Best Practices -- Back To Basics

Auto supplier leverages internal expertise to retain world-class processes.

Bright ideas can die in isolation. To prevent untimely deaths, Collins & Aikman, like many other manufacturers, nurtures its best-practices initiatives in a program appropriately named "Best Practices." The company, an automotive component manufacturer and winner of three IndustryWeek Best Plants awards in 2002, realizes that its program isn't a "world beater," but it is a priority for the Troy, Mich.-based business that has 87 plants around the world. "Simply stated, best practices come in many forms and occur at many places within the organization," explains Gary Banker, vice president of continuous improvement at Collins & Aikman. "But unless a company has an excellent method of capturing and then cascading them, best practices really don't live up to their potential." One strategy Collins & Aikman uses to cascade best practices company wide is an intranet to house what consensus has deemed the best ways to produce its many products. To populate its database, Collins & Aikman goes right to the source. The company puts together teams (composed of production workers from various plants) that define, evaluate, select and document the best manufacturing methods for key processes. The experts meet once a month at a different plant for six or seven months (depending on how many team members there are) and educate one another on the elements that they do best. The result is a compilation of everyone's best practices rolled into one all-encompassing best practice for that particular process. For example, when the company evaluated an injection-molding process, it looked at the tooling, tooling maintenance, the equipment, all of the auxiliary equipment for cooling the press, the feeding of the plastic from the silo and the tool setup, explains Ken O'Brien, vice president of manufacturing planning, plastics division. "Then we broke down each process into 20 to 30 elements and we said, 'Who does what the best?' " What the folks at Collins & Aikman found was that everybody did some things well, but that only accounted for three or four of the elements of the process. "They thought they were the best because they did this, this and this very well," says O'Brien. "But they didn't do that, that and that very well." Lending credence to the process is the experience of the company's plant in Born, The Netherlands. About two years ago the plant changed over all four of its major product models. Instead of trying to start from scratch, the plant decided to follow the Collins & Aikman documented Best Practices to the letter. "They decided to take advantage of all the good work that we did in North America," explains O'Brien. "They ordered all the equipment [that was recommended], and they installed best practices in all their processes. Their plant is as close to a walking best practices museum as we have. It was a site to see, and [is] a successful plant today." The company as a whole benefits from such initiatives, and managers realize that its production workers are the power behind the program's hands-on success. "It's not some meeting at a hotel where the know-it-alls sit around and talk," says O'Brien. "You get to go out and kick the tires and see the results of what others are doing. After all, when you come into a room and try to convince five other people from five other plants that your plant does it the best, there's no BS involved." Send submissions for Best Practices to Editorial Research Director David Drickhamer at [email protected].

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