Continuous Improvement -- Repair Before Rebuilding

Jan. 9, 2006
Lean initiatives can be accomplished without a significant capital investment.

Tempting as it may be, don't immediately look for the quick fix by throwing money at production problems. Sure, upgrading an aging facility or replacing antiquated machinery can increase efficiency, but it's not always necessary or cost effective. That's what plant managers at the Foxboro Measurement & Instrument (M&I) division of Invensys Process Systems -- a business unit of London-based Invensys plc -- in Foxboro, Mass., discovered when they began implementing lean in the 1990s.

When I visited the facility in November as part of a group tour during the 2005 Association for Manufacturing Excellence conference in Boston, plant managers there forewarned the group that the 490,000-square-foot structure where the plant produces process-control instruments is far from state of the art. But rather than pay the hefty price to overhaul the cavernous building, which was built in 1908, Foxboro M&I decided to focus on improving processes within the plant.

The plant experienced improvement culminating in superior performance in 2005. Revenues for its pressure measurement sensors and transmitters increased 30% in 2005 -- the first time in several years those products haven't been flat or declining in revenues, according to Joe Bazzinotti, the plant's general manager of manufacturing. The plant also has reduced parts defects per million (dpm) from 13,166 in 2000 to about 400 near the end of 2005.

Foxboro M&I's lean approach is similar to the lean practices implemented at the Batesville Casket Co. Manchester Operations, one of IndustryWeek's Best Plants for 2004. The Manchester, Tenn.-based plant focused on reducing waste and actually removed technology that managers there considered a hindrance to productivity. "We focus on creativity before capital...," Ron Johnson, director of the Manchester operations, told IndustryWeek in an October 2004 Best Plants profile. In 2004 Batesville Manchester reported a 0.8% labor turnover rate, a 99.5% on-time delivery rate and a 99.7% machine availability rate.

Foxboro M&I made similar gains by consolidating manufacturing areas and synchronizing work cells to balance the workflow between workstations, establishing a pull system with kanbans and heijunka schedule boxes and measuring key production variables using dashboards and scorecards. The company consolidated the encapsulation, testing and building of its pH sensors into one area and the fill stations and machining for its pressure transmitter covers into another room. Previously, these operations were scattered throughout the facility.

The changes allowed the company to push lean even further in 2003 when plant managers challenged employees to deliver orders for 60% of its pressure transmitters within 24 hours even if they had six- to eight-week lead times. Now the plant is achieving 99.9% on-time delivery with its 24-hour orders and has expanded the program to 90% of its pressure product line and 80% of its Dolphin pH-sensor line, according to Scott Gauvin, a continuous improvement consultant for Invensys Process Systems.

The quick turnaround time gives the company an edge over competitors and a promotional tool for its sales force -- as evidenced by the 30% revenue gain for its pressure product line.

Adding to the program's success is the customer's ability to send orders directly to the manufacturing cells via the Internet. After a customer places an order on the company's Web site, the order is routed to a printer at the work cells where cell operators check the printers hourly and then build the requested products.

The process saves the plant time and increases production without having to pour money into machinery or infrastructure. This isn't to say manufacturers should ignore technology or facility upgrades when possible, but it makes sound business sense to at least examine production processes first before tearing down the house and rebuilding.

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