Current Lighting’s Lean and Digital Journey

In mid-February, the OpExChange peer networking group paid a visit to Current Lighting, located in Hendersonville, NC, a member of the OpExChange for 16 years. A total of forty-four peers from twenty-nine companies participated in the plant tour and collaborative discussions.

The Current Lighting facility has an impressive 69-year history of production. Covering an 850,000 square foot area, encompassing both production and warehouse space across a 117-acre campus, the site specializes in manufacturing LED outdoor light fixtures, with an annual production output of hundreds of thousands of units. Approximately one-third of all streetlights in the United States originate from this facility. This site also produces all the printed circuit board assemblies for all GLI branded Current Lighting fixtures.

Formerly part of GE Lighting Solutions, the plant continued producing LED solutions under the Current Lighting Banner. Over the past decade, the site has been steadfastly dedicated to achieving world-class manufacturing status. This commitment began under GE’s ownership and persisted through the transition to Current Lighting.

Guiding the OpExChange visitors through their journey was David George, the Senior Manufacturing Manager of the site. David has been employed at this location for over twenty years and has been an integral part of the team orchestrating their improvements.

During his presentation, David led engaging discussions on their evolution, followed by dividing the group into four teams for an hour-long tour of their operations.

David outlined that there are four distinct phases of their journey thus far:

  1. Establishing a Foundation (2011-2014)
  2. Improving and Sustaining (2015-2017)
  3. Developing a Lean Culture and Empowerment (2018-2020)
  4. Investing in Automation and Technology (2021-Present)

David emphasized the substantial tenure of their employees at the plant, with an annual attrition rate of around 7%, a benchmark considered world-class in its own right. This undoubtedly is a testament to their leadership and continues to be a factor in their success.

Establishing a Foundation: Building the Structure to Optimize the Whole
Between 2011 and 2014, the facility dedicated its efforts to laying down a solid foundation. Recognizing the huge market potential in LED outdoor technology, GE Lighting anticipated a significant shift in the industry, where traditional lighting fixtures would be replaced with those that did not require light bulbs at all. This realization prompted a reevaluation of their manufacturing strategy.

Aware of the need for fundamental changes in their business approach, a team was tasked with devising a new concept to present to senior leadership. During this period, four major changes were implemented. First, they adopted a customer-centric approach, revamping metrics and management practices to prioritize customer delivery over departmental efficiencies.

Secondly, they shifted from a push system, driven by MRP, to a pull system, incorporating supermarket and mini-market pull systems. Material flow through the factory was now triggered by removal from the supermarket.

Thirdly, they transitioned to a paperless information display, eliminating the need for job packets that accompanied every order. Through collaboration with the IT department, a custom solution was developed, providing operators with touchscreen displays containing all necessary order information, such as BOMs, wiring diagrams, and quality alerts, aiding in ISO compliance and document control. This was the beginning of a digital manufacturing execution system (MES).

Lastly, they decided to insource the electronic assembly of LED printed circuit board assemblies, aligning with their make-to-order approach. This also gave them control over the quality and greatly reduced inventory levels.

David and the team implemented these initiatives over a span of approximately three years, incorporating these changes throughout the factory.

Improving and Sustaining: Using Lean Principles and Digital Enhancements
The guiding principle Current Light adhered to during this transition was, “Don’t let perfect get in the way of better.” This lean philosophy fosters a culture of ongoing enhancement and creativity, acknowledging that waiting for perfection can hinder opportunities for meaningful advancement.

To operationalize this principle, they introduced “Lean Workouts” into their schedule, dedicating one week per month, addressing specific issues with a cross-functional team including production employees and engineers.

David shared his initial disappointment during the inaugural event, which also marked his first “AHA moment” in engaging the workforce. Initially, the production workers seemed disengaged and reluctant to participate. During a debriefing session with his mentor after the first day, he received valuable advice: “David, perhaps you’re approaching it the wrong way. When you frame the goal as increasing production to meet growing customer demand, all they hear is the expectation to work harder for higher output.” His mentor suggested a different perspective: “Ask them about the aspects of their job they dislike. Inquire about what could make their jobs easier. If you address these issues, you’ll naturally achieve your goal.”

Implementing this approach the following day yielded remarkable results. Ideas and suggestions poured in from the team. They then utilized an effort/impact matrix to prioritize these and agreed upon actionable items for the remainder of the week. Within two weeks, they achieved a 30% increase in output, surpassing their 20% target. Perhaps even more important, the production line workers remarked on how much easier their jobs had become.

This experience was transformative to the leadership team: by actively listening to employees, identifying their challenges, and implementing solutions based on their insights, they discovered a path forward. Since that first event in 2015, they have conducted one Lean Workout per month.

Throughout this period, they also continued to enhance their Digital MES system, incorporating enhancements such as fixture serialization and the digitization of audit reports. Among their most noticeable enhancements was the installation of real-time display monitors positioned above each production area, providing instant feedback on performance relative to targets, alongside an hourly tracker color-coded for quick assessment.

In 2016, their facility earned distinction from General Electric as one of their top ten “GE Brilliant Factories.” This recognition was particularly notable given the scale, with approximately 500 factories in the GE network at the time. The plant also received this recognition for two more years before transitioning to Current Lighting.

Lean Culture and Empowerment: Giving Employees the Keys to the Plant
One meaningful change implemented during this period involved the introduction of a daily Gemba walk, where managers and leaders go to the shop floor to actively observe work processes, interactions, and conditions firsthand. This daily practice aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of operations, pinpoint areas for enhancement, and promptly address any challenges that may arise. These walks include engaging with employees, soliciting feedback, and attentively addressing their concerns.

Dusty Walker, the production manager for the site, emphasized the transformative nature of this initiative within their organizational culture. He noted that this aspect of their progress marked a crucial cultural shift. In instances where issues arose, leadership adopted a supportive stance. Rather than focusing on the individual and a “Where did you fail us?” mentality, the tone from leadership is more, “Where did we fail you?” Dusty highlighted, “Employees don’t generally fail us. Typically, something in the system broke and we need to know what that is to fix it.” Instead, the emphasis was placed on identifying and rectifying system failures to foster continuous improvement.

Their digital advancement continued to evolve with enhancements such as automatic exception reporting through text messages to supervisors and electronic Bill of Materials (BOM) verification. A significant addition that received a lot of attention during the tour was the introduction of an operator call button. David added that this addressed a long-standing problem and associated misperceptions of maintenance response time.

Historically, the gap between identifying equipment issues and maintenance personnel arriving at the machine could stretch up to an hour. During a lean workout session, they identified considerable time wastage and activity contributing to this delay, most of which were not in control of the maintenance personnel. The team responded by implementing a call button on every operator touchscreen, enabling immediate transmission of text messages to maintenance personnel, bypassing unnecessary intermediaries in the communication process. This system was expanded to include other support functions such as quality and engineering, with response times monitored and reported. Upon resolving the issue, maintenance personnel mark the completion of the order on the screen, documenting the repair time. Data from these activities is captured in their MES for analysis of trends and insights.

Call button on all touch screens.

Automation and Technology: Taking the Next Step in the Automation Journey
Entering the fourth phase of the journey towards achieving world-class manufacturing, which commenced in 2021, Current Lighting introduced a semi-automated assembly line. This line incorporates robotic assembly equipment, significantly reducing manual tasks while integrating automation for vision inspection and torque validation.

The implementation of this line has proven successful, yielding a 40% increase in efficiency compared to the manual line. Moreover, operators benefit from ergonomic improvements as repetitive manual tasks are eliminated. Additionally, product reliability is enhanced due to the inherent consistency of robotics and testing features.

This endeavor has provided valuable lessons as well, notably the realization that product design lacked optimization for automation. Moving forward, the company aims to incorporate design for automation guidelines, ensuring parameters conducive to automation are considered.

Furthermore, a fourth surface mount assembly line was added to their electronics factory, bolstering their capability to handle diverse assemblies and augmenting production capacity.

David George presents the Semi-Automated Line

Propagating the Principles
In 2022, Current Lighting completed the acquisition of Hubble Lighting, thereby expanding its footprint with three additional manufacturing facilities across North America. Leveraging their extensive history and expertise in continuous improvement, the Hendersonville team was enlisted to aid these newly acquired plants in accelerating their journey towards operational excellence. Providing consultation and coaching, the Hendersonville team focuses on instilling the established principles, incorporating monthly lean workshops and daily Gemba walks. Efforts are directed towards cultivating a lean culture where leadership values and heeds the input of employees. The impact of these initiatives is significant already, with improvements demonstrated in operational metrics. On-time shipments have surged to the 85% to 90% range, while overtime has been slashed by an impressive 90%.

Illuminating the Path Forward
The OpExChange visit to Current Lighting in Hendersonville provided invaluable insights into their pursuit of world-class manufacturing. It was evident that their journey is an ongoing process, characterized by continuous improvement and a commitment to reaching the next level of efficiency and innovation.

Their propagation of sharing lessons learned with their sister facilities is a fantastic example of how one site’s experiences can be used to vastly accelerate another site’s continuous improvement journey. This is something that active OpExChange members realize and utilize in their own organizations.

Throughout the tour and discussions, the OpExChange visitors were impressed by the openness and willingness of the Current Lighting team to share their experiences and lessons learned. The principles of lean manufacturing, including monthly workshops and daily Gemba walks, have become ingrained in their operations, fostering a culture of empowerment and collaboration. The visit to Current Lighting reaffirmed that excellence is not a destination but a journey.

David ended the session by stating that their doors are open to deeper dives with any OpExChange members.

About Current Lighting
Current Lighting, located in Hendersonville, NC, is a leading manufacturer of innovative lighting solutions for various industries. With a strong focus on energy efficiency and sustainability, Current Lighting prides itself on delivering cutting-edge products that not only illuminate spaces but also reduce environmental impact. Their state-of-the-art facility in Hendersonville showcases their commitment to quality and innovation in the lighting industry. By leveraging advanced manufacturing techniques and a dedicated team of experts, Current Lighting continues to set the benchmark for excellence in lighting technology.

About OpExChange
The OpExChange, sponsored by the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, is a peer-to-peer network of manufacturers and distributors in South Carolina known for generating success for members through benchmarking and best practice sharing. Member companies host events and share practical examples of industrial automation, lean manufacturing improvements, and leadership development. It is an invaluable resource to South Carolina companies that provides access to others who are on similar improvement journeys. If your company is interested in participating in this collaborative effort to improve both the competitiveness of your operation and South Carolina, contact Mike Demos ( More information and upcoming plant visits are available on the OpExChange website


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