Case Study: VIBCO’s Lean Transformation Journey

VIBCO_introVIBCO was founded in 1962 by Theodore S. Wadensten, my father. Since then we have recorded over 25 U.S. Patents for our designs. The company is headquartered in Wyoming, RI, USA, with sales and warehouse locations in Toronto, Florida, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. We sell to a global audience, enabled by our global distribution partner network. VIBCO manufactures more than 1,800 unique SKUs, with 6,000+ manufactured components.

About 15 years ago I had a “tipping point” moment on a fateful afternoon, with an honest-to-goodness, real-life crying customer on the phone. We had a grown man on the phone, crying in fear for his job because we had let him down time-after-time on an order delivery date. That phone call was VIBCO Vibrators defining moment.

Something had to Change

It was at that moment I realized we were not on a winning path. We were not the type of organization I wanted to run. If we were going to be able to effectively compete in the global manufacturing “game”, we had to start with looking at ourselves and our own internal processes.

The first thing we did was to become reflective, ask ourselves the tough questions and to have Courageous Conversations:

  • What kind of leader/employee am I?
  • What do I need to change?
  • What kind of customer am I? What kind of supplier?
  • What are the strengths/values/core competencies of our organization?
  • How can I help the VIBCO team to make an emotional, sustainable connection to our business and our customers?

We articulated the mountaintop … our True North:  “Same Day, Next Day.” We got as many people moving in that direction as possible. We needed (and still need!) the whole team.

Look at the 10 desks closest to your own … and mentally fill in this chart:



Manufacturing Transformation Starts from Within

The truth is that MOST organizations are not even coming close to reaching their potential. (we certainly weren’t back then). It’s not because insufficient money, technology, time, data, intelligence, regulatory support, etc. It’s because the vast majority of the people in the organization don’t BELIEVE IN or HAVE PASSION FOR the work, the customers, or the leadership. They have no connection to purpose, or a feeling of being part of something greater than self.

Task #1 was to truly engage our team – to develop a sense of belonging and participating. In the words of Seth Godin, we began to build our tribe – the Vibration Nation.

“A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. “  – Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us

Transforming our organization didn’t happen in the board room, it didn’t happen on paper, we couldn’t hire somebody to do it, and it certainly didn’t happen by mandating fancy charts, calling a suggestion box an “idea system”, or by managing from behind a desk. It took hand-to-hand combat in the trenches with our team – seeing what they see and sharing their pain and then coming up with ways to relieve the pain together. You can’t sing the blues if you haven’t lived the blues … that means you have to go WAY below the pseudo conversations where everything is “ok”, “fine”, and “good” to where you can authentically understand the problems your front-line employees (and your customers!) face every day.[pullquote]

The VIBCO Vibration Nation

• cares about our customers – what they want, what they need.

• cares about our happiness – what we want, what we need.

• cares about our community – what we can share, what we can learn.

• reads together, learns together, improves together, talks about problems.

• understands that Lean and manufacturing excellence is an authentic part of our brand – it’s the VIBCO Way!

One note about the reading together:  I feel very frustrated when people dismissively say, “oh we read that book…” or, “we did that exercise…” The difference is that we live (present tense) that book we live that exercise. Our learning becomes a part of our DNA. There’s a difference.


Transforming an organization is 100% reliant on how well you ENGAGE your team. This is really where true Lean Manufacturing/TPS programs get it right. Tools notwithstanding, the biggest gains you and your business will realize come directly from developing people.

Transformation Never Ends

Make no mistake … it will be a difficult at times – even maddening. But the breakthroughs are incredible, and the gift of true understanding is forever. Developing people is as much about developing yourself. One of my favorite friends and mentors, Meryl Renuion got it right, “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t be mean about it.” Use that mantra to mitigate the fear of having truthful conversations about difficult topics.

Thank God for that crying customer! He was the catalyst that changed VIBCO’s destiny and continues to inspire our Lean manufacturing journey today, with the true purpose of customer voice. Even today, 15+ years later, I hear that cry whenever we encounter a challenge and it pushes me to continue to raise the bar, to get to root cause, and to do better every day.

Not without struggles, Not without PROBLEMS … Manufacturing is hard work, so there are going to be setbacks. I believe that one key difference between good and great organizations is that good ones have solved all their problems – great ones love that there are endless problems to solve.

Walk this path with honesty, humility, customer-focus, belief and PASSION – and watch your team become your choir.

I personally extend an open offer to come to the GEMBA at VIBCO – contact us to request a tour. Tours are typically three hours, preferred Tues/Thursday, the only requirement is that top leader from the visiting organization be present.'

Karl Wadensten'

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