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There has been a propulsive sense of momentum to the career of Jim Armas. Throughout his roles at a variety of well-regarded companies—General Motors, Integer, and GE Lighting, among others—he has found himself thrust into the myriad nooks and crannies of engineering, manufacturing, and automation. From design to quality management to advanced purchasing, his journey has been anything but stagnant.
“One constant in my career is that, often, every assignment would lead into the next one,” he says. “So, when you go into an assignment, learn everything you can about it because you don’t know what the next opportunity will be, and it could be a derivative of what you’re doing now.”
Currently, Armas serves as the director of manufacturing operations at The Libman Company, a cleaning tools manufacturer that, despite having been around since 1896, is still family-owned, with Libmans’ fourth generation currently overseeing operations.
There, Armas is helping to implement what’s been one of the biggest thrusts of his career: lean manufacturing practices. “Lean approaches are just common sense, really,” he explains. “It’s optimizing and simplifying processes to remove waste and steps that add no value.”
A key part of understanding lean processes comes in what professionals call “5S,” which encompass five Japanese words that, in a broad sense, break down the essentials of a workplace organization process. In English, the words translate to sort, straighten/set, shine/sweep, standardize, and sustain. Developing processes that uphold these principles can not only make for a more streamlined workplace, but they can also promote workplace safety while driving down costs.
Armas first encountered lean manufacturing processes when he was working at General Motors, and he was later tasked with implementing those processes at a Minneapolis medical device facility as part of Integer. It was at GE, however, that he found a mentor in Mike Garland, who, at the time was consulting with GE on lean principles. Together, the two ventured to a number of GE’s lighting facilities to educate employees on the new practices.
“What I learned from Mike was the personal side of lean,” Armas says. “He taught me to be mindful of the process with respect to the operator. He excels at communicating with the team so that they’re more willing to adopt and sustain the use of these lean principles.”
That’s the hardest part, after all, Armas explains. The cultural transformation, he says, takes a great deal of effort and hands-on leadership. Armas knows how important the observations of operators are to the process of maintaining the momentum of lean processes.
“Mike taught me that simple observations and some basic problem-solving skills can solve the majority of manufacturing problems,” Armas says. It’s important to arm operators with these skills so they can tackle these day-to-day problems. Automation may serve to streamline, but it takes trained eyes to make sure the machines are doing their jobs properly.
“The most important lesson I’ve learned is that people are the most valuable assets to any company,” he says, noting that preparing engineers for any and all problem-solving obstacles is a large part of his management style. “I’m a big proponent for training because what we do today will be the standard tomorrow. We have to be constantly learning and relearning.”
In this sense, he views himself as someone who strives to eliminate roadblocks for his engineers. Similarly, he’s also working to eliminate roadblocks in the realm of lean. In fact, his work at Libman is representative of what he hopes will be an industry-wide shift. “It’s not just at Libman,” he says. “It’s about building a solid foundation for lean and also adding analytics and digitization to the machinery equipment and processes. The goal is to drive productivity and performance optimization. Once you have lean as the foundation, you can equip machines with sensors that relay the operating conditions and then analyze the data in real time to improve performance.”
Currently, he focused on standardizing these innovations. “We’re really working to roll out the ways we use data to help aid the operators so they can solve problems in real time,” he explains. “We’re moving away from preventative maintenance to predictive maintenance. This is being labeled: ‘Industry 4.0.’”
He’s in the right place to help bring on that change, too. He describes Libman as advanced in these efforts, but he notes that it’s about having the discipline to use these tools to their full potential.
He’s also just happy to be with the company, which he reveres not just for its legacy but also for its commitment to innovation in the field of automation.
“It’s a company with an entrepreneurial heart,” he says.