Many companies use Lean Management methods to improve individual areas. But Lean is much more than just a toolbox. As a corporate philosophy, it enables holistic transformation, as the example of the Liechtenstein-based Hilti Group shows. Dr. Stefan Nöken, member of the world’s leading partner for professionals in the construction industry, has accompanied this journey from the very beginning.
Ten years have passed since Hilti’s Executive Board decided to align all areas of the company with Lean Management principles. Time and resource waste was to be eliminated, and processes were to be optimized even more in the best interests of the customers. The aim of Lean@Hilti: Operational Excellence.
Dr. Stefan Nöken, a member of the Hilti Executive Board since 2007, has helped shape the transformation from the very beginning. How much has Hilti changed since then? “Massively,” is his assessment. “It’s a very different company today than it was back then.” Hilti, he says, is now twice as big, much more international – with more diverse structures, more dynamics, and has become more flexible and more agile. The company is even more customer-focused and has a broader, more comprehensive offering.
Nevertheless, change was never implemented just for the sake of change. The Hilti motto “We passionately create enthusiastic customers and build a better future” still holds true. Likewise, Hilti’s strategy elements – differentiated product and service offering, direct customer relationship, a high performing global team and operational excellence – were retained.
The culture of “Care & Perform” was also kept in place by the group. Stefan Nöken: “We challenge each other, but at the same time we are there for each other.”
DR. STEFAN NÖKEN
Member of the Executive Board
“We work with each other with decency, respect, appreciation and openness.”
What has changed, on the other hand, is the way managers work. “Especially at the mid-level, managers today act as partners and coaches. They lead by asking questions, and rather than giving ready-made solutions, they provide help for self-help,” explains the Hilti manager. The result: While technical expertise is a necessary prerequisite when recruiting new managers, it is more important that they are compatible with Hilti’s culture.
“Even in the onboarding process,” Nöken continues, “there have already been cases in which it was determined that they were not a good fit after all.” What matters is the manager’s value system. The clear message: “It’s about employees acting with decency, respect, appreciation and openness with each other.”
Breakthrough improvements as a management task
At Hilti, managers are also expected to continuously optimize the ongoing business. However, these improvements alone are not enough to drive the company’s long-term development. Senior LEAN@HILTI: ” THIS PROCESS NEVER ENDS “ ~ Lean Transformation 7 OPERATIONAL MANAGEMENT executives, in particular, therefore have the task of initiating real breakthrough improvements. “To do this, you have to fundamentally break with certain paradigms, structures and processes,” Stefan Nöken is certain.
If, for example, there was a need to cut the lead time in production in half or to save one third of the costs for a product line due to fierce competition, enough pressure would be built up to activate the team and initiate new thinking and change. Implementation is then carried out by a cross-functional team. Says Hilti executive Nöken: “It’s incredible how much creativity and commitment is generated this way.”
Integrating lean into the daily routines of 30,000 employees
In addition, Hilti has always seen and used crises such as the 2008 financial crisis, the 2015 Swiss franc shock or the COVID-19 pandemic as opportunities or catalysts. “Of course, every crisis shocks a company – including us. But it also creates a compelling need to act,” Nöken describes. The willingness to question and change things is also much higher in such times. In terms of the transformation process, the financial crisis made Hilti more flexible, the franc shock accelerated internationalization, and the pandemic led to greater resilience in the supply chain, he said.
But how do you motivate 30,000 employees worldwide to work continuously on improvements, even away from crisis periods? Hilti offers a variable profit-sharing scheme for employees at all levels.
The decisive factor, however, is the emotional satisfaction that
everyone derives from making a contribution and being successful, according to Stefan Nöken:
“Everyone wants to be part of a winning team.” The pinnacle of emotional satisfaction, he says, is the Lean Award for Operational Excellence. In the plants, there is the Lean Winner of the month and of the year.
Around the world, the best of the best then compete for the Global Award, which is presented for continuous improvement, as well as for innovation: “It’ s an incredible moment full of emotion and pride when the trophies are presented.” How does Hilti train its workforce to be lean? “At the core, every employee needs to understand that lean is not a project. It has no end, so it’s about making lean a daily routine and building it into the workflow,” explains the Hilti executive. Scaling and consistency are
essential in the lean process, he said. To provide formal training in lean, the company offers special modules and workshops in its own academy, for example on Kaizen or Shop Floor Management.
“Lean is a larger transformation process
that requires a holistic approach.
A single measure is not enough.”
We inspire our customers and build a better future
Even more important, however, is on-the-job training, i.e., experiencing lean in daily operations with colleagues and superiors and applying it in one’s own work. One of the ways Hilti measures how successful this is, is with a Lean Assessment, which shows how an area has developed over the past twelve months.
“A transformation process that requires a holistic approach”
Looking back on the past ten years of Lean Transformation, Hilti is very satisfied with the company’s financial performance, employee engagement, ESG responsibility and innovation performance. “But not everything worked, and there is still a lot of potential,” summarizes Hilti manager Nöken. Digitalization will also bring about major changes in the construction industry over the next ten years. Hilti will have to expand its offering accordingly, further digitalize customer interaction and also adapt its operational system.
What can companies that want to start with lean learn from Hilti? “Lean is a larger transformation process that requires a holistic approach. A single measure is not enough,” emphasizes Stefan Nöken. “Anchoring it in the company’s strategy and culture is therefore fundamental. Without a clear message from the top and perspective, employees won’t follow along.”