FIGURE 1. Chris Fitzgerald, AMCA’s laboratory manager, points at the tool board that was developed to shave walking time off the technicians' routines, as senior technician John Seper looks on.

Special from the Air Movement & Control Association International.
How do you reduce 16 weeks of backlogged work to three weeks, without adding staff, and while maintaining quality? Oh, and you need it in under six months?

The Air Movement and Control Association International (AMCA) board of directors wanted to do exactly that early last year. For years, they had wrestled with a way of keeping the same high quality standards in the AMCA International laboratory yet making the testing of new products faster and more efficient. The board decided to hire a consulting firm to implement an improvement strategy called "Lean Enterprise, Constraint Management, Six Sigma and Maintenance" ("lean process" for short). This program is designed to drive fast bottom-line results as well as a cultural transformation that can accelerate and sustain improvements.

AMCA's laboratory is the centerpiece of the AMCA International Certified Rating Programs (CRP). When a new product is certified, the laboratory tests it according to the relevant AMCA standard.

In addition, the laboratory also performs what are called check tests that ensure that an existing product line still meets the CRP requirements. The laboratory also does research and development for companies that don't have a lab. Products can be tested for air movement, water penetration, temperature, and sound. The backlog of work was extremely high, topping 16 weeks. This was acting as a barrier to using the CRP program, which was, in turn, negatively affecting other areas of AMCA International's member services.

The consulting firm chosen, High Performance value streams (HPVS) had come to the board's attention when the lean process had been successfully implemented at Greenheck Fan Company with positive results a few years earlier. HPVS watched and studied the process that the laboratory had used for years, which had high-quality percentages, but which always had a large backlog. This backlog was exactly what the board had identified as a barrier for members' introduction of new products to be certified, yet the board was unwilling to encourage speed due to the resulting loss in quality.

Ron Leblanc, HPVS president, advised implementing a top-down strategy by getting senior level management to buy into the improvements. Then, he worked with the day-to-day staff who actually do the testing. By listening and synthesizing comments from all the parties, he was able to develop a training system that removed many of the barriers to faster productivity. Barbara Morrison, executive director of AMCA International said, "This strategy meshed quite closely with our major organizational goals for AMCA, mainly being proactive and serving members' needs."

Mark Stevens, AMCA's director of laboratory services commented, "We started working with Leblanc and his lean process techniques in May of this year. At first we were generally skeptical. We had been, after all, in the testing business for a long time and knew what we were doing. The tools we learned really had nothing to do per se with testing fans, but had everything to do with making our business process stronger and could be applied to any business process."

Lean Outcomes

After developing buy-in on all levels, Leblanc developed three custom one-week training processes with two or more weeks between each session. Content was focused on value stream analysis, workplace organization, set-up reduction, and basic quality tools. Each session consisted of two days of classroom instruction followed by three days of application of tools and concepts on assigned projects.

The project goal was to reduce barriers to completing an efficient test run. Three major areas for improvement had emerged. They were: detailed scheduling for the test chambers, external set-up time, and eliminating or reducing wasted motion. Some interesting observations emerged from this period. The most telling was the fact that the average job required the technician to walk over one mile per test to get everything organized and in one place so the test could proceed.

The scheduling process involved improving the paperwork flow and addressing problems before the test units were set up for testing. Closely related to scheduling was the external preparation time; staging jobs outside the test chamber saves time and now has become standard operating procedure. Lastly, the scheduling and test staging improvements helped reduce wasted motion, successfully preventing technicians from taking that one-mile stroll. Rolling tool boards were also developed to keep all necessary tools handy and accessible without having to hunt for them.

As the laboratory staff worked through the process, the 16-week backlog started to drop away easily and without sacrificing quality. In fact, quality got better and staff ownership of the process increased dramatically. Stevens noted, "We now have better customer service, higher revenue, and happier employees that are more willing to make and take on changes. There are fewer errors, higher productivity and a lower backlog. Our members and employees are happy with the changes we've made, and we plan to continue making improvements."

Figure 2. The setup of a test can be rather extensive with construction of sturdy plywood ductwork, calibrating the dynameters, lining up the height of the fan to the chamber’s opening, and then making sure it is all ready to be tested.

Keeping the Lean On

As a result, the AMCA laboratory now has a normal three-week workload of testing, which makes the membership happier and allows the association to function more effectively. To keep on top of this process, there are constant pauses for the staff to step outside the laboratory and, as a group, review the process, decide on improvements, and discuss solutions to any problems that emerge from those discussions.

Tom Edwards, president of AMCA International and the CEO of Ruskin Company and Lau Industries OEM, commented, "The lean process that we have incorporated within the AMCA International lab process has had fantastic results. This process improved the turnaround time for our certified testing of all air movement and air control products. This is the number one service that AMCA International provides for its members and affiliates. By addressing this need, manufacturers utilizing the lab can more quickly catalog their products and start promoting the product specifications. HVAC system designers and specifiers can specify AMCA certification with the assurance that more manufacturers are testing and certifying their performance."

Less than six months later, AMCA International's board of directors had discovered their answer to the backlog question. Yes, you can reduce the backlog from 16 weeks to three in less than six months without comprising quality, and as a bonus, you get a much more profitable business as well. ES

The Air Movement and Control Association International, Inc. is a not-for-profit international association of the world's manufacturers of related air system equipment - primarily, but not limited to fans, louvers, dampers, air curtains, airflow measurement stations, acoustic attenuators, and other air system components for the industrial, commercial, and residential markets. See AMCA International's webpage at for more information.