Martin Guitar Gets Lesson In Continuous Improvement

June 27, 2007
Guitar maker benchmarks industrial gases company to launch a better continuous improvement program.

An interest in continuous improvement (CI) led Nazareth, Pa.-based Martin Guitar Co. to the offices of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., an Allentown, Pa.-based industrial gases and chemicals company.

While Martin Guitar was familiar with CI and related productivity improvement processes, the company's director of quality systems, Vince Gentilcore, found Air Products' take on CI interesting and thought Martin Guitar might benefit from a benchmarking visit.

Indeed, an interactive training session taught Martin Guitar team members all about Air Products' continuous improvement program.

Continuous improvement has been in practice in one way or another at Air Products since the founding of our company.

Many different approaches to productivity enhancement have evolved over the years, and Air Products has practiced many of them, however most recently we've focused our attention on Lean Enterprise, Six Sigma and related approaches. Today CI is embedded in virtually all of our business areas.

Five elements make up the Air Products' model: people, focus, tools, learning and leadership.

  • People: Employees must be empowered, motivated and capable, as their ideas and creativity are key components of the process.
  • Focus: Direct efforts to the most critical areas of attack.
  • Tools: Having techniques that are used to tackle waste and empower performance. Some examples include mapping, mistake-proofing, Six Sigma, kaizen and flow.
  • Learning: Share the knowledge gained so it can be leveraged across other organizations and processes.
  • Leadership: Sponsors who understand and own the model and will drive change.

Air Products detailed these principles to Martin Guitar via interactive sessions. The sessions noted that companies must create a culture where each individual acts as an agent of change and people must be skilled at identifying and eliminating non-value-adding activities, or "waste," in their work processes or areas.

Waste is anything that adds cost without adding value, and value is anything that one, the customer is willing to pay for; two, changes the product, service or information; or three, is done right the first time.

Air Products provided Martin Guitar with a live picture of CI in action at the company's Semiconductor Equipment Manufacturing Center in Allentown, Pa., which is heavily engaged in flow manufacturing. The session featured an intensive seven-hour active-simulation course, which all Air Products employees who are involved with CI are required to take. Led by Rosendale, as well as Paula Battavio, Air Products SAP Material Master Team, and Joni Trump, Air Products CI Blackbelt-Global IT, the course is filled with waste and value concepts and participants must work through challenges in a simulated manufacturing environment.

"There's always a lot more waste than we think," Trump noted. The course proves this through three rounds of simulations in which participants make circuit boards that, when properly built, have an LCD that lights up.

"These simulations demonstrate how improvement techniques can make a difference in a work process," Trump said. "The first simulation, usually chaotic, is designed to exemplify waste. In the second simulation, participants are given the tools for improvement and are allowed to suggest improvements to the work process. By the third simulation, participants are given flow theory and finally see what's possible. It enables the group to recognize how much improvement can be made."

"The benefits were abundantly clear," said Martin Guitar's Gentilcore. "The training provided by Air Products to members of our senior management team was highly informative and eye opening. While our company's vision and mission include a core component to continuously improve our safety, quality, processes and service, the way we go about that as an organization can be enhanced to improve overall effectiveness and performance."

Martin Guitar incorporated the concepts of waste and value in its training, and also has plans in place to implement lean manufacturing in a targeted area of production as part of a company-wide continuous improvement effort.

"We recognize there will be a cultural change, which takes time, but we are strongly committed to continually improving," Gentilcore said. "After all, we fully expect to be here making the best acoustic guitars for another 174 years."

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