A Conscious Approach to Business: Lean Manufacturing
On February 18, 2021, CEO Chris Ulbrich guest hosted a virtual Conscious Conversation held by the Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter. The Conscious Capitalism community was given the chance to hear from a 3rd generation family business leader about how Ulbrich has been rolling out continuous improvement strategies to make our company more sustainable, employees more engaged, and stakeholders more invested. About 30 enthusiasts attended the live event to listen to Chris’ take on lean manufacturing as it relates to conscious culture and conscious leadership. The virtual zoom event was moderated by Executive Director of Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter, Glen McDermott, who is also the Founder and CEO of Red Rock Branding.
To start off the event, Chris Ulbrich gave background to the company’s culture and history, making highlight to the 1980’s when his late father, Fred Ulbrich, Jr., former CEO, introduced the “Ulbrich Revolution.” This new company philosophy emerged in the form of these Four Tenets: Total Customer Responsiveness, Total Company Involvement, Total Quality Commitment, and Continuous Professional Development, in which the entire Ulbrich organization still embraces today. Being a global manufacturer of precision metal products, Ulbrich has a lot of different capabilities with lots of different moving parts, Chris explains, which brings many areas where lean plays a part in our processes. Lean manufacturing naturally was the next step in the Ulbrich Revolution.
Throughout his presentation, Chris gave examples of how Ulbrich practices lean throughout the organization and how it has been beneficial. The company encourages employees to share ideas and come forth with issues to solve by joining small teams (A3s) and finding the solutions or opportunities together with the help of one another. This system allows all employees’ voices to be heard, keeping everyone engaged and improving the business at all levels from the manufacturing floor to the inside sales desk one project at a time. Ulbrich has found that conducting A3s has enhanced productivity, improved many processes, and has even resulted in many cost savings for the company. A3 closings are currently being held via zoom every 2 weeks, and allow the teams to share their completed projects with the entire Ulbrich workforce. This practice allows the knowledge to be shared across multiple departments from different divisions, all coming together for total company involvement.
When asked what advice Chris would give leadership just starting lean, he replied stating that, “It’s not meant to be used as a weapon, but rather to give the people the power, time, and education to achieve goals [which can] promote a positive and ever-advancing company culture.” He continued to express that it is the duty of those in leadership positions to be an open ear and give employees the tools, budget, training, and time to meet. “It’s the supervisor’s job to give the resources to be the teacher to make the company safer, save on costs, time waste, [and] employee satisfaction.”
“[Lean is] not meant to be used as a weapon, but rather to give the people the power, time, and education to achieve goals [which can] promote a positive and ever-advancing company culture.”
- Chris Ulbrich, CEO
Conscious Capitalism is all about considering the greater good. Ulbrich works for its employees, vendors, community, shareholders, and banking partners. “Everything we do is with these stakeholders in mind”, explains Chris. One example of how the company does this is with our monthly Economic Update newsletter. This newsletter describes the previous month’s global and industry economic trends, important events that impact the business world, and the latest innovations and developments.
On the topic of environmental impact, Glen McDermott asked Chris if Ulbrich takes part in any power reduction programs. “We have partnered with experts to show us the different options to optimize our energy usage. [A] great example is that we added 500 solar panels to generate 11% of our power – a seven-year payback – at our Ulbrich Shaped Wire facility in North Haven. Even though we are running more machines than we were years ago, we are using less energy to run them.” Chris replied. Running a business ethically and consciously takes considerable thought and hard work, but at Ulbrich, we’ve seen that the return is invaluable.
Ulbrich understands that many of the improvements that are necessary to keep the nearly century old company operational and competitive may require financial investments. “We are very capital and material intensive,” Chris elates, sharing that the company just added a new high-tech rolling mill to our equipment and machinery inventory. Chris advices the other leaders to not be afraid to spend more to achieve more.
Many innovations also lead to the adaption to AI (artificial intelligence). When asked to share what Ulbrich’s stance is on AI, Chris explained that the company is just beginning its journey into AI. However, Chris preaches that the introduction of AI should never replace human employees. “We wouldn’t be who we are today if it wasn’t for our dedicated workforce,” Chris acknowledges.
Ulbrich Stainless Steels & Special Metals, Inc. currently employs 700 highly skilled, diverse personnel across 12 international locations. When asked about employee longevity, Chris proudly stated that the company has many employees reaching into their 40th anniversaries, with one employee currently celebrating their 48th to be exact. “We are very blessed to have peoples’ trust to stay with us for that long.” One of the organization’s way of recognizing employees’ commitment is by celebrating with a service awards dinner for every 5th year anniversary. This tradition has been a highlight for everyone, and Chris looks forward to starting this up again once the pandemic is over.
The current average employment lifespan for the company is 19 years, which is outstanding for a manufacturing company. But Ulbrich understands that there is a generational shift upon us, with many employees retiring, so it is important to have that knowledge transfer. Chris explains how Ulbrich combats this with an internal learning organization and orientation in place called UCORE that is constantly growing with new modules. Having this implementation streamlines the training process, while introducing new employees to Ulbrich’s culture of innovation and lean A3s. “It starts from day one,” Chris declares, “Ulbrich lives and breathes lean, so new employees are instantly presented with the principles of lean manufacturing from top level management down to the production floor.”
Chris Ulbrich would like to thank Glen McDermott and the Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter for inviting our company to share how we practice being a conscious business. Chris has just recently joined the advisory board of this local branch and is happy to answer any questions or offer advice on running a fourth-generation family-owned company. You can listen to Chris’ full presentation here.
Founded in 2016, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter is a local nonprofit organization made up of over 2,800 CEOs, CFOs, thought-leaders, industry experts and student entrepreneurs. They are dedicated to fostering the theory and practice of conscious capitalism by engaging and educating community leaders in ethical business practices. Several elements go into the evolution of conscious capitalism. A conscious business possesses purpose beyond profit, a healthy work culture, servant leadership, and a multi-stakeholder perspective. There are currently 35 active international Chapters existing to connect, inspire, and activate Conscious Capitalists in cities around the world. For more information on this movement or to learn how you can become a member of the Conscious Capitalism community, visit www.consciouscapitalism.org.