IW Best Plants Profile - 1996

By William H. Miller At A Glance

  • Average first-pass yield of finished product: 99%.
  • Scrap and rework 0.7% of sales.
  • Annual inventory turns up from 64 five years ago to 120.
  • Work-in-process turns up to 130.
  • Average number of days parts remain in inventory down from 3.8 in 1991 to 2.6 last year.
  • Cycle time for the plant's major product -- journal crosses for light-duty-vehicle drive shafts -- down 55% from 1991 through '95.
  • Customer-reject rate improved 75%.
  • Productivity up 28%.
  • Machine availability -- an estimated 60% only a few years ago -- now up to 98.7%.
Ask managers at many manufacturing plants what they are most proud of at their facility, and they'll snap out a ready, unhesitating answer. But that's not the case at Dana Corp.'s Spicer Driveshaft Div. plant in Bristol, Va. Ask the question there, and managers ponder a bit. They furrow their brows, turn the query over in their minds, then give varying replies. Some mention the plant's employee-involvement (EI) program. Others, its statistical process control (SPC) system. Still others, its inventory control, its predictive maintenance, its heat-treating operations, or other areas. It takes Mike Bowersock, the plant's tall, soft-spoken plant manager, to put the differing answers in perspective. "We think we do everything well," he explains. "There are plants that are better at employee involvement than us. There are plants that are more environmentally sound. There are plants that are further along with predictive maintenance. However, there are few plants that we are aware of that have maintained the balanced approach to running the business that we have." Indeed, Dana-Bristol -- as the plant is known -- possesses commendable overall balance. And it's a balance of excellence. The 280-employee facility, located in the outskirts of Bristol in the mountainous southwest corner of Virginia, manufactures machined components for drive shafts, primarily for pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles. The plant is an internal supplier to sister Spicer Driveshaft plants, shipping its products on a just-in-time basis. Opened in 1988, the plant has capitalized on the luxury of its relative newness. Unlike many older plants that have had to make difficult transitions to new operating cultures, Dana-Bristol was able to incorporate many of the elements of its present success on day one. Nothing has been more important than its meticulous selection of employees, more than half of whom have post-high-school educations. "We reject 'loners,' people who have no focus, and people who are not 'finishers,'" says John Holt, manager of human resources. This elite workforce, which is all salaried, made it easy for the plant to adopt from the very outset the cornerstones of the "Dana style" of management: a lean staff, flat organizational structure, extreme decentralization, and an emphasis on employee involvement and teamwork. The payoff has been Dana-Bristol's performance. It is dazzling. Consider a few statistics: First-pass yield averages 99%; scrap and rework are a minuscule 0.7%; annual inventory turns have climbed from 64 five years ago to a sizzling 120; work-in-process turns have risen to an even higher number -- to 130. Meanwhile, the average number of days parts remain in inventory has fallen from 3.8 in 1991 to 2.6 last year -- even in the face of a 150% increase in sales. Cycle time for the plant's major product -- journal crosses (a machined component of drive shafts) for light-duty-vehicles -- went down 55% during the same period. The customer-reject rate has improved 75%. Productivity is up 28%. Machine availability, which foundered at an estimated 60% only a few years ago, is up to an impressive 98.7%. The plant's excellence hasn't gone unnoticed: In 1995 it received the U.S. Senate Productivity & Quality Award for the state of Virginia. Although Dana-Bristol managers stress their facility's all-around balance, it's obvious that EI is a source of special pride. Deservedly so. Not only do production employees make their own on-the-job decisions -- they're directly responsible for their own quality, for example -- but also fully 90% of them serve voluntarily on teams. Brandishing names like "Knight Raiders," "Sleeve Slingers," "Cell Mates," and "Bad Company," 22 of the teams are permanent, meeting on at least a weekly basis. In addition, temporary teams -- 80 of which currently exist -- continually are forming to address specific problems; more than half of these teams are created by production employees themselves in response to problems they -- not management -- have identified. The teams' solutions, which the plant calls "quick kills," numbered 1,100 last year, ranging from paperwork reduction to design of a new switch for a riveting machine. All team members receive eight hours of training in problem-solving, while team leaders get 40 hours of leadership training. These courses are part of the deep commitment to off-the-job training that the plant considers indispensable to its EI success. In each of the last two years, training provided to each employee has averaged 35 hours. Included is a specially designed in-house course, called "Business 101," that instructs employees in profit ratios, profit-and-loss statements, overhead allocation, and other basic facts of the business -- all brought down to the plant level. "Our aim is to get our people engaged in achieving our plant's goals," explains Holt. "The course emphasizes the little things that employees can control -- the use of gloves, for example." The number of training hours Dana-Bristol provides will increase even more this year, putting the facility close to achieving Dana's ambitious corporate-wide goal of 40 hours annually per employee. The plant recently launched an initiative with local technical colleges to offer courses to employees on such topics as math, metrology, problem-solving, business concepts, and effective presentations. Ingrained as EI is at Dana-Bristol now -- with fully 5.5% of employees' time spent away from equipment -- that hasn't always been the case. "Initially, our EI was like quality circles, or like elementary school. It operated at the ground level," describes Quality Assurance Manager Roger Anderson, who has been with the plant since its opening. "At first our EI was management-directed. Now it is employee-directed." The transition to today's sophisticated implementation of EI didn't happen overnight. "It took me a while to adapt to our way of doing things," admits Mike Artrip, a coordinator in the plant's journal-cross department, who left a job in a local machine shop to join Dana-Bristol shortly after the plant opened. "When I came here, it was a whole different world for me. There are no time clocks. You schedule your own breaks. You make your own decisions on the job. The trust they [management] give you is amazing." Corroborates Lauren Stieh, also one of the plant's early production employees: "It took the EI concept a while to jell. Many of the employees came from the old school, where there was a distinction between 'bosses' and 'workers.' But most people jumped into the new way." Recently promoted to division-level quality-assurance engineer at Spicer Driveshaft Div.'s headquarters in Toledo, Ohio, Stieh reflects fondly on the atmosphere at the Bristol plant. "As long as I could back up my decisions, I had no fear of reprisal," he says. To Robert A. Fessenmyer, general manager of the Spicer Driveshaft Div., Dana-Bristol's marriage of EI and training is the key to the plant's success. "Their [the plant's] number of hours of training leads the division, and their [use of] EI teams is well up there," he reports. "The plant started the right way -- with an emphasis on team building. And they're continuing that culture." Although he singles out Dana-Bristol's EI and training for praise, Fessenmyer provides testimony to Plant Manager Bowersock's claim of overall balance by talking of the plant's other strengths. For one, the division chief cites Dana-Bristol's pioneering work in predictive maintenance, a 11/2-year-old program that has dramatically increased machine uptime to the current 98.7% figure. Fully 100% of the plant's production equipment is subjected to vibration analysis and ultrasonic inspection, carried out by two full-time predictive-maintenance technicians. "We can now predict two months ahead of time when a gearbox, for example, will go out," says John Stines, facilities manager. Such advance knowledge is essential; because the plant operates with minimal inventory, any unplanned machine downtime could quickly lead to out-of-stock conditions among customers. In addition, the plant has been a leader in SPC. "Dana-Bristol was one of the first plants in our division to have direct feedback of data from machines," Fessenmyer indicates. He describes the plant's data-collection system as a "key shop-floor management tool" that provides inventory levels and machine-performance information to production employees in real time. The SPC technology implemented at Dana-Bristol has been extended to its sister Spicer Driveshaft facilities. Many of the plant's predictive-maintenance techniques will be similarly extended. In emphasizing predictive maintenance and SPC, Dana-Bristol is capitalizing on manufacturing concepts and technologies that are rapidly gaining footholds elsewhere in industry. But that doesn't mean the plant is bereft of ideas of its own. Far from it. Truly original ideas regularly pour out of Dana-Bristol's teams. A prime example: the plant's "college student" program that Bowersock believes is unique in industry. The program was conceived four years ago when it became apparent the plant was having difficulty keeping pace with production requirements. Even though the facility had always operated on a three-shift, seven-day workweek, a steady rise in orders made it increasingly necessary to ask employees to work overtime. The overtime requests were so frequent, in fact, that the quality of employees' home lives began to be threatened -- not to mention the plant's quality performance. Management turned the problem over to a team. After a few weeks of deliberation, the nine-member team responded with a suggestion: Why not hire students from local technical colleges to fill in on Saturdays and Sundays? Management agreed to the idea. Today, in the third year of the program, 41 college students now help cover weekend production. The students, who otherwise might be performing minimum-wage jobs flipping hamburgers, gain valuable manufacturing experience. They receive a minimum of 40 hours of training before starting their part-time jobs and make their own decisions on the job. "They're even empowered to shut down machines," marvels Joyce Smith, engineering design and records coordinator who led the employee team that came up with the idea. The plant also benefits from the arrangement. Besides getting help for its production crunch, it gains an experienced pool of potential employees. Twenty of the plant's current full-time employees started as temporary workers in the program. Solid as Dana-Bristol's current performance is, the plant is not resting on its laurels. Employees talk enthusiastically of raising their already-sparkling statistical performance to even higher levels, thus exemplifying the facility's self-developed vision statement: "Empowered people interacting in a creative team environment using problem-solving and prevention skills while displaying a passion for continuous improvement." The plant currently is focusing on gaining QS 9000 certification. That hadn't been a priority because, as Bowersock explains, "we are a second-tier supplier." But now the plant wants the certification -- not only as confirmation of its quality excellence, but also because the Spicer Driveshaft Div., which is a first-tier supplier, is seeking it. In order for the division to get certification, each of its 16 plants must be individually certified. Dana-Bristol is undergoing the assessment process for certification, which is expected next spring. Certification will be just another chapter in Dana-Bristol's eight-year history of balanced excellence.
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