Female leadership and the kaizen method - how it became a success

Female leadership and the kaizen method - how it became a success

What is it like to be a female leader in a manufacturing environment? In a factory that has grown from a small carpentry shop to a workplace with over 250 employees, no less. For Wioleta Kowalik, it's about a balance of confidence and knowledge, mixed with personality traits considered to be typically female – and the kaizen method.
In an industry that is often heavily male dominated, it can be difficult as a woman to be the boss. But for Wioleta Kowalik at the AJ Furniture Factory (AJFF) in Poland, there is no doubt that she sees being a woman as an advantage in her management and leadership role. With 15 years at the company and a promotion to plant manager in October 2022, she believes that it is precisely some of the more classically female personality traits she possesses that have contributed to her success in her role in the past year.
Female manager of AJ Furniture Factory sitting on a chair in the warehouse
At AJFF, four out of seven of the leadership team are women, a distribution that Wioleta thinks is a good balance. Together, they run the factory in Redzikowo located just outside the small Polish town of Slupsk, which has been part of the AJ Group since 1996. There they manufacture the majority of AJ Products' wooden furniture in a factory that recently expanded and now encompasses a total of 27,000 sqm between the production floor and warehouse.
AJ Furniture Factory in Slupsk, Poland

Kaizen and lean production 

What was once a small carpentry shop is today a factory that sends around 25-30 trucks of furniture to AJ Products' central warehouse in Sweden every week. Led by Wioleta Kowalik, the factory is constantly being developed to optimise production and improve processes, but also to improve how the company is managed.

“Our organisation has an integrated management system based on continuous improvement. This is also one of our company's core values, so kaizen and lean are very important to us.”

Kaizen comes from the Japanese word for improvement and is a concept in business management. It is about striving for continuous development through many smaller modifications rather than through large and radical ones. This could be through improving the health and wellbeing of staff or by shortening unnecessarily long work processes. The goal is to reduce waste, for example in manufacturing. Like kaizen, lean manufacturing was also a Japanese invention. The term was coined by industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno after World War II when Japan's military industry was converted to civilian manufacturing. Lean manufacturing is a working method aimed at streamlining work methods, eliminating waste and maximising productivity. It does that by making production more “lean”, in terms of unnecessary time consumption and superfluous resources, for example.

At AJFF, kaizen and lean are a given throughout the business and are a way to always stay at the forefront and be ready to react when it comes to production. Each process is monitored on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis. If the goals are not met, immediate action is taken to improve processes and there is active cooperation with each department within the organisation to eliminate deviations.

Management team holds a daily meeting on factory floor

Cutting-edge technology

In 2021, a system called Proxia was implemented in production, consisting of three processes, MES (Manufacturing Execution System), CMMS (Computerised Maintenance Management System), and APS (Advanced Planning System).

“During a production week, we produce a total of about 3500 orders. Thanks to the system, we can control each production order down to the second and monitor the function of the machines.”

Factory worker logging production in a computer

Everyone can contribute and influence

Another way the team works with efficiency and development is to allow employees to participate and influence. The staff at AJFF are encouraged to bring forward their own suggestions for improvements, whether it concerns the systems they work with or smaller things that affect their everyday life at work. Aneta Magdziarek, the HR manager at AJFF, believes that it is important for employees to feel that they have the opportunity to contribute and develop the company. Those who work on the floor see things from different perspectives and angles than supervisors do, and that is something the management team want to utilise.

Manager talks to worker on factory floor

Being present as a leader

For Wioleta, it is important that the employees feel that she and others in the management team, including department heads, are present during daily work. Most of the time during her working day she is in the office but makes a point of doing a factory tour on both production floors every day, even if it’s only to check on the situation and chat a little with the employees.

“During shift changes, the department head always has a brief wrap-up meeting to go through tasks and set targets. However, it is important to also be able to have spontaneous conversations with the staff. Production is the heart of the company, but the most valuable thing we have is our employees.”

Factory manager speaks to shop floor worker
Factory workers attend daily wrap-up meeting

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