Zeroing In On The Customer: IW Best Plants Profile - 2004

To improve its products, Northrop Grumman's flagship Defensive Systems Division plant goes to war -- literally.

Northrop Grumman Corp. Defensive Systems Division, Rolling Meadows, Ill.

At a Glance

Talk about customer service.

It's not unusual for engineers to visit customers in the field, especially these days with manufacturers focusing on service as a strategic advantage. But when your customer is a soldier, preparing for war or in live combat, customer service takes on a whole new meaning.

"I'd like you to assume that this land mass over here is the United States -- good guys," says Jim Cameron, a man whose streamlined language and patient explanations come in handy when explaining the intricacies of war on a faux map. "This land mass over here is some bad guy. Unfortunately, the nature of man is such that there are always good guys and bad guys. The only thing that's common is that we're always the good guys."

Cameron, vice president and general manager of the Defensive Systems Division (DSD) of Northrop Grumman Corp., uses the map to explain what his division manufactures -- complex defense electronic systems that give soldiers the ability to find hidden dangers, confuse enemies and their "smart" weapons, and zero in on precise targets when using their own weapons.

The DSD division is headquartered at a sprawling, million-square-foot compound in Rolling Meadows, Ill., one of this year's IW Best Plant's winners. The plant's 2,000 employees use a variety of methods to achieve world-class status, but all are driven by a focus on the customer that's as sharp as the sensors of the products they produce.

"What discriminates us is that we believe if we can understand our customer's mission as well as they do, we can help them be more effective," says Cameron, who has held his current post for six months and previously worked at ITT Industries. "We don't wait for our customer to say, 'Will you give us this?' We find out what our customer is trying to do, and then we develop solutions. As a result of that, we get out ahead of the competition and give our customers the things that are the most beneficial for them to execute their mission."

The crux of this customer interaction takes place in the field through user conferences, extensive testing at customer sites, training at customer sites and, at times, during war.

"The field service engineer is out there to maintain and service our products in the field," explains Greg Schmidt, vice president of engineering and manufacturing at Rolling Meadows. "By maintaining and supporting that product, they are working hand-in-hand with the user. Sometimes we don't have enough field service engineers to go everywhere they need to be at the same time. So we actually have [design] engineers and our operations test engineers volunteer to go into theater to support our products."

These engineers are deployed in teams and include people who've been with the products "from the electrons on our IT system to the real hardware," Schmidt says. "They take that experience and learning and bring it back for the next program."

DSD's customer focus is apparent throughout the high-mix, low-volume Rolling Meadows plant. Rather than focus on one omnipresent improvement philosophy -- such as lean or Six Sigma or value-stream mapping -- Rolling Meadows using all of these and more techniques, all with an eye toward customers, customers, customers.

To please customers, DSD must develop innovative, mission-critical products and manufacture them faster and cheaper. DSD's achievements in this area enabled the division to win 80% of proposals submitted in 2003 and maintain a 100% repeat-business rate.

Sure, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased demand for the plant's products, but Rolling Meadows has customers other than U.S. armed forces and has been laying the building blocks for the past five years that gave it an advantage when the U.S. declared war. Some of those building blocks include:

  • Adding automated testing and other process improvements that reduced overall manufacturing cycle time by 62%.
  • Establishing the Operator Self-Acceptance and Product Assessment Program, which empowered production workers to make accept/reject decisions about products throughout the manufacturing process. "This approach helps build quality into the product rather than trying to inspect quality into the product," the plant management stated in its Best Plants application. On one of its complex electronic devices, the plant has seen a 300% increase in first-pass yield improvement.
  • Deploying 17 Six Sigma black belts to use their tools throughout the plant to make singular-but-significant improvements in business practices and engineering processes. In the case of one infrared sensing system, Six Sigma techniques allowed for a tripling of units produced annually by adding fewer than five employees and a nominal increase in production. On the same product, engineers used Six Sigma to determine that using a different method to apply a drop of reactive liquid during production reduced drying time from 24 hours to 3.5 hours, cutting 20 hours out of cycle time.
  • Emphasizing modular design and agility. For instance, in its Litening targeting system line -- which was used in the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital -- engineers can customize each pod with a few software programming changes. The hardware remains largely the same.

So the pods going to one branch of the military are different than those going to another, but the customization takes minimal time and overhead. (The pods, shaped like bloated missiles the length of a large surf board, attach to the underbelly of aircraft.)

Using IT to integrate product design and manufacturing and to track process improvements. The Rolling Meadows plant was an early adopter of product lifecycle management (PLM) software and uses it to communicate design plans and changes immediately to manufacturing staff so that they can begin planning for capacity, raw materials and other needs. PLM also enables intense supplier/partner collaboration. Additionally, a robust, home-grown portal runs on top of all applications and gives team leaders and managers a real-time view of significant metrics across the plant and its market segments via a variety of charts and graphics. The entire system is integrated and updates simultaneously.

"The information is not added again and again," says Lisa Strama, manager of operations systems at the plant. "It flows automatically so that people can focus on strategies."

Cameron meets monthly with managers to review the metrics point-by-point via the portal. He insists upon the meetings and a manager's report, although he could review the data himself, because he sees it as a learning experience and a way to ensure that managers know their knitting.

The data is not only used for tracking improvements but for planning, e.g., capital equipment purchases. In that way, Cameron says there's a "closed-loop" system from the engineers in the field with the customer to the executive decisions he and his staff make.

"It gets that guy-who-is-closest-to-the-customer's current view of the world that helps us focus on where we're going in the future," Cameron says. "It's a very powerful thing."

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