The Leadership Files: Jan Santerre, Vice President of Lean Business at Hillenbrand, Inc.

Jan Santerre

In this Leadership Files series, Six Sigma & Process Excellence IQ brings you the top Process Improvement executives to watch out for in 2011. In this interview, we profile Jan Santerre, vice president of Lean Business at Hillenbrand, Inc., which owns Batesville Casket Company, a leader in the death care industry.

Interview by Helen Winsor

Please provide a brief background of your process improvement program.

In the late 1980s, Hillenbrand Industries was very active in learning about "just-in-time" strategies. In the 1990s it teamed up with Shingijutsu and TBM to immerse itself in Lean thinking. Executives attended three-week training sessions in Japan, and the shop floor has improved through hundreds of kaizen events over the past several years.

On April 1, 2008 Hillenbrand Industries was transformed into what is now two public companies: Hill-Rom and Hillenbrand, Inc. (which owns Batesville Casket Company and recently acquired K-Tron International). Over the past few years, Hillenbrand, Inc. has focused on continuing to mature its Lean understanding through system-level kaizen, therefore touching all aspects of the business. Hillenbrand, Inc. will use Lean business principles to continue to drive improvements into the recently acquired K-Tron International.

What are the top three components to your overall business strategy in 2011?

  1. Organic growth
  2. Acquisitive growth
  3. Superior financial performance

Why is the process improvement program an important focus for your business and what role does it play in the business strategy?

At its core, process improvement is about observing the situation, analyzing it, creating an action plan to improve it and verifying the results. The resultant learning is to be shared through all levels of the organization. This is essentially the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle, and it applies to every aspect of the business, from strategic initiatives through to delighting the customer. The stronger the PDCA skill set, the healthier the organization.

What is your perspective on process improvement as a cost-cutting versus revenue-generating strategy?

When Lean is fully embraced, it results in both revenue generation and lower costs. How does this happen? Lean provides a clarity of purpose, processes and people. The purpose stems from a clear understanding of the critical strategic needs of the business. These are then cascaded through the company through hoshin kanri, where processes and resources are then aligned. Depending on the market environment, the business and many other factors, Lean thinking and methods would be used to address whatever the strategy requires: lowered costs, revenue growth, improved quality, more engaged workforce, etc.

What is your stance on the different process improvement approaches and what approach do you favor?

Lean is a comprehensive business philosophy based upon principles, values and tools. It fully embraces many tools such as Six Sigma, Business Process Re-engineering, etc. But, as a comprehensive business philosophy, it requires a more extensive and pervasive commitment from the management team to be successful.

How did you develop into this role and what steps did you take to get there?

I began as a product engineer in automotives. I moved through manufacturing engineering, quality and landed soundly in manufacturing. During the manufacturing years, I had the opportunity to learn firsthand from some of the Toyota Georgetown managers who were then consulting. Additionally, I studied with John Shook at the University of Michigan for my master’s degree.

After 10 years in the automotive manufacturing environment, I changed companies and ended up a vice president of Lean for a Fortune 150 company. While in that role, I created and launched the worldwide Lean program, which they have in place today. I went back into operations as a vice president, with several companies reporting into me. In this role I had the opportunity to see PDCA used to drive organic growth. After four years in that role, I decided to take my learnings and apply them to a new challenge — a distinguished company seeking to grow through acquisitions and drive improved performance through Lean.

What challenges did you have to face as a change leader and how did you overcome them?

Obviously it’s critical to gain not just support from the top executives, but full-force engagement. I’ve found that as a change leader it’s important to understand that adult learning and communication need to take several forms: visual, hands-on, audible, classroom, networking, mentoring and coaching. It’s imperative to set up an environment where these means are used both formally and informally.

It was key that I got to know the top-level executives personally, understand their leadership styles and adapt methods to match their own growth needs. Once they’ve had the opportunity to really learn what Lean is about, I’ve never seen anybody lower their commitment level — it only grew. But a change leader must have an on-purpose approach. At Hillenbrand, Inc. we call that intentional development.