Blue Bird North Georgia: IW Best Plants Profile 2007

Blue Bird North Georgia: IW Best Plants Profile 2007

Lean in for a Smooth Ride. "Doing it right the first time" transforms bus maker Blue Bird North Georgia.

Blue Bird North Georgia, Lafayette, Ga.

Employees: 406, non-union

Total Square Footage: 295,000

Primary Product/market: conventional school buses

Start-up: 1982

Achievements: IW 2005, 2006 Best Plants Finalist; ISO 9001-2000 certified in 2007; 82.9% reduction in in-plant defect rates over past three years; 100% on-time delivery rate
 


To achieve a culture of continuous improvement sometimes requires getting past seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Blue Bird North Georgia, a manufacturer of school buses, experienced its defining moment when its parent company, Blue Bird Corp., filed for bankruptcy protection in early 2006. That kind of obstacle has permanently shut down countless companies big and small, but for Blue Bird Corp., bankruptcy proved to be little more than a speed bump on the bus maker's lean journey. The bankruptcy in fact lasted for only 32 hours, which is believed to be the fastest company reorganization in U.S. history, and is symbolic of the effectiveness of Blue Bird North Georgia's transformation.

IW's 2007 Best Plants

See the other winners of IW's 2007 Best Plants award and find out how they made the top ten.

Blue Bird's lean initiative started in 2003, under previous management, when "quality was at an all-time low," explains Glen Braly, manager of engineering. "The plant was lacking in strategic systems and procedures to control quality, materials, production, finance and human resources."

Quality problems are serious for any manufacturer, but when your end product is designed to transport thousands of school children every day, maintaining the trust of your customers (typically school districts) is absolutely at the top of your to-do list. Blue Bird North Georgia's operation assembles the frames for school buses, and includes a paint line, two finish lines, subassembly, pre-delivery inspection and certification. The frames are then assembled with finished chassis manufactured at another Blue Bird plant. Since every state has different regulations for its school buses, and every school district has its own requirements, every bus on the assembly line is basically a custom job, which puts an even higher premium on ensuring the same level of quality for every vehicle.

So beginning in 2003 Blue Bird got serious about tackling its quality gap by implementing the following: a material review board; a quality lab equipped with a computerized maintenance management system; an employee suggestion program; weekly management roundtable meetings; and a safety incentive program. The plant received initial ISO 9001-2000 certification in March 2007.

How effective have these programs been? The customer reject rate on shipped products is now basically zero, with on-time delivery at 100%. "Doing it right the first time takes a lot less time," observes Steve Clark, director of quality and risk management.

Near the finish line, this bus body is ready for a chassis.

Safety has also seen a marked improvement. In fiscal year 2007 the plant's recordable injuries were down 65%, and lost time injuries decreased by 87%. Every day at 7 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. a team of safety representatives holds safety huddles with all production employees. A safety incentive program called Safety NASCAR has proved to be quite popular, with the safety performance of each team in the plant tied to an individual NASCAR driver's performance each week. At the end of a NASCAR season, one member of the winning team will win two all-expenses-paid tickets to the Daytona 500. "This program makes each employee an aware and active part of the safety performance of their co-workers and themselves," Braly explains.

One key contributor to Blue Bird's success has been the plant's determination to measure everything. "The tool that turned us around was measurement," explains Neil Carter, production manager. "If you don't measure something, you don't know how well you're doing."

"And what we measure, we fix and improve," adds David McKinney, controller.

That spirit of continuous improvement extends well beyond the plant floor, as Blue Bird is using leadership training with its supervisors and cell leaders to develop the workforce into better problem-solvers. "We continue to improve the way we build and process units by allowing the operators on the floor to help develop solutions to repetitive issues," Braly says. Blue Bird is also using visual indicators, error-proofing and 5s techniques to reduce wasted motion and materials.

"We invest in our people," points out Pres Jenkins, human resources manager. "We want them to learn. We want to give them the tools and the feedback necessary to help them get better. We changed the culture of this plant, and it transformed the leadership team as a result."

The bottom line: Plant-level profitability over the past three years is up 460%.

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Blue Bird North Georgia Goes Back to School

Innovative training programs like Bus University helps smooth Blue Bird's ride to IW Best Plants status.

Blue Bird North Georgia manufactures buses that transport children to and from school, so what could be more natural than for this IW Best Plants winner to send its own employees to Bus University? The commute is actually pretty short, as Bus University is housed within Blue Bird's 295,000 square foot facility in Lafayette, Ga. Several educational programs are located in key areas of the plant, and offer hands-on training in such tasks as riveting and painting.

"Bus University was set up as a means to bring employees into the organization and provide specific job training," explains Glen Braly, engineering manager. The aim is not merely to familiarize new hires with Blue Bird's processes, but also to reduce turnover. Employees gain on-the-job training in an off-line setting, where they are taught critical skills on a mock-up bus, Braly notes. On average, a new employee receives 40 hours of classroom and on-the-job training.

"We invest in our people," adds Pres Jenkins, human resources manager. "We want them to learn. We want to give them the tools and the feedback necessary to help them get better."

Bus University illustrates the key operating strategy for the Blue Bird North Georgia plant: to seek continuous improvement in all areas of safety, quality and productivity by using the internal resources provided by its employees. And that strategy is paying off:

  • Injuries and incidents have dropped significantly over the past three years, thanks in part to twice-daily safety huddles and the creation of emergency response teams.
  • The plant's adherence to quality was acknowledged in March 2007 when it received ISO 9001:2000 certification.
  • And in terms of productivity as measured by value-added per employee, the plant is up well over 100% over the past three years.

Lessons Learned from Blue Bird's Continuous Improvement Initiative

At Blue Bird North Georgia, measurement is a key enabler of the plant's continuous improvement efforts. "We benchmark ourselves every day," explains Kevin Wood, general manager of Blue Bird North Georgia. "What did we do today that we can do better tomorrow?

"We're process-driven here," adds Steve Clark, director of quality and risk management. "Our people ask themselves all the time, 'What do we have that's in my control that I can take ownership of?'"

During the Best Plants application and review process, Blue Bird shared with IndustryWeek the key accomplishments and lessons learned from its continuous improvement program. Those lessons are as follows:

  1. Safety always, quality always, productivity always.
  2. Use past data and results to plan ahead.
  3. If you measure it, you can change it.
  4. Set high goals, achieve high results.
  5. Look to 5s as a way to eliminate wasted time.
  6. True continuous improvement requires support from the top down.
  7. Be responsive to both internal and external customers.
  8. Improving inventory management to reduce shortages requires diligence from each operator.
  9. Hold the gains.
  10. Focus on workforce leadership development.
  11. Set due dates and achieve them.
  12. Follow up on programs, changes and policies.
  13. Communicate as much as possible the status of the organization.
  14. Do something different: Use new ways to measure performance and solve problems.
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