Fol-Da-Tank’s Recipe to Reduce Lead Times
by Joel Wright
Voice of the Customer, Data from the ERP system, Lean, Clear Expectations, and Supplier Partnerships
When Fol-Da-Tank was acquired in November 2020, our first step was a calling campaign to understand our customers’ needs. We had a goal to talk to 100 unique customers mirroring the training I had seen many times at the University of Iowa Venture School. The questions were open ended and focused on the theme – what would you most like to see us change? By the time we called the 10th customer it became apparent we didn’t need to call 90 more. All 10 answers were the same: reduce lead times. The distributors and first responders who are our core customers needed the tools we make to save lives and protect property.
We weren’t alone. Many companies suffered from supply chain and workforce disruptions because of the pandemic. But the team at Fol-Da-Tank overcame those challenges in 2021 and reduced lead times from 45 days to less than 10 days by not only listening, but also taking action.
To start taking action, we first focused on data. For us that meant installing the company’s first ERP software called BusinessWorks, which helped us translate the decades of institutional knowledge to a comprehensive intelligent part number system that would make sense to customers, our team, and the ERP system. At the mid- stages of this effort, we were successfully creating purchase orders, quotes, sales orders, and invoices all within BusinessWorks. As soon as we began doing these core activities, we began creating reports that told us what raw materials to order to ensure we could start and finish a job without interruption. Productivity increased and our lead times began to drop.
Next, we had to organize the shop and Lean 5-S was the tool of choice. Workflow interruptions were no longer due to running out of raw materials but had shifted due to disorganization. So we purged unnecessary items, acquired all the industrial metal shelving we could take, and cleaned it up. We even painted it with the same paint we use to on our folding frame tanks. It’s our color scheme and it looks great! Once we installed the shelves everything had a place and it felt like our factory was twice the size.
There are a lot of sayings that people are the heart of any organization. We are no different at Fol-Da-Tank. Our leadership team set expectations in a collaborative way. We were transparent with what our customers were telling us and what our actual lead times were. The team embraced the challenge despite the big gap we had to cross. When we asked what was holding us back and when we observed some of the barriers it became easier to identify how to get better every day. Our COO Keith has a gift for clearly breaking down the day’s tasks in a daily huddle. His clear messages led to daily expectations and improvements we all could meet – most of the time. When we failed, Keith re-packaged failure into lessons learned and the next day we did better. Good leadership set clear expectations and our team believed in themselves and each other to reduce lead times.
Finally, we could not have reduced lead times as much as we did without participation from our supplier partners. First, we gathered a clear understanding of the technical and physical property requirements of each raw material. This part took building on the decades of institutional knowledge into commercial specifications that could be understood by more than one supplier. Then we defined the rate of consumption. We used actual raw material usage data from our ERP system to make future predictions and built easy to read bid packages for each key supply. In most cases this was an iterative process with the supplier partner to understand how to optimize their factory and supply chain. For example, some suppliers, especially those that manufactured a unique item, preferred a monthly delivery cadence vs others who supply a commodity from stock and could economically deliver weekly. For critical items we developed multiple suppliers to reduce the risk of an interruption. We also discovered a way we could manufacture some items ourselves. In those cases, lead time was completely ours to manage. Our supply partners knew our needs well ahead of time and with regular communication have made big contributions to our lead time success.
But we couldn’t have done any of that without you. Our first step was listening, and we’re thankful to the fire professionals who told us lead times were an issue. In 2021, we reduced lead time from 45 days to less than 10 days. Since then, we have sustained the 10-day target. The customers we heard from made our lead time mission crystal clear. Decisive leadership created a workable path to the goal. The team at Fol-Da-Tank made it a resounding success. We are forever thankful for our customers’ clear direction, and we are super proud of our “made in Illinois” work ethic and ingenuity. By listening, we were able to quickly deliver the reliable and quality products our customers need to save lives and respond to emergencies.