Small Library, Big Service:
Ford Motor's Lean Resource Center

Bill Mickey

ONLINE, July 2000
Copyright © 2000 Information Today, Inc.


What do you do when your company begins a new production system that fundamentally changes the way it interacts with and buys from its suppliers? Open a learning institute and library. That's what Andy Benedict and Carlos Mazzorin did when the Ford Motor Company encouraged and helped its suppliers to incorporate Lean management principles.

Started at Toyota, Lean manufacturing can result in dramatic improvements to the bottom line. Eschewing stockpiling, Lean principles strive to make the production process as efficient as possible. It focuses on improving product quality and cost by removing waste from manufacturing processes and the value chain. Andy Benedict, Director of the Total Cost Management Center, and Carlos Mazzorin, Group Vice President, wanted to help Ford's supply base learn about and successfully adopt the Lean techniques.

Since many of the suppliers didn't know what Lean meant, or how to manage a Lean system, an obvious solution was to create the Lean Resource Center (LRC). Part of a three-step approach to Lean implementation (Ford also sends engineers to work on-site with suppliers, and set up Best Practice Forums to facilitate the introduction of Lean concepts), the Lean Resource Center is a one-stop-shop for educational resources on Lean management. Created in 1998, the LRC offers a curriculum of educational courses, a comprehensive collection of books, periodicals, CD-ROM, videos, and electronic sources on Lean, and research services to Ford's worldwide supply chain. Their mission statement reads, "Establish a practical lean knowledge sharing environment that is a center of excellence in the manufacturing world."

To do all this successfully, the LRC employees, including, Peter Tassi, Lean Resource Center Manager, Sarah Swart, Information Specialist, and Sandy Sermack, Lean Analyst, had to not only become savvy in Lean management principles, but also pull together a network of Lean educators and experts, carefully and aggressively market their services to a very large and diverse patron base, and utilize the full potential of intranet and Web-based services. This is on top of their established talents as data miners and competitive intelligence experts who continually amaze their often skeptical clients with targeted and comprehensive reports on all things Lean.


A concept that should be familiar to every special librarian these days is marketing.
The LRC's collection and research-based services are only part of the service equation. They've set up a network of university professors, consultants, and other experts who teach a variety of for-fee seminars and workshops on Lean management. The seminars are predominantly onsite at Ford, though some courses are offered at the supplier's location. According to Tassi, the seminars range from "something fairly basic on Lean manufacturing [to] more advanced subjects, such as production systems, Lean production system design, and cell design." They hope to turn a profit with the seminar registration fees and plan to drill the extra funds back into the resource center.


A concept that should be familiar with every special librarian these days is marketing. Simply having a resource center and sitting back and waiting for business is not enough. Fortunately, Sarah Swart brought a marketing degree with her when she began at the LRC. It's a background that she has leveraged successfully into promoting the resource center's services.

According to Sarah, the LRC does most of its marketing to the supplier base. Internal clients, especially within the purchasing division where the LRC is located, already know the resource center is there.


One way the center is getting the word out is by newsletters. Among them are Bibliography Bits and Lean C-Eye. The bimonthly Bibliography Bits is a four-page newsletter that compiles reviews of new books, case studies, and videos that the LRC has recently acquired. All reviews are written in-house. Lean C-Eye is published monthly; both newsletters are available on the intranet in abstract form as well as mailed out. The combination of snail mail and electronic distribution is important. According to Swart, "We find that the combination of both media reaches everyone. Otherwise, if you just do everything on the Web--and we had to work through the Ford culture on this one--you miss some people who either don't have access or don't feel comfortable with Web-based technology."

It's important to note that these newsletters are excellent tools for the library to keep their patrons updated on the material that is available to them. For the suppliers who are newbies to the world of Lean management, the publications are a regular reminder that yes, there are many resources available, and yes, they're all available in one convenient location.

Don't Push, Pull

The awareness that the newsletters generate among the suppliers contributes to a pull concept the LRC contends is integral to successful service. They've tried to mirror an element of Lean, called pull production, where products are pulled from the customer base. As Tassi explains it, "A Lean library should be a pull system, and we're proving it every single day with all the suppliers requesting literature and information on the classes. They're really pulling it from us, and we're happy about that." While the LRC must still produce newsletters and other informational products that are pushed, in a sense, to their customers, these end up acting as pull mechanisms that draw customers into the full potential of the library. What the LRC markets to their patrons are hints to a solution, not the solution itself.

Intranets and Extranets

The LRC is very involved in the development of their intranet. They've recently contracted out services to build a scalable database that allows greater search capabilities and flexibility with content updates. Previously, Swart had to laboriously create literature lists herself. Now the database is automatically updated.

Perhaps following the lead of many of the major Web content providers, the LRC is developing a pilot project with a supplier that redistributes LRC electronic content on the supplier's intranet. In a sense, they're "licensing" LRC content (newsletters) for publication on another company's intranet. Swart estimates there are 1,700 supplier companies that represent a huge potential audience for LRC content.

The LRC has also created an alliance with the Ford Supplier Network, which is the Ford supplier extranet. On the Network home page, suppliers see the LRC logo and can click through to LRC content. On a larger scale, this is exactly what popular Web properties are doing to increase brand visibility and recognition. It has worked very well for the LRC; they've seen a definite increase in inquiries since they've extended their "brand" to other intranet and extranet sites.


"There's a big part of the population who want to own books anyway. Why not give them an avenue to do that?"
The LRC recently partnered with Fatbrain.com to extend their literature offerings into the commerce arena. It was a no-brainer for Swart, who heard about the service in October 1999 and launched it only three months later. She's advertised the Fatbrain.com service on the Ford intranet and extranet and has set up two stores--one for suppliers and one for internal Ford employees. Offered are about 1,400 titles in 35 categories. If the Fatbrain.com store doesn't have a particular title, they're generally able to get it within two days--even if it's a publisher they haven't worked with before.

Admittedly, Swart has taken some flack from fellow librarians. She's often asked why she would want to promote a bookstore. She replies, "It's a good way to expand our business. There's a big part of the population who want to own books anyway. Why not give them an avenue to do that?"

The LRC will often encourage patrons to borrow first, but they're finding lots of customers would rather own some of the books--especially if it's a book that's core to their specialty. Swart stresses that they're not moving away from the lending business. Besides, customers must still log on to the LRC home page to access the Fatbrain.com store. Swart figures if they didn't partner with Fatbrain. com, many of the customers who prefer to own would simply go to Borders or Amazon anyway, essentially ignoring and possibly remaining ignorant of the LRC services.


If you're thinking that the LRC is so successful because it's got tremendous funding and support from management, you're right. But for a corporate library to succeed and thrive within the organization, it must have the support, trust, and awareness of upper management. As Peter Tassi puts it, "Our management has given us a tremendous amount of autonomy, trusting us to do the right thing, to offer the right materials in the library, the right classes. We have built their trust, and I think the performance is starting to show that our customers, the buyers and also the suppliers, really are getting a lot out of this."

The LRC thrives from a combination of savvy librarians and a direct contribution to the bottom line. Ford deployed a major manufacturing concept that required a steep learning curve of its suppliers. But once learned, the new production process would trim heavy expenses that came out of old, less efficient production techniques. The LRC is right there in the thick of it, serving suppliers hungry for material and training on Lean principles. A supplier educated in and practicing Lean is saving Ford money, and the LRC has positioned itself to be the best and most convenient source for everything Lean.

And through clever marketing practices, the LRC is getting their brand out among their customers through regular newsletters and "partnerships" with a network of consultants and educators, the supplier intranets, and Ford's intranet and extranet.

They've got their customers excited about their services. Swart concurs, "When you've got your customers that excited, marketing becomes easier. It's just so exciting. But I think that's key to being an effective information specialist: being excited about what you do, and we're excited here, that's for sure."

Bill Mickey (billm@infotoday.com) is Editor of ONLINE magazine.

Comments? Email letters to the Editor at editor@infotoday.com.

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