Great Lakes label lean manufacturing operations

Great Lakes Label's new lean operations are keeping the label printing business in the black.

Leadership & Strategy: Plant Expertise Drives Successful Culture Change

"People weren't living up to the potential I knew they could," says Tony Cook, CEO and founder of Great Lakes Label LLC.

The floors were drab, stained by the ink of decades of running presses and rewinders.

The company was just treading water, scraping by with a 1% profit margin.

Morale was dismal.

Tony Cook, CEO and founder of Great Lakes Label LLC, knew his Michigan-based label printing and converting business needed a change.

"It was just not the company I'd always pictured in my head we'd have," Cook says. "And people weren't living up to the potential I knew they could."

So he cleaned house, firing the company's upper management.

See Also: Lean Manufacturing Leadership Best Practices

"There was a real lack of communication between the front and the back," Cook says. "If you walked from the office out into the production facility, it was like you were at a different company."

Now, two years later, the company, which serves clients like H.J. Heinz Co. (IW 500/101) and General Electric (IW 500/6), has increased daily output 400% and is more profitable. It increased its margins 10% within the first year and doubled its business by the second.

Cultural Transformation

Cook attributes the financial turnaround to the cultural transformation the company underwent.

After clearing out the management staff, Cook promoted employees from the plant floor to leadership roles. A press operator became operations manager; a sales manager became general manager; the head of the rewinder department became quality manager; and the graphic designer became the purchasing manager.

It was a risky proposition. The production floor workers had limited computer knowledge and leadership experience

But they did have expertise; they knew the ins and outs of the shop better than anyone and could use their hands-on experience to right the ship -- at least that was what Cook was counting on.

The move eliminated the closed-door atmosphere upper management had maintained for years and shifted the company from a need-to-know operation to a collaborative team environment.

Press operators, who before were only given one ticket at a time, now receive an entire week's worth of jobs and set up their own production schedules.

Giving Employees a Chance

"I'm amazed at what people will do when given the chance," Cook says.

Great Lakes Label also implemented the lean initiatives Cook had been longing to try but had been hampered in enacting by the previous power-wielders of the company. The lean changes created an intuitively team-oriented workplace as all workers helped design the new layout of the plant and had a voice in creating the new work flow.

Each employee is now part of a decision-making team based on department and all of them are empowered to make suggestions to improve work flow and operations.

"They're all having a chance to grow individually and try different things," Cook says. "It's just a complete morale booster."

But what Cook says really helped cement the team was the group effort to ground down the cement floor. The floor, which had been blackened by years of ink, is now a bright centerpiece of the factory. The labor-intensive project, Cook says, helped employees take a stake in the changes at hand and gave everyone a source of pride.

The difference in the atmosphere was most evident to Cook in planning the summer family picnic. He offered to rent a location for the event, but the employees asked to use the plant instead.

For more tips on changing a culture, visit iw.com/cultural-change.

"They're proud of the environment they created," Cook says. "It went from a dirty, dingy print shop to a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility."

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