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Plant Tours Provide Great Benchmarking Opportunities

April 18, 2008
Recollections from IW's annual Best Plants conference.

IndustryWeek is just about two weeks removed from our annual IW Best Plants conference, which was held April 1-3 in Milwaukee. As usual, it was both controlled and chaotic as more than 700 attendees and speakers heard presentations, visited plants for benchmarking tours, networked with counterparts at other manufacturing organizations, and, most of all, learned strategies and tactics to take back to their own facilities.

During the next several issues of the Continuous Improvement newsletter, I'm going to share some of the sights and sounds of the conference, beginning with these observations:

Gardner Denver Plant Tour: Multiple plants tours were available to conference participants, including a visit to Gardner Denver, Inc. -- Thomas Products Division, located in Sheboygan, Wisc. This facility, by its own admission, is early in its journey of lean manufacturing. Indeed, during the pre-tour welcome at the plant, the manufacturing leadership admitted that previously batch manufacturing was standard operating procedure. Today the facility, which makes precision-engineered compressors and vacuum pumps, has moved away from that practice, instead producing to customer order plus 10 extra for many products. That move provided a quick win in reducing finished-goods inventory significantly.

Leaders at the Sheboygan facility are quick to admit that they are introducing lean because they were "told to" introduce lean by upper management. That said, they appear to have embraced the idea, with enthusiasm for the transformation not limited to a chosen few or one. Indeed, an entire cadre of plant personnel joined the tour group for a post-tour get-together, and all were quick to share their ideas and experiences as their lean implementations continue. On the plant tour itself, works in process in plant redesign were apparent. For example, the plant had mapped out an area where a production cell was to be introduced. The cell was not yet up and running; in fact equipment had not yet been moved. However, on the floor -- and very visually displayed -- was the layout of where all the equipment would be located. Actual-sized cardboard cutouts represented the equipment and gave employees an opportunity to determine configurations before any equipment was moved.

Miller Brewing Co.'s Milwaukee brewery: Another plant tour, this brewery is the company's oldest, with many of the buildings dating back to the 19th century. As you may imagine, the layout of a brewery that old is not inherently conducive to the most streamlined of production processes. The brewery combats this by finding efficiencies wherever it can. For example, production workers take on certain routine maintenance activities of their equipment, allowing the skilled maintenance workers to focus on bigger maintenance challenges. By the same token, maintenance workers learn how to, and do, operate equipment. It gives them a better understanding of the equipment challenges faced by the production workers, plant management says. As an added comment, this is a union facility.

Keep In Touch For 2009

Subscribe to the IW Best Plants Conference Connection Digital Magazine and receive regular conference news, highlighting exactly what you will see, hear and learn at individual sessions, keynotes and plant tours. You can also review past issues here.
And to those who say lean has no applicability to a process manufacturer? Nonsense, says Miller, which can point to numerous elements of lean employed throughout its processes. Employee involvement, touched on already, is inherent in day-to-day activities. Continuous improvement is a given. A finished-goods warehouse, while looking chock full of inventory, carries only days' worth of product. The plant also makes apparent the cost of poor quality, with large bins around the production process to collect bad cans or cardboard containers. On the bins is spelled out the cost of each lost (to production) piece of packaging.

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For more information on the IW Best Plants Conference, including information regarding the 2009 Conference and the ability to subscribe the IW Best Plants Conference Connection Digital Magazine and receive regular conference news, highlighting exactly what you will see, hear and learn at individual sessions, keynotes and plant tours, please see the IW Best Plants Conference Web site.

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