A Force To Reckon With: IW Best Plants Profile - 2004

Batesville Casket relies on creativity to get the job done.

Batesville Casket Co. Manchester Operations, Manchester, Tenn.

At a Glance

  • Total square feet: 427,636
  • Start-up: 1970
  • Achievements: Batesville Casket reports a 0.8% labor turnover rate, a 99.5% on-time delivery rate, and a 99.7% machine availability rate. The facility earned the 2001 Tennessee Governor's Manufacturing Excellence Award and G.C. Hillenbrand Award for the past four years.

You must unlearn what you have learned." "Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try." "Control, control. You must learn control."

These bits of sage advice aren't the words of Peter Drucker or James Womack. These words come from an unlikely guru. A tiny, pointed-ear guru. A guru whose poster hangs in the office of Batesville's director of Manchester, Tenn., operations, Ron Johnson. The guru is Yoda. Yes, the same Jedi master who assured Luke Skywalker that the Force was with him.

What does Yoda know about manufacturing? According to Johnson, a lot. "If you read these [phrases] you can apply them to lean. You can apply them to manufacturing," says Johnson, whose office is adorned with other unlikely "management" posters. A Dick Tracy poster has the comic-book hero punching out the bad guy while declaring "I'm gonna re-arrange your thinking."

He may be a bit more subtle, but re-arranging thinking is what Johnson's philosophy is all about.

For many manufacturing plants, technology is a must. It is proof that the plant is moving forward into the future. For Batesville's Manchester plant -- which produces steel burial caskets and houses stamping, fabrication, finishing, injection molding, electro-plating, cut-and-sew, rubber molding and assembly operations -- technology sometimes gets in the way of progress. Incorporating technology for technology's sake is never the answer.

"We focus on creativity before capital," says Johnson. "It's good to work for a company that has money, but we won't [throw money at a problem.] We always consider creativity before capital and we ask ourselves 'How would a company without capital resources do it?' "

In fact, Johnson and his senior management team have been known to literally rip out unproductive technology.

For example, the plant's old overhead conveyor delivery system from paint to assembly was a constant headache. Densely packed on the conveyor, the units would often swing, recalls Johnson. If the units really got swinging they could hit each other and cause paint chips and dents on the steel caskets. Additionally, the overhead system, which could hold several shifts' worth of production, would often jam up and it could easily take an hour to find and repair the problem.

"One day the conveyor jammed and after 45 minutes of doing the 'prayer ceremony,' hoping we would get it unjammed, I called for a maintenance crash cart with a cutting torch," says Johnson. "I had the mechanic cut the conveyor track section completely down and we started throwing carriers and conveyor [pieces] in the scrap trailer. I called for all management people to come to the shop floor. We manually unloaded parts and carted them to the desired location a few feet away. I reviewed the situation with the union president . . . and the agreement we made was to quickly get temp labor in for a couple of weeks until we put a better system in. We installed a small floor-mounted conveyor that only held a minimal amount of WIP."

The emergency surgery to remove the production bottleneck resulted in several pluses. According to Johnson, the new system reduced work-in-process from shifts to minutes, provided visual inventory management (the caskets were no longer hanging overhead), resulted in less lost cycles and less maintenance calls, lowered support costs, and the smaller footprint meant that spot air-conditioning systems could be installed.

The air-conditioning systems, which look like silver tentacles with an eyeball at the end, can be seen throughout the plant. Operators can position the "eyeball" to blow cold air in their direction. The addition is a welcome one for plant employees who didn't always have a good relationship with plant management. To be sure, before the union came to the plant in 1985, workers were subjected to long hours and questionable management practices.

"The biggest [grievance] was that workers didn't know what time they were going to get off of work," says Richard Summers, vice president of Local 9137 and an absentee replacement operator in the plant's hardware department.

Summers, who has been with the Manchester plant for nearly 30 years, has seen the plant transform from management by intimidation to management by respect. His tenure is not uncommon within the facility; the average length of service is 19 years and many of the plant workers have family also employed by Batesville's Manchester operations.

According to Mary Jo Cartwright, manufacturing operations manager and former human resources manager, "Richard is the balance and level head at the plant. He is good at seeing the big picture."

Better Flow, Better Use of Space

As for the plant itself, the big picture is always the focus. From the automotive-quality paint finishes in 26 colors and myriad styles to the hand sewing and custom interior designs of the caskets, many areas have been repeatedly refined via kaizen events. The results: better flow and better use of space. Not to mention that the improvements saved the company $1.8 million last year.

For example, the sewing area, which houses several embroidery machines used to custom-embroider casket interiors, underwent a simple timesaving transformation. The machines need to be manually re-threaded. As they were designed, operators needed to crawl under the bench that supported the machines and change the bobbin. A kaizen event resulted in holes being cut into the bench, thus allowing operators to reach down rather than crawl under to change the thread.

Another simple change was initiated in the gasket area. Workers would cut flash off of gaskets and walk a few feet to the garbage can to dispose of the excess rubber. A kaizen event resulted in cutting a hole in the tabletop and placing a garbage can underneath the table. Now workers simply push the scrap through the hole.

"Not a day goes by where we aren't learning something new," says Johnson. "It keeps it exciting."

In addition to the excitement, continuous learning and continuous improvement also keep the plant profitable. Productivity increased 22% over the last few years. But Johnson and his management team never want to rest on their laurels.

"Any manufacturing plant ought to believe [the Mexico and China threat] is on the horizon. We have to ask ourselves what are the ways we can be beat and what are ways we can make logical choices?"

Some of the logical choices are keeping things in-house. Batesville makes 98% of the components that go into its caskets. The Manchester plant even produces modular displays for funeral homes via its System Solutions by Batesville (SSB) -- a separate plant housed on the 169 acres that is the Manchester operations. The SSB fashions corners of caskets into tasteful models to be used by funeral homes.

As for the future of Batesville's Manchester operations, Johnson realizes trends are changing. "We live in a mobile society where burial plots don't mean as much anymore. People aren't living in the same state as they grew up, [therefore] no one is left to maintain gravesites."

While there is potential for a shift in the market, Johnson and his team will use creativity to address it. Until then, the company will continue on its path of world-class performance. And as the message says on the plant's fleet of nearly 100 trucks, "Please Drive Safely, Heaven Can Wait."

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