2002 IW Best Plants Profile - Collins & Aikman Athens, Tenn.

Feb. 14, 2005
Seeing Is Believing The Collins & Aikman Athens, Tenn., Operation relies on visual signals, good housekeeping and teamwork to drive its lean manufacturing imperative.

At a Glance

  • Plant size: 260,000 square feet
  • Start-up date: 1978
  • Special Achievements
    • 2.8 million hours without a lost time injury.
    • Toyota Certificate of Achievement for Toyota Service Shipments 2001

As though to extend its penchant for orderliness to Mother Nature, Collins & Aikman Corp.'s Athens facility is neatly tucked into the rolling landscape that characterizes southeastern Tennessee. Swoops and dips of green-gloved terrain largely conceal the size of this 260,000-square-foot facility, but they don't hide the employee out sweeping the parking lot or the well-tended grounds that spell out attention to good grooming.

That same principle of good housekeeping and safety, known as 5S, extends inside this manufacturer of automotive interior trim as well and is among the first components of the lean manufacturing imperative that drives this facility. Between aisles and around every corner are workers pushing or putting away long-handled brooms between operations or during changeovers, while a machine that brings to mind an ice-rink Zamboni flows down wide aisles and polishes meticulously kept floors.

"5S is the backbone of our lean pursuit," says Matt Daugherty, lean manufacturing manager. "When you clean things up and get organized, then you can see where the waste is."

There is compelling evidence that the shop floor has truly adopted an attitude of "a place for everything and everything in its place." Neatly affixed beneath the resting spot of one employee's important reading material is a small label that reads "Bible: Word of God."

Evidence that neat and orderly need not translate to boring is the wealth of colors that bloom on factory floors and walls -- and equipment. It's hard to miss the large U.S. flag that has been painted on the side of a dry cast machine, or the various Tennessee sports-teams colors that adorn others. 

The Athens facility was constructed in 1978 as part of Excello Corp. Over time, ownership changed hands, with Collins & Aikman taking Athens' reins from Textron Inc. in late 2001. Today Athens' nearly 500 production employees make injection-molded-plastic hard trim, primarily parts that fit around vehicle windows but also center-console assemblies and scuff plates; and foam-in-place soft trim that generally is found in more expensive vehicles.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. are the plant's primary customers; others include Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.

A commitment to lean is what drives the Athens plant, and it has helped propel noteworthy improvements. For example:

  • Standard order-to-shipment lead time has been reduced by 75% in the last three years.
  • Average work-in-process inventory has decreased by 45% and finished goods by nearly 63% in the last three years.
  • Changeover time for injection tools has been reduced by 65.2% in the last two years as a result of scrutinizing all aspects of waste in the mold changeover sequence, as well as the implementation of standardized work.

A key component of this achievement was the introduction of color-coded connections, which allow equipment operators to quickly make utilities- and paint-connection changes. Prior to the color coding, which instantly indicates which hoses should be connected to what, employees either combined guesswork and detective work to make connection changes or had to wait for mold technicians to do the changeovers.

In either event, the changeover wasted a lot of valuable time. The color-coding idea, an improvement driven by plant-floor employees, has been adopted as a corporate-wide best practice, Athens says.

It is value-stream teams composed of employees representing each product line that drive the lean implementation. The plant employs value-stream mapping to lead the charge, creating for each stream a current state map, future state map and yearly value-stream plan.

In keeping with the visual management that is yet another principle of lean production, the maps and plans, as well as constantly updated metrics that illustrate performance, are prominently displayed and readily accessible to all employees.

That includes financial performance data. In its quarterly newsletter, Athens updates its workforce on the facility's annual operating plan in terms of sales and earnings and then shows actual to-date numbers to illustrate how well or poorly the plant is doing compared with the plan.

Wrote Plant Manager Paul Slater to employees early in the plant's conversion to lean: "Visual management means that anyone can walk into this plant or into an individual work area and tell immediately how the company or the value stream is performing against its goals."

All shop-floor employees contribute to plantwide improvement activities, explains Daugherty, including participating in kaizen events and taking responsibility for and ownership of product quality. In fact, via its STOP program, the plant rewards employees for shutting down processes they discover are producing non-conforming material and preventing it from leaving the plant.

By late July the Athens plants had completed 14 kaizen events in 2002 that Daugherty said would result in significant costs savings. (He should know. Lean manufacturing manager since May, Daugherty previously was the plant's cost accounting manager. The move, he says, "was natural. Now I get to practice what I preached.")

The Athens plant assesses its lean progress against the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) standard J4000. By late in 2001 it had achieved "lean serious practitioner" certification from Collins & Aikman's divisional continuous-improvement team (DCIT) for two role-model areas in the plant.

 Daugherty says that following a mid-year assessment in July, it appears that the Athens plant is on track to have half of its plant certified as "lean serious practitioner" by year's end.

"[Lean practitioner status] is important in that it keeps our emphasis on lean. It's part of our benchmarking for continuous improvement," Daugherty says. "Then there's the bragging rights [among Collins & Aikman facilities]," he adds.

Don't think the lean principles and 5S haven't moved beyond the shop floor. Bruce Higgins, human resources manager, points out how his department has standardized work processes, replacing a hodgepodge of mismatched filing cabinets with sleekly matched sets of cabinets and specific requirements about how and where documents should be filed in each employee file.

"It's definitely helped," he says.

What hasn't been mentioned is that not so long ago the Athens plant was foundering, weighed down by high management turnover and chronic quality and delivery problems. The early- to mid-'90s saw seven plant managers come and go.

When Slater came aboard in early 2000, he found "an orchestra without a conductor," but a plant filled with good people. Today, he says, employees "have grabbed hold of lean and run with it." "They like the authority to make their own decisions," he says. "That group is engaged."

Web-Exclusive Best Practices

By Jill Jusko 

Always Available Plant Manager Paul Slater is never more than a telephone call -- make that a hotline call -- away from any employee who needs his ear. In his office are two telephones, one a dedicated line for workers to "Call Paul" with issues, comments or messages they believe need to reach his ears. Slater says the hotline is not as busy as when it first was introduced at the Athens facility in mid-2000, but it remains yet another means to encourage communication. A recent call from a team member requesting a rearrangement of the July 4th holiday work schedule for that group of individuals was OK'd for the team when all members approved, and it was determined that the change would not hurt production or negatively impact other teams.

Funny Money Yields Budget Control Talk about visual cues! Controller Mary Jane Loftis says the monthly distribution of fake money to teams and individuals as a visual display of their monthly budget allotment has done wonders to keep everyone on budget. How does it work? Loftis distributes the fake green money, in denominations of $50, $100 and $1,000 and emblazoned with the faces of Collins & Aikman employees, to the appropriate personnel each month in small sandwich bags.

As the monthly budget is used and expense reports or invoices are turned in for payment, employees must also attach the appropriate amount of Monopoly-type dollars to cover those expenses. When the money is gone, it is gone. Additionally, unused dollars cannot be carried over to future months. In fact the bills are stamped with a month and a year just to be sure that doesn't happen. "It's the best thing since sliced bread," says Loftis, because it truly makes everyone aware of their budget beyond simply seeing numbers on a piece of paper. Most importantly, exceeding budget has virtually disappeared. 

Future-Focused Empowerment Program Ever dream about what you would do if you won the lottery or dropped that spare 30 pounds you've been lugging around for the last decade? Employees at the Athens Collins & Aikman plant are encouraged to dream about improvements that would make their facility a better place and submit their ideas for improvements in a program called "What If?" It's an easy program in which to participate: Simply fill out the appropriate form explaining the proposed improvement, as well as the potential savings. If an idea is accepted by the steering committee, the employee receives a $5 gift certificate, and the idea becomes eligible for three additional awards that offer monetary awards in amounts ranging from $50 to $1,000.

One winning idea, offered up by first shift's Jean Frye, proposed that magnetic sticks be made available to pick up loose screws, clips and other small metals items that were dropped during production and swept up and thrown away at the end of each shift. Carolyn Garrison received a quarterly award of $200 for an idea that led to a labor cost savings of $116,000. Her idea to move an assembly line grew into a kaizen event that ultimately led to a redistribution of the workload.

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