By Tim Stevens At A Glance
  • Labor man-hours/piece decreased 50% from 1993 to 1995.
  • Manufacturing cost reduction of 77% since 1991.
  • Order-to-shipment leadtime reduced 80% since 1991.
  • Total inventory reduction of 66% since 1991.
  • WIP inventory reduction of 80% since 1991.
  • Air-bag module first-pass yield of 99.5%.
  • 88% reduction in scrap rework as a percent of sales in 3 years.
  • Scrap/rework as a percent of sales of just 0.8%.
  • Unit volume growth of 680% since 1991.
Moving like men on the moon -- trailing umbilical cords that pump air into full protective suits and wearing foil-hooded face masks -- technicians drop disks of sodium azide propellant into fixtures that facilitate loading them into foot-long metal canisters. Vacuum-equipped workstations remove any potentially explosive propellant dust from the area, and rows of angled nozzles overhead hang poised to deliver 300 gallons of water per minute at the slightest sign of heat or bright light. Are we at a NASA rocket-test center or weapons depot? No, we are in the propellant load room at TRW Inc.'s Vehicle Safety Systems Inc. (VSSI) plant in Cookeville, Tenn., where the charges that inflate automotive air bags are inserted. Keeping things clean, safe, parallel, and perpendicular is a hallmark of TRW VSSI. As a relatively new facility, with first production in July 1991, TRW VSSI had the opportunity to build a world-class facility right off the bat. The challenge has been the 20-fold ramp-up of volume during the last three years, and an employment growth from seven to 800 to meet demand that outpaces supply of passenger-side air-bag modules and inflators. "Though things started slowly, they accelerated quickly," says plant manager Don Skiba. "There was a period of time the first year when the plant staff had a chance to develop an overall strategy and philosophy." While precise organization helps to define the structure, the culture is defined by a highly empowered workforce and a mentality of long-term, permanent corrective actions. Producing some six million air-bag modules in 1995, TRW VSSI is organized into customer-focused manufacturing work cells, each producing specific products for specific customers such as Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, BMW, Saturn, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Jaguar. Cells are further grouped by customers or market segments into business teams. Each team is led by a business-team manager who coordinates the activities of his cross-functional team, the individual members of which have dotted-line responsibility to the business-team manager and direct responsibility to their functional manager. This approach gives any team the feel of operating in a small company, yet with big-company support. The principal avenue for the communication of customer focus and quality values at TRW VSSI is the Cookeville Operating System (COS). "This is a comprehensive set of living documentation which monitors 15 to 20 key plant indexes," says industrial engineering manager Walter Marcum. Indexes include cost/unit, waste elimination, customer rejects, on-time delivery, and cycle time, as well as more subjective factors such as quality of work life, customer satisfaction, and a communication index. Reviewed monthly, each factor is assigned a goal and a champion who has the responsibility to spread initiatives throughout the plant to help meet that goal. The COS goals are spread pyramid-style down the organizational structure to individuals in the work cells. "We're trying to run the business on the basis of facts and data," says Skiba, "and have an everincreasing number of people dealing with that data and participating in the process of obtaining resolution." At the production-cell level, the COS is reflected in targets set for the Six Fundamentals of Manufacturing, which are represented in a logo that looks like a house. Good housekeeping is the foundation of the house, with pillars of safety, productivity, delivery performance, and waste elimination supporting a roof of quality. "If you take one of the pillars away, the house will fall," says rework coordinator Angie Cowan. A lasting impression of the TRW VSSI facility is the housekeeping. The plant glows with cleanliness a mother-in-law would have difficulty finding fault with. This and the other five fundamentals are tracked and reported daily, with a manufacturing cell awarded a medallion at month's end for each target achieved. If six medallions are gained, the line is awarded a Six Fundamentals flag, which is displayed at the "public" end of the line. "The employees take a lot of pride in that flag," says Cowan. Line teams can also be awarded free lunch on the spot for breaking records in the Six Fundamentals categories. The Six Fundamentals are a natural rallying point for the empowered employee teams in each manufacturing cell. In fact, 100% of the plant workforce is on empowered teams. Line technicians play an integral role in problem solving, continuous-improvement programs, and the new-hire interviewing process. They sit on peer panels, where employees can appeal warnings, corrective-counseling, or termination. TRW VSSI is a union-free, all-salaried shop, with a deliberate effort made "to remove as many of the perceived and real barriers as possible that divide groups, and focus on the things that are most important," says human-resources manager Lanny Knight. There are no time clocks or assigned parking. When it came time to expand cafeteria food service, the employees voted for a McDonald's on-site. Although the golden arches declined, the company did attract the first Subway franchise operating in a U.S. plant. The Goal at TRW VSSI at this time is not self-directed teams, just more empowerment and participation. "Our goal is to empower our people to allow them to develop to the maximum level they feel comfortable with," says operations manager DeWayne Pinkstaff. To understand the level of development of any one manufacturing-cell team, the cross-functional Team Assistance Group (TAG Team) assesses how the team is functioning and rates it according to a six-level hierarchy of team development. "Each level has a specific list of activities, functions, and responsibilities the team can take on," says Pinkstaff, from participating in daily line meetings at level one, to vacation scheduling at level three, to determining team structure itself at level six. Shortfalls uncovered during the TAG Team assessment are addressed in team-training sessions at the TRW VSSI Development Center. All information on team development is funneled back to a recently commissioned Team Steering Committee, which is "providing the overall vision of what TRW VSSI is trying to accomplish as an organization, and is the driving energy behind moving empowerment further," says Lisa Johnson, who operates the development center. This dedicated learning facility is loaded with tapes, books, and self-study programs on everything from spreadsheets and word processing to foreign languages, self-help, and parenting. Full-time trainers teach classes sponsored by the center, including Team Boot Camp, where virtually every employee was trained in a 2 1/2 -day course on the basics of working together. The development center also sponsors a unique internal internship program. Here an employee proposes an internship in any department, typically with career exploration and advancement in mind. The employee determines his or her own learning objectives; over a period of 12 weeks, not exceeding four hours per week, completes the program on his or her own time; and earns a certificate based on achieving the objectives. When TRW VSSI attacks targets for waste and cost reduction, quality improvement, or better resource utilization or is challenged by increased market demand, it turns to other structured initiatives. For instance, the Continuous Improvement Process Plus (aka CIP+) is a kaizen-like, highly focused 10-step process designed to encompass all functions in the operation. The results of its application have been stunning. Implementation of 48 new ideas on a Chrysler line yielded a capacity increase from 252,000 modules a year to 324,000 at the same manpower level, while effectively reducing cost of labor 34%. Less tangible, yet equally important, says Marcum, is that "technicians feel a part of the decision-making process since they all participate in brainstorming sessions, and a few volunteer to sit on the core improvement team. It encourages everyone on the shop floor to think in terms of improvement."