IW Best Plants Profile - 1996

By Michael A. Verespej At A Glance

  • A 71% reduction in solid waste from 1993 levels.
  • Documented savings of $8.1 million from improvements that teams and individuals made from 1992 through 1995.
  • Energy costs lowest in the mill's history, even though the mill's production is 362% higher than when it opened.
  • More than 70% of recycled-fiber rejects recovered and burned as boiler fuel at a cost avoidance of $234,000.
  • New washing system for slaker grits recovers 75% of the chemicals, saving $1.07 million a year.
  • Some 86% of boiler ash converted for use as a construction material, saving $1.28 million a year.
  • On-time delivery up from 62% in 1991 to 91.2% in 1995.
The Tenneco Packaging paper mill in Counce (Hardin County), Tenn., can roll out a series of accomplishments in the last five years that seems more extensive than a child's wish list at Christmas. The following three alone would be staggering:
  • A 71% reduction in solid waste just from 1993 levels.
  • Documented savings of $8.1 million from improvements made by teams and individuals from 1992 through 1995. The mill energy team saved $721,000; the scrap-reduction team, $530,000; the water-conservation team, $562,000; the paper-machine-area team, $560,000; and the recycle-fiber-quality team, $378,000.
  • Energy costs that are the lowest in the mill's history, even though production is 362% higher than when it opened; the mill also generates 55% of its own energy needs and provides half of its lumber needs from the 200,000 million trees it manages on nearly a half-million acres.
But even more impressive is to see and hear to what extent the ownership of the 35-year-old mill that makes kraft linerboard -- the paper that forms the surface of corrugated containers -- in effect belongs to the people who operate it. Kathy DeBoard, quality director for containerboard and paperboard, greets visitors outside the on-site training center. Inside, more than 20 mill members are gathered to share their improvement experiences while mill manager and vice president Marion Holt offers a brief overview of the changes that have occurred at the mill since he formed the first half-dozen teams in 1991. But it's the people from the mill -- largely members of the United Paperworkers International Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) -- who proudly paint the best picture of just how different things are since Holt began making changes in 1991. These people worked at the mill for years without any opportunity for input until Holt -- born less than an hour away in Florence, Ala., then moved to Hardin County in the fifth grade -- came home to become the Counce mill manager. Freddie Tenry, a roll processor in the shipping department who was on the team that automated the roll-labeling process, describes the former working conditions: "It had been said that I had a negative attitude and I did, because of the working conditions," he says. Each day Tenry and others had to hand-label 800 to 900 rolls of linerboard weighing two to three tons apiece -- a rate of more than one roll per minute. "Often it was so bad that we didn't even have time to eat lunch," Tenry continues. "There were a lot of mistakes we made in labeling -- although it was nothing critical -- on rolls sent to our customers. We had 248 errors in the month prior to the formation of the roll-labeling team -- now there are 10 or 12 [errors]. We knew we had to automate; I could have told them that before, but we had not been asked prior [to Holt's arrival]." Still, the team was skeptical -- even after the company let them check into what equipment was available and sent eight of them to other mills to see how such automated equipment worked. "The turning point was when we made our presentation to management," says Tenry. "They told us, 'If you have any doubts, let us know, because if you think this will work, we will buy it. And remember, if it fails, you wanted it, you recommended it.'" From then on, he says, "We looked at it from an entirely different view. We knew they were serious." Now -- while Tenry monitors everything from an air-conditioned booth that employees built -- a laser scans and identifies each roll, picks up the weight automatically, and does five crosschecks to doublecheck linear footage, weight, length, width, and diameter. The laser system has since been linked to a SMART (standard mill automated roll tracking) system that connects sales, scheduling, production, quality, invoicing, and shipping. Tenry proudly points out where workers have added a stop for the rolls to back into so that bands are more evenly placed around the ends, and to a small air-conditioned booth that was added to house the gum-backed labels to prevent their sticking together before application. And he shows a lifting ring that he and another employee fabricated -- and which the company is trying to patent -- that fits inside and lifts the 100-lb rolls of banding material that were previously moved by a forklift. "I enjoy coming to work every day now," he says. E.J. Hughes, a wood-yard leader who has worked at the mill since it opened in February 1961, has a similar story. He was part of the area team that oversaw the installation of a $7 million, 40-ton crane -- which will pay for itself in less than two years due to the savings in wood and freight costs -- to lift and move logs. "Up until the crane project two years ago, I had never been asked for an opinion," says Hughes. "And when I visited other mills to see their setups, it was the first time in 35 years that I had been out of the mill on company business. It has changed my attitude and the attitude of others. When you feel like you have a little input into what is going on, it makes you want to go to work. Before we had no impact on any equipment bought or how it worked, and now we do." As a result, the people in the yard have been able to get several things done that they knew all along were needed. They have added a bypass chute to reclaim hardwood and pine chips at the same time. The team has also added scalping screens to salvage oversized chips that previously has been burned as fuel. Hughes points out the yard's air-conditioned control room 85 feet above the ground -- complete with microwave and refrigerator -- that's 34 ft below the top of the crane. He quickly adds that the crane support spans 430 ft 3 in. and that 124,000 cords of wood up to 65 ft high can be stored under it -- although they don't plan on storing any higher than 45 ft. The crane's value? It will permit the mill to store lumber at the yard instead of at satellite woodyards; that's critical in winter. In the past, the mill had to process wood as it arrived and store it as chips. In 1989 machine operator Jerry (Snuffy) Smith watched as an outside group rebuilt the No. 1 paper machine (there are two paper machines at the mill, each about 24 ft high and a city block long). "They said, 'Here it is. Give us the money.' We had to learn to run it ourselves," says Smith. "It took a year, and it wasn't a pretty sight." So Smith jumped at the opportunity to be part of the 31-person team that rebuilt the No. 2 paper machine at a cost of $80 million. "We didn't want to go through the same thing again, so the team began to look ahead of time at problems that might occur." Several members of the team traveled to Europe -- three trips in all -- to meet with the manufacturer. Several problems were corrected before the equipment was sent, the most significant being a change that prevents a roll from falling, which would result in a loss of $200,000. The team put together training manuals and blueprints and spent more than 20,000 man-hours training machine-crew operators. "We did the dry run and checked out everything," says Smith proudly. "We were completely familiar with the operation before it was put together. We were setting production-run records six weeks after the rebuilt machine became operational" in mid-April 1996. Keith De Berry has been on several teams. But two projects are memorable. In one, the team found a way to recover more than 75% of secondary fiber rejects and burn them as fuel, reducing landfill costs. In the other, he was part of the Black Liquor Oxidator team, which solved a problem in the last step before waste chemicals from the process -- turning 65-ton batches of chips into pulp -- are reprocessed in a recovery boiler. (The recovery boiler takes this solution -- called black liquor because the pulp-cooking process turns the solution black -- and burns the organic chemicals and recovers the inorganic chemicals for reuse as part of the solution that cooks the chips.) The team discovered that the liquid-oxygen valve was too close to the black-liquor solution and that the liquid oxygen was spraying on plates during the oxidation process. As a result, recovery boilers had to be shut down, creating additional emission problems. "We just moved the valves back ourselves," says De Berry. That commitment to the environment is reflected in projects completed by other teams at the Counce mill:
  • More than 70% of recycled-fiber rejects are now recovered and burned as boiler fuel at a cost avoidance of $234,000.
  • A new washing system for slaker grits recovers 75% of the chemicals used, for a cost avoidance of $1.07 million.
  • Some 86% of boiler ash is converted for use as a construction material, eliminating annual landfill costs of $1.28 million.
  • Scrap wood, such as pallets, is now used as boiler fuel, avoiding disposal costs of $3,000 annually.
  • More than 90% of office waste paper is processed at the Counce mill recycling plant at an annual savings of $63,000.
  • All aluminum cans -- about 100 tons each year -- are recycled and sold, with the proceeds turned over to area hospital burn units.
Joe Wilson, a pipefitter who works maintenance, is reticent to talk at first, but becomes more and more animated as he tells of his role in setting up an apprentice program and working on a committee to interview current employees interested in joining the program. "The people we have hired have done a good job. I looked for people I could feel comfortable working with and depend upon." Shipping-department employee Avon Shelton -- who served on a quality team that enabled the plant to be certified for ISO 9000 in less than a year -- describes how a team in his department convinced the company it needed more manpower; production had doubled, but the department size had stayed the same. "It was the first time we were able to talk to management about manpower. We had figured that they would just throw our presentation in the trash." Brodie Johnson, who works in the utilities department, tells how his team is saving the company in excess of $1 million annually since it fixed steam leaks, and how another team reworked the bark bin to improve the quality of bark. "We knew exactly what to do. We were just waiting to be asked," he says. J.C. Buford -- a 17-year employee, who as employee-empowerment coordinator provides whatever support teams need to meet their goals -- makes it clear how proud he is of the management staff, mill management, and the mill. "There has been a complete culture change," he says. "The lack of involvement prior to present management was a very sore spot with me. . . . I have always believed, always felt that employees should be involved in how they do their work. We often knew something was wrong in the past, but knew we couldn't change things. Now we have a voice." Buford was part of a team that convinced management to turn an unused railroad building on the property into a fitness center for employees, their spouses, and retirees. The three-year-old center -- which has 12 weight machines and 14 cardiovascular machines -- has been used by more than 250 employees." Before the company asked workers to be invovled, there were too many people to deal with when you wanted to suggest a change to make things work better," says electrician Ralph Coln, union steward for IBEW Local 558 and a member of the safety committee, the pulp-mill recycling team, several machine-rebuild projects, and the No. 2 paper-machine startup team. "Now I feel that we have as much say as anyone in management. You feel like you are an asset instead of a liability, and it gives you a sense of pride. It is clear that the company is willing to listen. In the past, we were just rumbling to hear ourselves talk." The key: Both sides now realize that competing in a world market requires approaching problems in a far different way. Yet mill manager Holt was not hired to change the culture. "I grew up across the Tennessee River and worked at the mill in my college days," says Holt. "When I came back in 1988, I already knew half of the people at the mill. I saw folks 50 years old who were just waiting to retire. I thought that they ought to enjoy what they were doing and that we could make this a better place to live in." Holt felt the mill could become world-class by focusing on six essentials that it could control: safety, production, quality, cost, environmental issues, and capital effectiveness. But early in the benchmarking process -- it has benchmarked 127 other companies -- he realized the mill did not have enough management personnel to work on all the needed projects. "We knew that we did not have the manpower to make the changes to be world-class without the help of all the workers," says Holt. His promise: no one would be laid off as a result of efficiencies. The new relationship has paid dividends in more ways than just the ones that employees have described. Counce's on-time delivery jumped from 62% in 1991 to 91.2% in 1995; on-time delivery of competitors has remained static at 65%. As a result, Counce's customer-confidence index has jumped from 62 in 1991 to 81 in 1995. And last year 93% of customers rated the Counce mill better than its competitors, compared with just 66% in 1992. The improvements don't just benefit the company, which has gained five points of market share and lowered per-ton manufacturing costs by 13% since 1991. Based on a cost-and production- improvement formula in 1995 each employee received $1,008.
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