SEW-EURODRIVE – Lean and smart into the future

November 16, 2021 | Leadership and Organizational Development, Leadership und Organisationsentwicklung, Lean Management

Johann Soder has been with SEW-EURODRIVE for more than five decades. He serves as COO for the drive technology manufacturer, which operates manufacturing plants in many different parts of the world. During this time, he has witnessed many changes, driven them himself and turned them into improvements. He speaks with Martin Haas, Founder and Supervisory Board Member of Staufen AG, about how much a company must learn in order to remain competitive.

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Realism in leadership

A company’s workforce can only strive for perfection and top performance if it receives the right impetus and capacity to do so from its leaders. Leaders need to develop a vision if they want to be successful with their teams.

At the same time, it is essential to keep a grip on reality. Bosses, managers and executives should be careful not to lose their connection to the shop floor: How do the processes work? What are the normal operations of the company? Which steps make up the value chain?

“Even now, especially in such difficult situations, such as material shortages and other things, you have to keep an open ear, feel the pulse of the factory, and remain in conversation with employees, so that you can then act quickly, correctly and also provide support. Operating on the shop floor has been a big part of my success in my time at SEW-EURODRIVE.”

If you know your company and its employees very well, you can react flexibly and quickly to unforeseen situations: No long explanations are needed because the necessary knowledge is already available. In such companies, employees know that they can rely on their superiors. This type of trust also helps in difficult situations.

For a long time, many companies have neglected this: Management had little to do with employees and often only had a rough idea of the work processes in the various areas. Johann Soder welcomes the change in thinking that has taken place in recent years: Managers are now increasingly being coached, allowing them to learn these important principles.

Lean philosophy for optimization

Johann Soder explains how he introduced and implemented lean philosophy at SEW-EURODRIVE: It was an enormous undertaking to transform work in the company from a performance-oriented to a process-oriented approach. He stresses the importance of implementing lean processes 100 percent and not stopping along the way.

The focus is always on people: In his eyes, lean philosophy does not envision job cuts, but rather the exploitation of everyone’s expertise, which enables the development of new work processes for the future. His success proves him right: After initial growing pains, once the lean philosophy had permeated the entire productive, technical and administrative areas, SEW-EURODRIVE was able to record an increase in performance between 30 and 35 percent.

Lean processes as the foundation for the Smart Factory

After the company began following lean philosophy, the era of Industry 4.0 dawned. It turned out that it was entirely possible to combine the company’s streamlined and simplified processes with the new achievements in technology. However, the people in the factory remained the focus.

Initially, there were concerns: While the Smart Factory would open up many new possibilities through, e.g., data collection, it was also of a whole new complexity. While automation made many steps easier, it required numerous training sessions for employees. The managers also had to rethink how they worked.

“And lean (…) is the basis to then integrate automated technology. That’s why Lean and Industry 4.0 principles can be intelligently combined in the Smart Factories of the future.”

Fortunately, it became clear relatively quickly that the principles of a lean enterprise were a good fit with the technical superstructure of the Smart Factory: Since everything about work processes that could be simplified had already been simplified beforehand, the perfect basis had been created. The combination of people and technology enabled the company to make another quantum leap: The work steps in the new processes were now robust and resilient.

Resilience in the crisis

The pandemic has caused difficulties for companies in a wide range of industries. SEW-EURODRIVE did not even have to resort to reduced working hours, and the company was able to cushion the global catastrophe. This was partly due to excellent networking between the various company plants.

When the virus spread in China, production suffered. In return, those responsible in Germany reacted quickly and ramped up production at local plants. It became apparent here that the new approach had been exactly right: The combination of lean philosophy and automation made it possible to temporarily triple production. Additional shifts and weekend shifts were introduced for this purpose. While numerous companies in Germany had to send their employees home, there was more than enough work at SEW-EURODRIVE.

Shortly thereafter, the situation was reversed: China slowly recovered as things became more tense in Germany. Chinese plants were able to produce more and thus partially support the German part of the company. In doing so, customers could be reliably supplied despite the difficult overall situation in both Asia and Europe.

After the crisis is before the crisis

There is hardly a moment when the market does not hold unpleasant surprises for entrepreneurs. The bottlenecks related to semiconductors, for example, was announced a long time ago, so it was relatively easy to make arrangements here. However, it was not necessarily foreseeable that there would be problems in the supply of materials on a large scale and in very different areas.

In this context, it is helpful if a company is as flexible and adaptable as possible. Good networking helps to overcome bottlenecks. Accordingly, the workforce may be sent home when there is nothing to do. However, as soon as a delivery arrives via one of the numerous channels, work continues. At no point have customers had to excessively wait.

Learning to lead at the BestPractice Day

One of the secrets of Johann Soder’s success is that he has always actively sought and brought about change: There can be no permanent status quo if the company is to remain competitive. Only through further development can success be maintained in the long term.

Johann Soder will be one of the speakers at the BestPractice Day: Once a year, Staufen AG hosts this Lean Management congress, which focuses on the holistic transformation of companies. The COO of SEW-EURODRIVE will be presenting at the congress on November 23rd in Leinfelden-Echterdingen, Germany. Visitors and those who wish to participate on-site or via video will gain exciting insights into an executive’s experience with upheaval, evolution and the implementation of new ideas and opportunities. If we have sparked your curiosity, take a look at the BestPractice Day website.


Portrait Martin Haas

Martin Haas, founder and member of the board at Staufen 


Portrait Johann Soder

Johann Soder, COO, SEW-EURODRIVE GmbH & Co. KG

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