Utilizing lean manufacturing to innovate solutions for customers
by Joel Wright
At Fol-Da-Tank, we rely on one of the basic principles of our lean manufacturing training to successfully incorporate innovation into our culture. The lean principle is value is in the eye of the customer. That’s why we listen to our customers in order to create products that make their jobs and lives easier.
In fact, Fol-Da-Tank is built on a 66-year legacy of innovation in the firefighting industry. The founder’s first innovation, the folding frame drop tank, was revolutionary. He saw his firefighter friends lashing four ladders together and throwing a tarp in the middle. This was an effective temporary auxiliary water tank, and it took valuable time to set up and clean up. His infant daughter was home in her Playpen which was easy to set up and looked a lot like the tank formed by the ladders and tarp. The first drop tank was built modeling the Playpen and it revolutionized rural water supply.
Since purchasing the company from the founding family, our team defined our innovation challenge as one of our three core strategies and simply stated it as, “we drive demand for innovation.” In every interaction with our customers, we have trained ourselves to listen for unmet needs and wants. This active approach yields insights that are especially helpful to industry newcomers. While we search for another revolutionary idea, we know our success depends on a steady stream of evolutionary innovation.
One of our first innovations was born from too many unpleasant conversations about freight damage. Our drop tanks are long and light. They don’t ship well. When they arrive damaged, it starts a frustrating process for the customer, distributor, carrier, and us. Da-Tank-Stand was our innovative answer and it dramatically reduced freight damage in our domestic shipments.
Every innovation has a good story. One example is when a firefighter visited our shop and commented how colorful all the vinyl rolls were in the racks. He said he’d been on a cloudy midnight call and the lighting at the scene was poor. He asked if we could make the drain sleeves a different color than the liner so he could see them easier at the end of the call. This was a simple change to incorporate, and we call it the Hi-Viz drain sleeve.
Another innovation example is when a wildland firefighter told us stories of sudden wind shifts which triggered an immediate need to move people and equipment. He told us our standard drain sleeves took too long to drain the tank which consumed valuable time. From this firefighter’s vivid story, we developed the Jumbo Drain which empties our tanks 6 times faster than a regular drain sleeve.
The Hi-Viz Jumbo Drain is shown below.
When we attended a rural water supply class by the team at Got Big Water, we were struck by the improvised techniques to hold drain sleeves to the frame. Our design included a rope hold which we RF welded to the outside of the tank wall, a pull through strap, and a carabiner clipped through grommets at the end of the drain sleeve. By design, the carabiner clipped to the rope hold was a perfect way to hold all the water in the tank. When it was time to release the water, all one had to do was unclip the carabiner and pull on the strap. This simple motion pulled the drain sleeve through the tank wall. At the class, we observed how difficult it was to unclip the carabiner while wearing gloves. This is the genesis for our Rapid Release mechanism which is a new standard on tanks and comes in a retrofit kit for existing tanks.
Firefighting is a rugged profession and occasionally equipment is damaged. We have received more than one email late at night from a fire chief who returned to the station after an event where equipment was damaged. When a truck accidentally backs into a tank, they need a replacement or repair fast. We used our shop software to identify the most popular items. Building finished goods or subassemblies for these items is low risk. As a result, we commit to our customers 1 to 2-day lead times for the items on our Quick Ship list.
As a lean organization, we understand that value is in the eye of the customer. When we had to choose where to spend our time, we found bringing innovation to life was easy to justify.