National Gypsum Co.: IW Best Plants Profile 2006

National Gypsum Co.: IW Best Plants Profile 2006

A Comeback Winner: Wallboard maker stages a revival that is all about people, purpose and performance.

National Gypsum Co., Wilmington, N.C.

Employees: 68, non-union

Total square footage: 377,455

Primary products: Gypsum wallboard, with interior finishing product and cement board businesses

Start-up: 1979

Achievements: Wilmington has gone from customers not accepting board produced by the plant to zero-defective board in 2005. Technology investments include equipment to ensure correct caliper and an automatic data collection system.


The turnaround at the Wilmington, N.C., facility of National Gypsum Co. reflects the strong determination of the entire plant team to be driven by a common purpose -- winning with manufacturing performance.

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Even charitable activities such as the plant's Mini-Grand Prix for Duke University's Children's Hospital contribute to that common purpose. The interpersonal contact behind that fund-raiser -- $25,000 last year -- also improves and accelerates collaboration at the plant, says plant manager Steve LePage.

All that determination has shaped a role-model performer, a leader in quality and productivity among the company's 20 wallboard-producing plants. Maintaining that status is the primary challenge for the 27-year-old plant, says LePage.

Quality is stellar, as determined by independent third-party monitoring of 27 board properties. Since the turnaround started in 2003, the Wilmington team has grown its quality score from 600 to 920, just 80 points shy of a perfect 1,000.

Wallboard throughput has soared from 2002's production rate of 182 feet per minute. Originally designed to produce wallboard at 190 to 195 feet per minute, the line in 2006 is averaging 215 feet per minute. Tightening controls increased productivity 17%.

Machine uptime also has improved with the plant now making all changeovers on the fly. Changeovers once took 30 minutes. Also, preventive-maintenance procedures have allowed the plant to reduce planned maintenance from eight hours per week to just six. Labor efficiency has improved 17.5%.

Winning teamwork example: Board line manager Lisa Wyatt (left) with associate Alfred Moore.
Wilmington's journey to winning performance began in July 2002 when LePage arrived as the new plant manager to help employees begin a challenging comeback. Having rejected introducing a union, the plant team wanted the kind of leadership only revitalized management could provide.

Plenty of challenges confronted LePage. "I saw a lot of opportunity," he says. He describes stacks of rejected wallboard scattered throughout the plant. "More importantly, there was eagerness in the eyes of everyone in the plant -- they wanted to do the right thing." His first step was housekeeping. LePage shut the plant down and started cleaning up the board line, working alongside the production team. "We did everything together."

Long days (10 to 12 hours) and lots of involvement uncovered hidden issues that were impacting quality, which resulted in the company's biggest customer no longer accepting Wilmington-made wallboard.

Teamwork built and supported with employee communication and training hastened the turnaround, says production operator Ronnie Boykin, a 17-year veteran. "The unity of our people is our biggest achievement," adds Charlie Hite, production manager. He says management's practice of sharing knowledge and information has led employee attitudes from "good enough" to "an insatiable appetite for excellence."

That cultural change has brought customers back with improved quality, and other National Gypsum plants are now recruiting Wilmington personnel -- four production managers in four years, notes LePage.

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Training In A Plant Turnaround

Don't underplay -- or misinterpret -- training's significance in a plant turnaround situation, advises Steve LePage, plant manager at National Gypsum, Wilmington, N.C.

Start by carefully framing the mission in terms of objectives and people, advises LePage. That's how he took on the task of resuscitating manufacturing performance at the Wilmington plant.

Training's role in Wilmington's turnaround -- which began in January 2003 -- focuses on developing the potential of the plant's 68 employees. To gain that strategic performance value, LePage partnered with the local Cape Fear Community College. The courses, taught at the plant, emphasize leadership development and communications skills. LePage says the training program builds competitive advantages in terms of teamwork and collaboration.

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Training began with supervisors participating in nine sessions, each three hours long. The modules include such topics as Giving Constructive Feedback, Resolving Team Conflicts, Taking Corrective Action and Getting Your Ideas Across.

LePage says the program has been so successful that he wishes he had included hourly associates earlier. This year, lead operators are receiving 30 hours of training, and 55 hourly workers are receiving 14 hours of Global Working Skills training. The training is continuous, with a new curriculum of study each year. LePage says the Wilmington training program has been designated as a role model for all of National Gypsum's 20 plants.

In addition to the community college courses, Wilmington trains associates to perform multiple jobs. Associates know they can advance through cross training and welcome the opportunity. This has helped the plant balance its labor pool and overtime requirements.

Creating The Appetite For Excellence

Do your employees "know" each other -- other than being able to associate a corporate position with an e-mail address? Can your employees associate a name with the personality? Have they evolved off-the-job interaction and relationships that can help facilitate collaboration on the job?

That's how plant manager Steve LePage is playing a charitable activity at National Gypsum Co., Wilmington, N.C. The event is a Mini-Grand Prix that last year raised $25,000 for Duke University's Children Hospital.

Because it's fun and purposeful, this charitable effort involves nearly all of the 68 associate at the facility. LePage says the excitement, camaraderie and competitive spirit spill over into the manufacturing tasks at the Wilmington wallboard manufacturing plant. The process builds an appetite for excellence, adds LePage.

Work begins by building a race car and designing a paint scheme sporting the company colors and product brands.

Time trials are used to select the drivers for the event and even LePage earned a position behind the wheel. Work on the car was arranged around plant schedules (the plant operates 24/7). Some practice sessions are held at night using headlights to light the track and perform pit stop practice.

On race day, the drivers and pit crew are supported by the Wilmington team. Wilmington's "Race Ready" led 18 of the 25 laps in the championship heat. It was one of 21 cars and finished a close second to Rick Hendrick's Chevrolet. In addition to raising $25,000 for the children's hospital, the event creates an effective, enthusiastic camaraderie that helps to drive the team spirit at the Wilmington plant, says LePage.

The team raced again in Raleigh/Durham, N.C., in April, winning two out of five heats. The fifth and final heat came to an abrupt end as it started to rain and a multicar pile-up took "Race Ready" out of contention.

This year with the support of sales, manufacturing and human resources, the Wilmington plant will field two cars and two race teams and will be the event's primary sponsor.

National Gypsum's Wilmington plant also participates in other community events including supplying board for Habitat for Humanity and participating in the American Cancer Society's annual Relay for Life.

Reaching For Process Optimization

"In process optimization, the under appreciated message is that the benefits -- including significant savings -- don't necessarily require major investment." That's a conclusion drawn by Steve LePage, plant manager at the Wilmington, N.C., plant of National Gypsum Co.

He says the secret is often in exercising tighter control over process parameters. His example, which saved $600,000 in energy cost in 2005, concerns tweaking the making of wallboard, specifically tighter control over the hydration of an ingredient, gypsum.

Wilmington begins its production process with gypsum rock obtained from National Gypsum's Halifax, Nova Scotia, quarry. After shipment to Wilmington via ocean carrier, the rock is crushed and calcined (baked) to drive off the water. The resulting stucco is combined with other additives such as starch.

The tweaking and resulting optimization savings are in the tighter control of next step -- reintroducing water to liquefy the stucco for sandwiching between continuous sheets of paper.

By controlling the amount of water added, Wilmington not only saves water, but more importantly less energy is needed to dry the wallboard.

Previously, every thousand feet of wallboard was formed using 820 pounds of water to liquefy the stucco. At the end of the line, a 430-foot-long dryer removes the water. Now, by exercising tighter control, Wilmington has been able to reduce that amount to 720 pounds, the lowest water consumption of any of National Gypsum's wallboard plants.

The water reduction also allows the board line to run faster through the dryer, thus increasing productivity. The Wilmington plant was designed to produce wallboard at 190 to 195 feet per minute. The plant is now averaging 215 feet per minute, up from 182 in 2002. LePage says the energy savings of $600,000 did not require investments in plant equipment.

Wilmington was the first National Gypsum plant to closely monitor humidity ratios, air flow and pressure profiles to maintain the highest energy efficiency possible. The water reduction steps taken by Wilmington are being adopted throughout the National Gypsum plant network.

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