the second day of the Lean Accounting Summit, August 26th, The ATC story was the Keynote, presented by Steve Brenneman, President, and Duane Yoder, Production Manager.

Their story was so impressive that it justified being told in an article instead of a brief summary in my previous article about the summit. Steve titled his presentation, “It’s a lean life!” His definition of lean is “using the scientific method to continuously improve the business and other related parts of the entire value stream. Also, it is a complete change of the way that we work as human beings. We go from individual heroes to strong teams.”

From the ATC website, I learned that ATC is a privately held company with eleven owners, 9 of whom “are involved in and manage every aspect of the company…Each owner contributes to the company in almost every phase of the business by doubling their duties as both Owner and CEO, CFO, Production Manager, Engineering Manager, Sales/Marketing Director.” The company was founded in 1999 and is located in Nappanee, IN, within Elkhart County, which is touted to be the Trailer Capital of the U. S. for RVs and Cargo Trailers.

Their website states, “ATC is one of the only manufacturers who can build all models and custom trailers in, both, steel and aluminum…This can range from a barebones 5’ x 8’ trailer up to a mobile command center fully fit up with dual slide outs, custom finishes and 60 KW power generation. ATC produces a wide array of trailers to meet every customer request.”

ATC is very vertically integrated in their manufacturing processes, as the website states, “Our system of material handling and placement on the production floor ensures that your workers’ time is spent building your trailer and not searching for material, tools and fixing errors. By fabricating and building components on site, we eliminate the overhead costs that come from outsourcing. Every hour spent and piece of material used is transparent and reflected in the pricing you are quoted.”

This is where ATC is now, but they have come a long way since the economic crash in the fall of 2008 that led to a near collapse of the trailer and RV industry in 2009. ATC owned a window manufacturing company, Nappanee Window, that provided windows for their trailers, as well as trailers and RVs made by other companies.

Because of the steep industry downturn, Steve said, “We had to shut down Nappenee Window in 2009 and sell off the assets. We had also built ATC up from scratch in 1999 to $26 million business in 2006. From 2007 to 2009 sales dropped 60%, and we were in survival mode.”

This dire situation led to a serious examination of where they were headed. Steve said, “We had only dabbled with lean previously. After reading Lean Thinking, we saw all of our mistakes at Nappenee Window and saw many of the same issues at ATC, but now we saw them through lean eyes.”

Steve said, “We had relied heavily on tribal knowledge, and as a result our average vendor was paid 25 days late. We had negative equity, and we only did five raw material inventory turns/year. We started practicing lean and changed to building a standard line of trailers.

Duane took over as presenter and explained that they separated into three lines based on work content and complexity of the trailers:

  • Line 1 (Raven)
  • Line 2 (Midline)
  • Line 3 (Custom/Large).

Duane said, “We set up three Value Stream teams, composed of trailer design, Inside Sales, Value Stream Leader, and the Value Stream team members. We created a lean office for each value stream. Steve and I became a leader for two of the value streams. We now have five value streams and are trying to change the mindset of everyone.” Then, he shared the following slide showing their Value Stream reorganization:




When Steve took over again as presenter, he said, “We were profitable the first year after starting to practice lean. Our sales went from $10 million in 2009 to $42 million in 2015, and our net income has grown dramatically as well. Our inventory turns tripled from 2010 to 2014. Our long term debt has dropped by over 50%.”

Steve said, “After seven years of hard work, we have:

  1. Improved flow – went to one building from two
  2. Cleaned up the mess
  3. Did 5S for maintenance department
  4. Established a supermarket/material supply system
  5. Use a Materials/Kanban to all lines
  6. Changed to Value Stream Management since 2012

We are working with Joe Murli (CEO of The Murli Group). We follow Joe’s definition of a Lean Management System – “everybody, everywhere, every day comes together in small teams and reflects on how we did yesterday, where the waste was, and how we can do better today.”

In the Murli Group’s Lean Management system, True North is the unifying, overarching purpose for the entire organization and keeps the individuals and organization all pulling in the same direction. True North equals:

  • Zero Defects
  • 15% Productivity Improvement year over year
  • 100% value-added activity
  • 100% on time delivery
  • Respect for People

“We use visual controls on the shop floor. Standard work was the most difficult to do. We developed a Leader Standard Work Bus schedule.

From January 2015 to February 2016, we reduced labor time from 181 min down to 84 minutes for our simplest trailer (Line 1). On our Open Utility line, we reduced labor minutes from 360 min. in January 2015 to 248 minutes by mid April 2016. We use “kitting” and improved cell arrangement to eliminate as much walking as possible.

With regard to talent development, we are training leaders to lead in a new way. We do daily reflection team leader meetings at end of day. There are five tier 2 meetings per day, two tier 3 meetings per day, and one tier 4 meeting per day.

The change took nine months ? three months longer than we had planned. It took four years to gradually switch over to Lean accounting. It is simple and just makes sense to lean organizations. Now we get P & L weekly.”

In an interview after the summit, I asked Steve a few clarifying questions:

In answer to why they chose to transform their company into a Lean company instead of using some more traditional turn-around methods, he said, “Lean just seemed like a better way to think about operational excellence. It was more of a method rather than just trying harder or doing what everyone else was already doing. It felt right for some reason.”

When asked what was their biggest stumbling block in their Lean transformation, he said, “We tried to do too much too fast before allowing people to start to understand these new concepts with us. We tried to just be the experts and do the thinking for everyone.”

In answer to my inquiry about how becoming a Lean company changed the culture of the company, he replied, “Lean has really helped us to have a unified concept that everyone could get behind. It provided a common framework that we could point out to people as to where we were headed and why.”

Finally, I asked what have been the biggest benefits of becoming a Lean company, and he replied, “We get to involve everyone in the process of making things better. Then, we all get to share in the proceeds. I like that a lot. It seems to fit within my view of how the world should work.”

Hearing stories like this is one of the reasons I enjoy attending and presenting at the Lean Accounting Summit put on by Lean Frontiers. It is another example of how transforming into a Lean Company can make the difference between success and failure as a company. Have you made this transformation? If not, start learning and practicing now!

How the Trade Secrets Act will Benefit Manufacturers

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

Many times, Congress passes important bills that are go unreported by the mainstream media. Such was the case with the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA – S. 1890), passed by the Senate and House of Representatives with near unanimous support in April and signed by President Obama on May 11, 2016. This beneficial bill was authored by U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and cosponsored by nearly two-thirds of the Senate.

The bill was supported by a broad industry coalition that included manufacturers and organizations, such as the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Association of Global Automakers, Inc., Biotechnology Industry Organization, The Boeing Company, Caterpillar Inc., Corning Incorporated, Eli Lilly and Company, General Electric, Honda, IBM, Intel, The Intellectual Property Owners Association  Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic, National Alliance for Jobs and Innovation , National Association of Manufacturers, The Procter & Gamble Company, Siemens Corporation, Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and United Technologies Corporation (click here for full list). This industry coalition sent a letter dated December 2, 2015 to Senators Hatch, Coons and Flake, saying in part:

“Trade secrets are an essential form of intellectual property. Trade secrets include information as broad-ranging as manufacturing processes, product development, industrial techniques, formulas, and customer lists. The protection of this form of intellectual property is critical to driving the innovation and creativity at the heart of the American economy. Companies in America, however, are increasingly the targets of sophisticated efforts to steal proprietary information, harming our global competitiveness.

Existing state trade secret laws are inadequate to address the interstate and international nature of trade secret theft today. Federal law protects trade secrets through the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 (“EEA”), which provides criminal sanctions for trade secret misappropriation. While the EEA is a critical tool for law enforcement to protect the clear theft of our intellectual property, U.S. trade secret owners also need access to a federal civil remedy and the full spectrum of legal options available to owners of other forms of intellectual property, such as patents, trademarks, and copyrights.

The Defend Trade Secrets Act will create a federal remedy that will provide a consistent, harmonized legal framework and help avoid the commercial injury and loss of employment that can occur when trade secrets are stolen. We are proud to support it.”

The intent of the DTSA is:

“IN GENERAL.—Section 1836 of title 18, United States Code, is amended by striking subsection (b) and inserting the following:


‘‘(1) IN GENERAL.—An owner of a trade secret that is misappropriated may bring a civil action under this subsection if the trade secret is related to a product or service used in, or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce.”

‘‘(c) JURISDICTION.—The district courts of the United States shall have original jurisdiction of civil actions brought under this section.

However, the DTSA does not preempt state law. Therefore, the owner of a trade secret could potentially file a federal claim and a state law claim at the same time.

In a May 11, 2016 guest post on by Ian Clarke-Fisher of Labor & Employment and Jim Nault of Robinson + Cole’s Intellectual Property Litigation Practice Team, they wrote, “…the DTSA provides the following important provisions, among others:

Federal Civil Action:  The DTSA creates a federal civil cause of action, giving original jurisdiction to United States District Courts. This will allow companies to decide whether to bring claims in federal or state courts, and may have the net effect of moving most trade secret litigation to federal courts…Importantly, similar to federal employment laws, the DTSA does not supersede state trade secret laws.”

“Seizure of Property:  The DTSA includes a provision that permits the Court to issue an order, upon ex parte application in ‘extraordinary circumstances,’ seizing property to protect against to improper dissemination of trade secrets…the DTSA permits such an order only if the moving party has not publicized the requested seizure…”.

“Damages and Attorney’s Fees:  In addition to the seizure of property and injunctive relief, the DTSA permits for the recovery of damages for actual losses and unjust enrichment, and allows for exemplary (double) damages trade secrets that are ‘willfully or maliciously misappropriated’… The DTSA also provides for the recovery of reasonable attorney’s fees in limited instances…”

In a blog article prior to the bill’s passage (April 8, 2016), Nuala Droney and James Nault, members of Robinson + Cole’s Intellectual Property Litigation Practice Team commented: “The law provides for the award of damages for trade secret theft as well as injunctive relief. It even includes a provision allowing a court to grant ex parte expedited relief to trade secret owners under extraordinary circumstances to preserve evidence or prevent dissemination of the trade secret…”

They explained that “Trade secrets are a form of intellectual property that are of increasing importance to many manufacturers for a variety of reasons. A trade secret can be any information that is (i) valuable to a company, (ii) not generally known, and (iii) not readily ascertainable through lawful means, as long as the trade secret holder has taken reasonable precautions to protect it. A classic example of a trade secret is the formula for Coca-Cola. A more recent example is DuPont’s innovative Kevlar product, which was the subject of a large scale trade secret theft in 2006. Trade secret theft is a huge problem; a recent Pricewaterhouse-Coopers study showed that trade secret theft costs American businesses $480 billion a year.”

Dennis Crouch, Law Professor at the University of Missouri School of Law and Co-director of the Center for Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship, provides this commentary on his blog:

The Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) includes a new provision added to the Economic Espionage Act (EEA) that, depending upon how it is interpreted, may govern how district courts handle trade secret information in all cases. The new section will be codified as 18 U.S.C. 1835(b) and reads:

(b) Rights Of Trade Secret Owners—The court may not authorize or direct the disclosure of any information the owner asserts to be a trade secret unless the court allows the owner the opportunity to file a submission under seal that describes the interest of the owner in keeping the information confidential. . . .

Courts already liberally allow parties to file documents under seal – so that doesn’t provide the entire impact of the provision. Rather, the provision’s importance is that it extends beyond briefs being filed by parties and instead reaches disclosures at trial and court opinions. Thus, the statute presumably prevents a court from disclosing a trade-secret in its opinion without first providing the trade-secret owner with the opportunity to brief the issue of disclosure. In addition, it provides non-parties with a right to request (under seal) non-disclosure of their trade secret rights.”

However, the website of the Essex Richards law firm of Charlotte, NC has a warning that “businesses should know that the DTSA contains certain requirements that affect their employment and similar agreements with provisions protecting against disclosure or misappropriation of the company’s trade secrets or confidential information.” Here are a few provisions of the DTSA that they highlight as important for employers to understand:

  • “The DTSA provides immunity from trade secret misappropriation claims to whistleblowers who disclose their employer’s trade secrets or confidential information to government officials for the purpose of reporting or investigating a violation of the law.
  • The DTSA requires all employers to notify employees of the DTSA’s whistleblower protection provisions in any contract or agreement with an employee that governs the use of a trade secret or other confidential information. Otherwise, an employer will be deprived of exemplary damages and attorney’s fees under the DTSA. This notice requirement is satisfied if the agreement cross references a separate written policy that addresses reporting suspected violations of the law. Importantly, the DTSA broadly defines “employee” to include any individual “performing work as a contractor or consultant for an employer.” Therefore, independent contractors and consultants, in addition to “W-2 employees,” are covered under this definition. The notice requirement applies to agreements that are entered into or modified after May 11, 2016.
  • The DTSA provides a variety of remedies. If the court finds liability, it may: (1) issue an injunction so long as the order does not prevent an individual from entering an employment relationship and does not conflict with applicable state law prohibiting restraints on lawful employment; (2) order that a party take certain affirmative action to protect the trade secret; (3) award actual damages and damages for unjust enrichment; (4) condition future use of the trade secret on payment of a reasonable royalty, and (5) in a case of willful misappropriation, award exemplary damages not more than twice the original damages amount.  In addition, if the court determines that a party willfully and maliciously misappropriated a trade secret, or if it finds that a misappropriation claim or a motion to terminate an injunction has been brought in bad faith, it may award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party.
  • In the event a defending party is damaged due to a wrongful seizure, it may sue for and recover “relief as may be appropriate,” such as damages for lost profits, damages for loss of goodwill, reasonable attorney’s fees and punitive damages if the seizure was sought in bad faith.”

As a director on the board of the San Diego Inventors Forum, I am particularly interested in the fact that the DTSA is the first federal legislation that allows private citizens, without first having to obtain patent, trademark, or copyright registration, to sue in federal court to protect their trade secrets. This will be a great help for inventors and existing businesses that do not have “patentable” Intellectual Property and have to rely on trade secrets to protect their “secret” formulas or processes to produce their products.