Drop in on Intertape Polymer Group's manufacturing plant in Blythewood, South Carolina, and much of what you see on the shop floor won't be surprising. Huge pieces of equipment, for example. Whiteboards located around the facility spelling out production targets and achievement toward those targets. A scattering of inventory. Operators setting up their machinery for the next job.
What you won't see, however—and this likely will be surprising—are direct supervisors. Intertape Polymer Group's Blythewood site doesn't have any. Instead, self-directed work teams of associates make team decisions to keep production flowing. In this instance, that production is paper masking and duct tape, as well as stencil for the monument industry.
"They create leadership on the floor," says Doug Nalette, senior vice president, operations, Intertape Polymer Group, of self-directed teams. A long-time proponent of the concept, Nalette also cautions that "team dynamics have to be strong for this to work."
Intertape Polymer Group
Blythewood, South Carolina
Employees: 130, non-union
Total Square Footage: 348,000
Primary Product: paper masking and duct tape, and stencil for the monument industry
Start-up Date: 2014
Achievements: ISO 9001:2015; 565 accident-free days as of March 4, 2019; Energy Star Award recipient for five consecutive years; 48% reduction in in-plant defect rate; annual labor turnover rate is 1.4%
The idea behind self-directed work teams is one of shared leadership, mutual responsibility and agreed-upon goals. The teams run the machine center, or production line or functional area, and are accountable for getting the job done.The Blythewood site, a 2018 IndustryWeek Best Plants winner, demonstrates in hard numbers and accolades that self-directed teams are working. The plant recently achieved Gold status in the Intertape Performance System, the company's multi-phased approach to improvement and manufacturing excellence. In 2017 it received the company quality award.
And while there are no supervisors, there are team leads, who also are operators. Those team leaders must know the production processes, be committed to excellence and be effective communicators for self-directed work teams to succeed, said Tyron Javis, operations manager.
All that said, self-directed work teams don't have a long history at this site, partly because this site itself doesn't have a long history with Intertape. The company started production in Blythewood's nearly 350,000-square-foot building in 2014. Prior to that, the products manufactured here had been made at Intertape's Columbia, South Carolina, plant, located about 20 minutes away.
The Columbia facility consisted of multiple aging buildings with aging equipment, old technology and environmental challenges that did nothing but steadily drive up production costs. For a time both sites operated simultaneously as production lines were shifted to Blythewood. Severe flooding in South Carolina in 2015 heavily damaged the Columbia site and moved up its planned closure date.
The new site brought with it new processes, new technologies and equipment, and new leadership thinking—moving from a command-and-control structure to coaching and mentoring, Nalette said. For associates making the move from Columbia to Blythewood, self-directed work teams were a new concept, so they received training on topics that included team work, conflict resolution and problem-solving. Team leaders receive additional and ongoing training.
No one suggests the transition to self-directed work teams was seamless, but "it has been a good benefit for us," says Renee Lucas, continuous improvement coordinator, about the work teams and team lead arrangement. "Some operators feel more comfortable with someone they are actually working with. There's no 'us' against 'them'" mentality.
Lucas is a 33-year veteran of the then-Columbia, now-Blythewood workforce. She began as a packer and transitioned over the years through many roles, including that of a supervisor at Columbia. When the supervisor role went away, she became a process lead before taking on her current role three years ago. "I like challenging myself to see what I can do," she says.
The day after this editor visited the Blythewood facility, it held a celebratory luncheon for achieving Intertape's Gold status. The entire workforce has shown its ability to rise to a challenge.