How Lean Manufacturing Helped Aerofil Forge a Continuous Improvement Path

For more than a decade, one of HBM’s portfolio companies — Aerofil Technology — has used a process-improvement method called Lean Manufacturing. In this Q&A, Joe Sonderman, Senior Vice President of Operations at Aerofil Technology Inc., explains how Lean Manufacturing has helped the company and its customers, and also shares critical steps for effective adoption.

This methodology reinforces Aerofil’s commitment to safety, efficiency, and productivity — and HBM has begun exploring ways to leverage the benefits. The firm is currently introducing other portfolio companies to Lean Manufacturing. As it evaluates the results and scalability, HBM may ultimately implement this method more broadly across the enterprise.

About Aerofil Technology: This contract manufacturer packages aerosol cans and liquid containers for industry-leading brands across a wide set of industries and applications.


Can you share a few highlights from your work in manufacturing?

JS: I have been involved in all aspects of Manufacturing during my 40 year career, starting at Unilever USA in St. Louis, Spectrum Brands in St. Louis, and now 11 years with Aerofil Technology.  My experience at Aerofil has been the best time of my career.  Lean Manufacturing has taken our workforce and the facility to a different level.  In my role, we act as a resource to the entire workforce, focusing on day to day requirements, and the long term strategies going forward.  A critical part of the Leadership Team’s responsibilities includes spending time on the Manufacturing floor – every day.


What is Lean Manufacturing, and why did Aerofil adopt it?

JS: Lean Manufacturing is a continuous improvement process with the end goal of eliminating waste. I live by the motto, “Let’s be better today than we were yesterday,” so I liked the methodology from the start. In 2007, Aerofil adopted Lean Manufacturing because the company’s rapid growth had led to service and quality issues. We focus on providing excellent customer service, so we had to make changes to improve relationships with our clients.

How did Aerofil implement the Lean Manufacturing process?

JS: We used Lean Manufacturing tools to build a roadmap for how we run things — not just operations, but also administration and the warehouse. There’s a common misperception that Lean Manufacturing only applies to a company’s operations. In fact, all departments can benefit.

We hired a consultant in 2007 to help lead us forward on our Lean journey, also creating our own in-house experts referred to as Lean Facilitators. They helped us map out an enterprise-wide value stream as well as createed our True North Metrics. The True North Metrics are Human Development, Quality, Delivery, and Cost.  That is the hierarchy of how we run our business – in that order of importance.

  • Human Development – This includes how we manage the safety of our facility – people and processes. Training is a key element to help develop our workforce.
  • Quality – We track our First Time Quality and the cost of poor quality. Our operators are responsible for the quality at their work areas.  
  • Delivery – How efficiently are we running our seven aerosol and four liquid lines? Are we meeting customer due dates? Production throughput is critical, which is tracked by units per employee hour.
  • Cost – We look at labor costs, sales/unit, and inventory turns.
How important was it to obtain buy-in throughout the organization — and what did you do to get people on board?

JS: Some studies show that when companies go down the path of adopting Lean Manufacturing practices, 95 percent of them will ultimately fail. We obtained buy-in from our leadership team and our employees for Lean Manufacturing as a commitment, not a finite project. Not the program of the month.

To get that buy-in from every person on the floor, we had to communicate Lean Manufacturing correctly. The purpose of this methodology is process improvement, not job elimination. We let everyone know that we were implementing processes to streamline the facility to be cost-effective and responsive to customers.

Here’s another important step: We held rapid improvement events to encourage open collaboration. For these events — which can last a day, or weeks — we take people from all areas of the company away from their day-to-day jobs. The hope is that we can come up with great process improvements during these rapid improvement events. In fact, no idea is a bad idea and can lead to signature breakthroughs. Since 2007, we’ve held approximately 500 of them, and I believe that these events helped transform the facility and the workforce.

To make those events work, you need to create an open-minded and trusting environment. If a process-improvement suggestion led to a job being eliminated, we moved that person to another role in the company. We want our employees to feel comfortable coming forward with ideas without fearing they would be eliminating jobs.

How has Lean Manufacturing helped make a difference to your customers?

JS: By ensuring a quality product delivered on time, Lean Manufacturing has also benefited our customers. We have adopted the Toyota Production System (TPS) which is a philosophy that aligns manufacturing with customer and supplier relationships.

We take Safety very seriously.  Part of that is creating a safe environment for our employees.  There is nothing more important.  By using the Lean 6S methodology and creating a Visual Workplace, our facility is clean and very well organized.  The plant helps “sell itself” to our customers and suppliers – and leads to better performance following our True North Metrics.