A continuous improvement system aligned with a collaborative work culture and linked to a clear set of corporate objectives can create a better future for a manufacturing company, its employees, and for customers.

That was the central message at motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson’s York, PA, plant during a Manufacturing Leadership Council tour last month. About 50 MLC members toured the 607,000-square foot York facility where Harley assembles its Softail, Touring, CVO, and three-wheel Trike families of motorcycles, and learned about Harley’s Continuous Improvement System (CIS).

The structure for that system can be thought of as an inverted triangle enabled by a sustainable lean culture that has three major components – engaged employees, proven processes, and focused leadership, with general management at the bottom of the triangle. And five key principles support the structure: standard work, built-in quality, just-in-time production, continuous improvement, and people involvement.

But the key to CIS is Harley’s manufacturing vision and history. The company’s vision, visually evident on posters in the York plant and embraced by team members, is that “pride drives competitive advantage, and that work strengthens the brand and builds our future.” Harley team members “communicate openly in real time and proactively solve problems together. Together, we create the future.” To demonstrate the commitment to this vision, six Harley team members recited the company’s vision statement by heart at the start of a panel discussion with York plant management after the tour.

That they were able to do so reflects the unique persona enjoyed by Harley- Davidson, whose motorcycles and rugged image command an almost cult-like following that was created over the last century to enable “people to realize their dreams of personal freedom”. Founded in a small shed in Milwaukee in 1903 by William S. Harley and brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson, today Harley is a $5.65 billion company, with net income of more than $521 million in 2017. In 2018, it expects to ship more than 230,000 motorcycles.

But shifting market and buyer dynamics led Harley in 2016 to launch a 10-year strategy to grow its business. The strategy has five key objectives:

  • Identify two million new riders in the U.S.
  • Grow international business to 50% of annual volume (it is about 40% now)
  • Launch 100 new high-impact motorcycles
  • Deliver superior return on invested capital
  • Grow the business without growing its environmental impact

The York plant is gearing up to execute on these objectives and has nine new motorcycle models planned for launch. Under construction now is a 56,000-square foot extension of the plant that will house two new assembly lines.  A new electric bike that Harley has had under development will be built there. Construction of the extension is expected to be completed by the end of this year. Some of these workers will come from Harley’s Kansas City factory, which is ramping down.

The York plant makes fenders, fuel tanks, and frames in addition to its assembly operations. During the tour, MLC members got to see the fuel tank and frame operations, the painting process, vehicle quality audit, and roll test, an area with five bays where diagnostic tests are conducted on bikes.

A bike frame, for example, has 31 parts that are welded together in four minutes using 264 linear inches of weld. The plant produces 470 frames per shift. It takes seven hours for a single coat of paint to be applied, dried, and cured, and 12 hours for a two-coat application.

Under Harley’s continuous improvement process, downtime is tracked every two hours, workers rotate every 90 minutes, and plant floor team members hold each week what they call Board of Directors meetings to work through any problems that may have occurred in the operation. A Continuous Improvement Board mounted in an area of the plant floor displays health and safety, quality, delivery, cost, people, and sustainability statistics. “If leaders don’t show interest, it won’t get done,” one Harley official said of the Board of Directors. “They need to know it is important.”

CIS itself was implemented in 2009 and was initially focused on compliance, but has evolved to now also focus on plant performance. York goes through a CIS assessment twice a year. The assessment process has four phases: foundation and organizational alignment, expansion and discipline, integration and reinforcement, and sustaining momentum.

In addition to this process, Harley has put in place a cross-functional team consisting of people from its information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) departments to support assembly line and engineering processes. The IT team trains on PLC systems and the OT team trains on IT. “Their number one priority is to solve problems within takt time to make sure the assembly line is running,” an official said.

During the question-and-answer session with York plant management, officials were asked what their aspirations for CIS are in the next five years.

Proactive problem-solving, as opposed to reactive; better information at the operator level to make decisions; and 100% commitment to CIS by every team member were the top goals cited by Harley managers.