Like an athlete pushing his physical limits, O.C. Tanner Co. stretched its capabilities to manufacture more than 800 gold, silver and bronze medals for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City this month. Employing some 2,000 people, the private Salt Lake City-based company produces 10,000 pieces of jewelry a day, primarily for employee-recognition programs, including service, safety and performance awards. Although the manufacturing process for the medals was similar to that used to make the company's typical lapel-pin-sized product, the Olympic medals are much larger. Using its standard process, employees had to press and anneal (soften) the metal 10 to 11 times. In addition to too much processing time, the results were poor. "The details started getting a little bit fuzzy, a bit smeared," says Gary Peterson, vice president of manufacturing. A strong source of pride for the host country, each medal has to be perfect. To solve the problem, each blank was milled almost to finished state so that it had to be pressed only twice. This machining was complicated by the fact that on the back of each medal, nestled between the arm and head of Nike, Greek god of victory, is a design that's unique to each sport, be it snowboarding, downhill skiing or speedskating. Setting up the tool paths accounted for a large portion of the 2,175 hours that the company invested to develop the techniques and processes needed to produce the medals. "Now we press once, anneal it, and press it again, and it's beautiful," says Peterson. The employees on O.C. Tanner's Olympic medal team may deserve their own medal for their effort, but such willingness to adapt and evolve to meet customer needs is nothing new for the 75-year-old company. The factory is in the late stages of a lean transformation that has cut customer lead-time from two months to two weeks. Staff have eliminated separate polishing, pressing, trimming and drilling departments and incorporated these processes into team-based work cells. "Ten years ago we were a huge batch house. We loved the big orders. Our average order size was in the realm of 25 to 30 pieces. Now our average order size is two," says Peterson. "We've changed the way we produce from making them all at once to making them daily." At one time most companies recognized their employees at an annual banquet. Today, because of this enhanced manufacturing flexibility and reduced lead times, in conjunction with O.C. Tanner's taking over the administration of its clients' recognition programs, 60% of the company's customers present their awards on or near an employee's anniversary date. For manufacturing this change has had the added benefit of leveling output from previous peaks in the spring and late fall in preparation for hospital recognition week and winter holiday celebrations. Perhaps the largest benefit for O.C. Tanner from the Olympic medal project is the experience it gained expanding the company's product range. "It gives us an edge when the customer asks us for something unusual now," notes Peterson. "We've seen a lot of new things, and our minds are open to all kinds of possibilities." Send submissions for Best Practices to Editorial Research Director David Drickhamer at [email protected].