2017 IW Best Plants Winner: High Performance Teamwork and the Power of Collaboration at Adient Lerma

How this automotive seating manufacturer tapped its workers' collective problem-solving energy to create total-plant army of continuous improvement experts.

When I visited the Adient Lerma Seating plant just outside Mexico City back in February, management was already busy planning a very big party.

The plant, which assembles seats and door panels for some of the world's top carmakers, had just been notified that it had achieved the elusive Adient Manufacturing System (AMS) maturity Level 4 status—the first of the company's 230-plus global facilities to do so.

Enterprise-specific rankings like AMS are quickly becoming common fare in the industry. And, while rising to the top of any ranking is clearly a good reason to celebrate, these systems often emphasize metrics and values that can be too narrow or esoteric to really generate much excitement outside the company bubble. But Adient Lerma's achievement seems particularly relevant to the full industry.

Earning the AMS Maturity Level 4 ranking required the full staff to not only master 715 specific manufacturing practices, but to also demonstrate that their pursuit for manufacturing excellence is "embedded in the mindsets and behaviors as second nature," explained Fernando Buchholz, Adient Lerma's plant manager.

To pull that off, every single member of the plant's 522-person crew had to be both extremely good at their jobs and also absolutely committed to everything that surrounds it, from 5S and safety to quality and continuous improvement.

Adient Lerma Seating Plant

Lerma, Mexico

Employees: 522 (1,162 after expansion)

Total Square Footage: 186,000 (336,000 after expansion)

Primary Product: Automotive Seating

Achievements: 100% empowered or self-directed work teams; $1,379,000 in savings from specific improvement programs and projects; 47% reduction in scrap/rework in last 3 years.

One hardly needs to note just how impossible 100% engagement is to achieve. But this plant has developed a system to do just that. And it starts with a very simple idea.

"The key word is collaboration," Buchholz said. "We are the only plant that achieved level 4, and you can't do that if one team, or if even one employee is not engaged. So in all of the areas, all of the employees—whether we are talking about hourly or salary—they are all working together as a team."

That collaboration is specifically focused just catty-corner to the production lines in a small, semi-enclosed meeting space dedicated to problem solving.

The walls of the area are lined with whiteboards loaded with templates for 5 Whys and fishbone analyses and every other CI fundamental built in. It's a power station custom built for high level lean work, where you'd expect to find managers and black belts gathered to take on the biggest challenges of the plant.

But instead, the space is populated with rotating shifts of oddly-assembled crews from all across the plant floor. There are CI folks in there, sure, but also sewers and steamers, quality and material people, assemblers and shippers, seasoned managers and new hires.

These groups, High Performance Teams (HPTs), are the real engine for the plant—the secret strategy designed to drive efficiency and lean-thinking deep into the fabric of the plant culture.

The basic construct for this is pretty simple. Every employee is placed on a team, and every team is responsible for meeting once a week to solve problems that drive eight KPIs: efficiency, safety, 5S, continuous improvement, scrap, quality, TPM and empowered people (turn over, absenteeism, rotation). The more problems these teams solve, the more points they accrue toward their goal; the more points the accrue, the higher their HPT bonus.

The kicker to this is that part of the goal is also to wean each team away from direct management. Managers are there to provide guidance and advice, of course, but the whole point is to make these teams discover both problems and solutions all on their own.

This has a curious effect across the plant. With 100% of the staff participating in these teams, it has exponentially increased the reach of every department to reach its goals.

(Read more about the IndustryWeek Best Plants Awards.)

"Management is not the only group worried about the KPIs anymore," explains Maria del Rosario Nava, head of training and recruitment for Adient Lerma. "Now every area, for example safety, has mini-mes in every group covering that part. The whole plant is out there supporting the subject matter experts. Even if they don't have the same education or technical expertise, they can explain the graphics and calculate their results the same. It's pretty amazing."

It is indeed, both in practice and result. In 2017, these teams created and successfully deployed 112 specific improvement programs and projects, which resulted in an incredible $1.38 million in savings—and of course, it's AMS Maturity Level 4 breakthrough.

It was enough, despite a very tough 2017, to land enough new business and new investment to break ground on an expansion project that will nearly double both floor space and headcount by June 2019.

Add all this together, with the IndustryWeek Best Plants Awards trophy added to the shelf, and the plant has earned itself a very big party indeed.

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