Employees Seize the Lean Initiative

May 8, 2012
Klein Steel operates by the motto: "Do the right thing in the absence of supervision."

Processing steel can be a dangerous business, and not only for the people directly involved in the actual production. Customers, suppliers and other visitors unwittingly can add to the potential for safety mishaps in a building full of heavy metal slabs and machinery that cuts, burns, machines and moves those slabs.

Recognizing this truth, employees at Klein Steel Service, a privately owned steel distribution and processing company located in Rochester, N.Y., determined that safety improvements were needed for visitor entry to the warehouse. Among other issues, an awkward layout made it possible for visitors to enter the warehouse without first signing in.

That’s no longer the case. Last year Klein Steel implemented a visitor safety program. As part of the program, the safety team changed the flow of visitor entry into the facility; now they can’t avoid signing in and signing out. Additionally, the team established several other guidelines: Visitors must wear safety glasses and hard hats, appropriate footwear, and be escorted by a Klein Steel team member. The program has since been introduced across Klein Steel’s branch locations.

This improvement project, one of many under way at Klein Steel, illustrates several important points about the company. The first is the absolute imperative of safety. The second point is the value Klein Steel places on decentralization and empowerment, and on a culture of performance, all in pursuit of a shared destiny. The team members who improved what they considered a safety challenge at the Rochester facility didn’t react in response to an order to improve safety. They instead embraced the culture of safety, identified an issue, developed a solution and implemented that solution—without constantly engaging top leadership for approval.

That’s exactly the type of enterprise Klein Steel expects from its entire workforce. “Team members are empowered to seize the initiative,” explains Todd Zyra, chief operating officer.

It’s really more than that. Employees are encouraged to seize the initiative. “Do the right thing in the absence of supervision” is one of the abiding principles at Klein Steel.

If it sounds as though the company places significant responsibility in the hands of all employees, it is because Klein Steel does exactly that. Therefore, hiring the right people into the company is an area of emphasis. Interestingly, however, deep knowledge of steel is not a requirement.

“We look hard for very special people, and we are willing to train,” explains John Batiste, president and CEO of Klein Steel. Where the company is unwilling to bend is in the hiring of people who embrace the company’s values, which include accountability, candor, customer satisfaction, integrity, and dignity and respect.

“We are very selective,” admits Rob Sihto, manager of human resources. His arsenal of hiring tools was recently augmented with an online assessment that helps identify star performers and candidates who share Klein Steel’s values and culture.

“If people get fired from Klein Steel, it is because they don’t ‘walk the talk’ with these values,” Batiste says.

Klein Steel’s focus on hiring and developing the right people has driven strong results, including a 10% increase in productivity over the past three years, measured as annual sales per employee, and a 34% reduction in manufacturing cycle time. Perhaps most importantly, the company’s success is driving growth even in a depressed economy.

Is your plant a model of continuous improvement and world-class best practices? Learn more about the IW Best Plants program or request an application at

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