2000 IW Best Plants Profile: Mine Safety Appliances Co. - Rescue Operation

Plantwide effort saved safety-equipment manufacturer from closing.

At a glance

  • Plant profitability increased 91% over the last five years.
  • 95% of plant employees have multiskill certifications.
  • 99.9% first-pass yield for all finished products.
  • Murrysville helped MSA achieve Home Depot's Supplier of the Year award in 1999, the company's first year of business with the home improvement retailer.

Nancy Trabucco, who works at the customer service center for Mine Safety Appliances Co. (MSA) in Pittsburgh, recently received a short but moving e-mail from a grateful customer. "I am alive today because I was wearing a V-Gard protective hat," wrote the customer. "It was inspected by Linda. Please thank her."

The thank-you note found its way to Linda D. Williams, a 26-year employee of MSA's Murrysville, Pa., plant where she operates an injection molding machine that manufactures V-Gard hard hats. After inspecting the hats, Williams places a sticker inside each one that reads: "Inspected by Linda."

Personalizing an inspection sticker may seem trivial, yet it is a manufacturing detail, among many more, that has helped MSA Murrysville become one of IndustryWeek's Best Plants.

Workers even mark their initials on the subassemblies that the plant manufactures for its self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) used by firefighters. "We know it takes time to do that, and time is cost, but we feel it's worthwhile for those operators to take ownership for the parts and subassemblies they are making," says plant manager Joe Murray.

Employee ownership, Murray says, also develops accountability and pride among the plant's 297 workers who know that their customers depend on them to manufacture quality products. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, the company has been manufacturing safety products since 1914 when its founders John T. Ryan and George H. Deike developed, with the help of Thomas Edison, the "flameless" cap lamp for coal miners. The cap prevented mine explosions and saved countless lives.

But it wasn't long ago that the life of the Murrysville plant itself was in jeopardy. On June 12, 1996, a corporate executive announced that MSA would have to close either its Murrysville plant or another factory in Esmond, R.I., because of overcapacity. "If (corporate) management had made a decision behind closed doors, Murrysville would have been closed because it was a higher-cost plant than the Rhode Island facility," Murray recalls.

Although Murrysville had launched total-quality-management initiatives and created a team-based culture in the early 1990s, its productivity was sputtering at about 75%. (MSA calculates productivity by taking the number of hours needed to make a desired quantity of parts and dividing it by the number of hours actually worked.)

Nevertheless, the 250,000-sq-ft plant, which sits in a valley near the busy Pennsylvania Turnpike a few miles east of Pittsburgh, had a rare second chance to save itself.

"The stakes became real clear to everybody," says Murrysville's director of operations, Paul Uhler. "This management team took those stakes to where we could affect the greatest change, and that was on the factory floor."

"People on the production floor were used to doing work [the way] it had always been done, and management got used to letting them," says production manager Dave Carter. "We had to ask more of ourselves and we delivered. It was 300 people all doing one thing: improving production. It just picked up momentum."

Managers met with each production worker every month and reviewed his or her performance based on quality, productivity, safety, delivery and attendance. By the end of 1996, plant productivity had jumped to 86%. In 1999 the plant posted productivity of 95.4% and is on target to manufacture a record 3 million-plus hard hats by the end of the year. This compares with less than 2 million hard hats just five years ago.

The plant also set a record for producing more than 20,000 SCBAs last year. It used to take eight to 12 weeks to assemble and deliver a customized SCBA to customers. Today the process takes two to five days.

While fear of the plant closing motivated everyone to kick into high gear, managers knew they could ride the fear horse for only so long. "We had to do something that was a positive reinforcement . . ., to reward people for strong performance," Murray says.

After attending several seminars on employee rewards and incentives, the management team developed the company's first goal-sharing program. "It was really a radical proposal for this corporation," Murray reflects. "We went through about a year and a half of effort to get (corporate) management to accept it. It actually worked out better as a motivator than we initially expected."

The goal-sharing plan features a maximum quarterly payout of $600 per hourly employee and $300 for each salaried associate when specific performance parameters are achieved within the plant's five key operational drivers: productivity, customer service, quality, safety, and attendance. In the first quarter of this year, for example, hourly employees received a payout of more than $500 for achieving a performance level of 95%.

The reward is calculated through an accumulated point system. Employees earn points for meeting established performance goals. The more points they accumulate, the higher the payout.

Regardless, management says it would be almost impossible for workers to sustain high performance levels without the success of another initiative, the Employee Certification Program, which revolutionized the quality mind-set at MSA. Today, each employee has received 40 hours of classroom instruction in areas such as engineering drawing, statistical process control, ISO 9001, work instruction, and calibration.

In addition, on-the-job training addresses equipment setup, safety, preventive maintenance, and quality. The key requirement of this training effort is that employees must show that they can perform all their job functions in order to receive certification. To maintain that certification they must successfully complete quality audit reviews of their work processes throughout the year. If an audit reveals a need for improvement, additional training is required.

In the past, "I don't think we did a very good job at training," remarks Rick Suprak, a production supervisor. "But as we were growing and looking at our processes we started to discover that we missed something along the way."

Extensive training and an experienced workforce explain why employees display such a strong level of confidence and detailed understanding of their manufacturing responsibilities. The average employee tenure is 24 years. Management capitalizes on this employee knowledge and experience. When a customer requests a plant tour, workers routinely serve as guides without managers being present.

"The last thing a customer who is considering buying a million dollar's worth of apparatus wants to hear is some management mumbo jumbo that they probably heard at two or three other places," explains plant manager Murray.

"The opportunity to interact with people who are making what they are going to use is something different. It's refreshing to the customer. It tends to be a much more enjoyable experience for them."

Web Exclusive Best Practices

Focus On The Customer Mine Safety Appliances' Murrysville plant recently developed an Operations Customer Contact Team with the purpose of following what happens to their products once they arrive at a distributor or customer. This year the team traveled to Florida where they met with a distributor and the Tampa Bay Fire Dept., which had purchased self-contained breathing apparatuses from the Murrysville plant. "We wanted to find out what they check for. Are they the same things we check for?" explains plant manager Joe Murray. "How do they test the product? Is it the same way we test it? Are there features and options that they're looking for that we don't offer?"

Employee Suggestions Improvements Demanding Effort & Action (IDEA) is the plant's formal idea program. On a one-page form employees describe their idea and explain how it would improve a process, production, or customer satisfaction. The appropriate managers review the idea, and are required to explain any action that was taken. If an idea is rejected, managers must explain why to the employee who submitted it.

Supply Chain Average queue for inspecting materials before being delivered to work cells used to be four or five days. Through supply-chain initiatives led by William Ritenour, manager of production and inventory control, that inspection process has dropped to one to one-and-one-half days worth of materials in queue. Inspection time was cut by reducing the inspection of materials that have met quality standards over the last three years. This freed up time for inspectors to focus on materials that were not meeting quality specifications and to address those problems with suppliers. Ritenour says successful supply-chain management requires a plant-wide team effort and a combination of effective communications with suppliers. The plant's supply-chain-management efforts have reduced inventory levels from $16 million in January to $13.2 million in July.

New-Product Development Employee involvement with engineering during the early stages of product development reduces the cost of design and manufacturing and helps to bring new products to market before the competition. Early product development collaboration between production and engineering helped MSA become the first in North America to introduce an integrated computer module (ICM) for its self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) used by firefighters. One of the functions of an ICM is to sense motion. When a firefighter is in trouble the ICM sounds an alarm to help rescuers locate him or her. While firefighters are inside a burning building the ICM can transmit data to a computer to monitor the temperature of the building's interior, the air supply of the SCBA, and other critical functions of the SCBA.

Hoshin Planning Hoshin planning, a relatively new management tool in the U.S., is being used on both the plant and corporate level at MSA. Developed in Japan, the Hoshin method communicates to everyone in the company specific goals and strategies, including how they are to be accomplished and in what time frame. The Hoshin plan for the Murrysville plant is updated monthly, and posted throughout the plant for all employees to keep track of progress and challenges. "The Hoshin plan makes everything very objective and quantifiable," says L. Jay Osche Jr., MSA's quality control manager.

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