Coddling Customers: IW Best Plants Profile - 2004

Combined with a big push on lean manufacturing, customer care pays off for a Collins & Aikman plant.

Collins & Aikman Plastics Williamston Operations, Williamston, Mich.

At a Glance

Treasa Clemons, a team leader on the production floor at Collins & Aikman (C&A) Corp.'s Williamston Operations in Williamston, Mich., always considered herself a stay-at-home woman. She seldom ventured far from her nearby, rural home in Holt, Mich., outside Lansing. Yet there she was in June 2002, flying on a Northwest Airlines jetliner heading for St. Louis. It was her first airplane ride, and she was thrilled.

The thrill was courtesy of her employer, manufacturer of automotive headrests, armrests, console covers and other interior components for 13 auto industry customers. C&A Williamston was sending her to Pacific, Mo., to visit a customer, Intier Automotive Inc., a unit of Magna International Inc., for which it builds headrests that go into seats in the Chrysler RS minivan.

Since then she's traveled to several other customer sites. But she is not the only frequent traveler from Williamston's production floor. The plant is such a firm believer in being close to customers that in the last year alone, fully 25% of its 160 employees have visited customer facilities. Sometimes, like Clemons on her Missouri trip, they go to help solve quality problems. Other times it is to facilitate new-product launches. More often, though, their mission is proactive: simply to gain a better understanding of customer needs.

This unusual emphasis on customer visits by employees is just one indicator of the excellence at the Williamston Operation. But you wouldn't sense it at first glance. The facility consists of two locations, both unpretentious. The main building, on a small lot across a soybean field on the edge of Williamston, has limited parking, a tiny lobby, and office space so cramped a copy machine sits in the main hallway. The other is a corrugated-metal structure outside of town surrounded by woods.

The modest first impression you get of the Williamston Operations, however, belies the sophistication on the production floor. There, the manufacturing processes and practices dazzle.

For starters, the plant boasts a pioneering manufacturing process that competitors have yet to duplicate. Instead of using traditional rotational-molded or cut-and-sew methods to make the "skins" for many of its products, the facility employs an innovative blow-molding thermoplastic technology that allows 100% recycling of process waste streams and is highly repeatable. Products meet "Class A" surface quality -- the best, with fewest imperfections -- right out of the mold, without needing to be painted or top-coated.

Coupled with an advanced foam-injection to fill the skins with foam, the process results in products that plant managers say are 50% cheaper to produce than through traditional methods. And quality is higher.

But it's not just its manufacturing processes that set the Williamston Operations apart. The facility also is awash in team-based, 21st Century plant-floor practices. And none is more critical than lean manufacturing.

"Lean has always been here. We've just called it different things," says Tim Jenc, lean manufacturing manager. But he says the plant became more serious about the concepts in 2002 after Collins & Aikman purchased Textron Inc.'s Tac Trim Div., where lean was highly advanced. Williamston management soon piloted the concept for nine months in the area of the floor that makes those Chrysler RS minivan headrests, the plant's highest-volume product, and since has been aggressively expanding the practice. "Now all 15 areas of the plant practice some type of lean activity, and it's entrenched in 10," says Jenc. Among lean methods widely adopted are value-stream mapping, 5S, kanban, heijunka, visual changeover and total productive maintenance.

Although spreading lean proved challenging at first, "we're surprised at how fast implementation goes once you get the pendulum swinging," observes Rick Kibbey, plant manager since C&A bought the facility in 1996. "After you get the first 50%, it sweeps across the organization."

Kibbey, who had the duty of closing another C&A facility before taking over at Williamston, knew he inherited an outstanding plant. "But it wasn't until we'd been doing lean for a year that we realized how good we really are," he says. "Customers and other companies began to visit us to benchmark what we were doing."

Lean is one factor driving Williamston Operations' extraordinary metrics, among them a five-year 100% on-time delivery and a low 43 ppm customer-reject rate. Such numbers -- and the customer focus typified by Treasa Clemons' visit to Missouri -- resonate with customers.

Although the plant ships 50% of its production to other C&A auto suppliers as components for their products, last year Williamston earned Tier 1 status as a direct supplier to several auto plants. Also in 2003 it successfully launched new products for each of the Big Three -- Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler -- and implemented Ford's computerized In-Line Vehicle Sequencing System, through which suppliers build components for specific cars according to vehicle identification numbers displayed on production-line monitors. Ford has given the plant its hard-to-earn Q1 supplier status, and the company's Wixon, Mich., assembly plant has identified Williamston as its No. 1-rated supplier.

There's another reason why customers like Williamston Operations: They're getting money back. The plant, which boasts a sparkling 71% return-on-invested capital, last year boosted its profitability 49% from three years earlier. And it has returned 22% to customers through lower prices.

Obviously, this kind of financial performance gets attention at C&A. Extols Steve Souders, operations vice-president of the company's U.S.-Mexico Plastics Div.: "The plant has a can-do culture that can take hold of a problem and wrestle it to the ground."

Nowhere else in C&A, he indicates, are self-directed work teams as strong as they are at Williamston. One reason they've taken hold, he explains, is that the plant is small and has a lean management staff, and thus "must rely more on production people."

Like lean manufacturing, establishing the team culture wasn't easy, admits Kibbey, explaining that managers initially resisted surrendering power. But now teams rule. "In our early days, we were told what to do military style," says Ralph Marvin, a maintenance technician at the plant for 20 years. "Now we have latitude to make our own decisions."

Evidence of employee involvement is readily seen on the floor, where employees -- on their own -- have thought up and implemented countless small, low-cost ideas to improve efficiency or reduce waste.

Williamston Operations' rise to excellence comes just in time for the plant to face its newest challenge: duplicating its culture at a 38-employee supplier facility it recently purchased 20 miles north in Owosso, Mich. The plant, a producer of spare-tire covers for the Dodge Magnum and Chrysler 300 formerly owned by Chieftan Industries Group, will give Williamston Operations a badly needed 55,000 square feet of additional floor space.

Importantly, the added capacity will enable Williamston to accept some $14 million in new business it's had to turn down. That means new customers -- and, in turn, new travel destinations for employees like Treasa Clemons.

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