Implementing the Volvo Production System in a truck plant

To follow up my previous post about the effect of implementing lean in the global Volvo Group, here’s one short story of the implementation of the Volvo Production System (VPS) in the truck assembly plant in New River Valley, Virginia, USA.

Mr. Ebly Sanchez presents the Volvo Production System, POMS Atlanta May 2014

Mr. Ebly Sanchez presents the Volvo Production System at POMS Atlanta May 2014 (Photo: author).

These days, I have been attending the 25th POMS conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The organizers also invited my friend and mentor, Mr. Ebly Sanchez, from Volvo Trucks North America to come along and share his thoughts about the global implementation of lean in Volvo. In an inspiring talk, he presented how Volvo implements the VPS globally and what they have learned along the way. He explained how the VPS consists of five key lean principles—teamwork, process stability, built-in-quality, just-in-time and continuous improvement— and that it was launched in 2007 after a careful two-year development period. (For detailed accounts of the VPS, please see the publications page).

Repeating that “it’s much about closing the gap between common sense and common practice”, Mr. Sanchez emphasized the importance of the invisible soft-sides of implementation: respect for the individual, managerial commitment, and building a sustained improvement culture. Just as he finishes his talk, Professor Roberta S. Russell at Virginia Tech stands up and passionately shares the following story:

“I work at Virginia Tech, so I’m located very close to the Volvo Trucks plant in New River Valley. I used to take students there for study trips. For many years we came and saw how the good people there worked hard to build excellent trucks. Then, I hadn’t been there for a few years. But not long ago, I came back…. and, I must say, the factory had totally changed. The craftsmen at Volvo have always been good workers, but now… Wow! It was completely different. The factory had obviously implemented a lot of lean.

Now, there were skylights letting the daylight into the shop-floor. Where there earlier was an old paint booth, there was now a small garden. “Yeah, we put in a garden to showcase our space savings and make it more pleasant to be at work”, they said. Put in a garden! That also made the air much fresher. The factory had become so visual. It used to be 100 industrial engineers going out solving problems in the factory – now the engineers were coaching the operators who solved the problems themselves. The attitude had changed. There was so much positive energy. I just wanted to share this with you, because I was totally impressed with what you have accomplished. Congratulations Mr. Sanchez!”

As part of my research, I have also visited the factory in New River Valley; the largest Volvo Truck facility in the world. It is huge. The production floor covers 150.000 square meters corresponding to more than 22 soccer fields. Trucks have been assembled there since 1974. Today, about 100-150 trucks are produced every single day to customer-specific orders. It offers 500 different truck colors—including 40 different shades of white… You can have any color you want, as long as it is “green”: The plant has put large efforts into increasing the energy efficiency of the plant. All waste is recycled and, outside the factory, a wind mill and solar panels welcome you.

Truck factory in sunset – Volvo's New River Valley trucks assembly plant in Dublin, VA (Photo:

Truck factory in sunset – Volvo’s New River Valley trucks assembly plant in Dublin, VA (Photo: author).


My interviews and observations are well aligned with those of Professor Russell’s. No doubt, there has been a real cultural change in the factory since 2009. Much of the success is acclaimed to a leadership shift towards the implementation of the VPS. With the coaching of Brazilian Mr. Antonio Servodini, the plant has given a particular focus to training all employees in the logic and techniques of the VPS. A VPS training center includes a lean game for truck assembly and a class room. Two large Kaizen Work Shops are established in the plant where all operators can come and put their improvement suggestions into practice. Lines are reengineered into shorter mixed-lines. However, the strongest signal of a healthy plant is probably their humble self-image: “We’re only playing in the third league; we still have a long way to go”.

The learning point? In order to succeed with implementing lean—I recall Mr. Servodini telling me—you need three ingredients: “You need a system, and you need the mind and heart of all employees.”

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