To picture the flow of parts, products and people in Warren Rupp's Mansfield, Ohio, factory prior to spring 2011, former operational excellence manager Marty Carty uses this analogy: "Just think of a mouse trying to find its cheese in a maze."  

"We were handling our raw material way too often, in very inefficient ways," adds Mike Kusche, director of quality assurance and operational excellence. "We had a lot of people who were wearing out tennis shoes to get the job done because they had to walk so far to get their parts."

Fast forward to the present, says Kusche, and visitors "think they're in a different facility."

A new automated conveyor system moves material in a continuous single-piece flow, from assembly to painting, packing and shipping. Batch-and-queue is history. Material-storage racks -- previously far removed from assembly cells -- now are stationed at the point of use, enabling the plant to redeploy material handlers to value-added tasks.  

Warren Rupp manufacturing plant informationFinished products proceed through a new painting and drying system via a powered monorail, eliminating the plant's most stubborn bottleneck. 

"Everything in the plant moved, for the most part," says assembly manager Tony Loveland. "There wasn't much that we didn't touch."

These and other changes are part of what the plant calls its "Material-Flow Optimization," or MFO, project. While the redesigned plant layout is the centerpiece, the project also encompassed:

• Refresher training for all employees on lean fundamentals such as single-piece flow and 5S.

• Investments in new technology, including the new conveyor system, wire-guided material handling equipment and real-time KPI-metric displays. 

• A series of kaizen events in which cross-functional teams -- often including employees from back-office operations -- focused on making specific process improvements. 

A cross-functional team that included Kusche, Carty (who now is a district sales manager), former VP of operations Bill Jones and other managers and hourly employees led the MFO project. Over a period of several months, the team utilized value-stream mapping to draft dozens of possible plant-floor configurations before choosing the final layout.

The results have exceeded expectations. The plant hit its ROI target in three months -- some 13 months earlier than it had expected -- and estimates that the MFO initiatives will produce $1 million in annual savings.

Among other results, productivity has increased by 10%, the plant's order-to-ship lead time has been shortened by 32%, and daily painting capacity has increased from 300 to 900 pumps.

"We did it on schedule, within budget and without disruption to our customers," Loveland says. "It speaks highly to our workforce here."

The fruits of the project's "rapid-improvement events," or RIEs (Warren Rupp's version of kaizen events), are on display throughout the 80,000-square-foot facility, which makes air-operated double-diaphragm pumps for industrial applications. 

An RIE team eliminated the use of expensive -- and ineffective -- foam protective padding inside the pumps' shipping cartons by devising a corrugated insert that locks the pumps into place and eliminates wobbling. Warren Rupp estimates that the corrugated insert will yield an annual savings of more than $45,000.

In the paint area, workers previously had to cover each pump's serial-number tag with masking tape to prevent it from being sprayed. An RIE team developed a metal cover -- color-coded to indicate the pump color -- that can be snapped into place and removed with a worker's fingertip, saving time and improving paint quality. The process improvement has produced an annual savings of $2,000.

For more on the 2012 Best Plants winners' amazing achievements, click here.