Industryweek 2092 Iw0911leadstrat

Respect Underpins Success of Mexican Plant

Sept. 8, 2011
Plantronics' happy marriage of competition and caring even includes family weddings.

When Alejandro Bustamante took over as president of Plantronics' Tijuana, Mexico, manufacturing facility 16 years ago, he met the first day with his staff and said he would promise them only one thing -- respect. For Bustamante, respect meant investing in the development of his people, not only as employees but as family members and members of the community. Do that, he believes, and you develop people who can contribute more to the company.

Today, Bustamante speaks with obvious pride about how that philosophy has helped build a world-class facility, encompassing four buildings and 2,200 employees, that produces approximately 70% of the wireless headsets and other communications equipment manufactured by Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Plantronics. Unlike typical maquiladora facilities in the area, the Plantronics Mexico plant, known as Plamex, boasts a science center with more than 100 engineers, a logistics center and a customer service center.

Bustamante says the facility's operating philosophy starts with clearly communicating to associates their roles and responsibilities, and what performance expectations are for them. Plamex operates through a series of self-directed teams. Teams are responsible for conducting operations and meeting company goals. Cross-functional teams are created "whenever we need to improve something," Bustamante notes. Six Sigma teams are employed for more complex problems. This emphasis on teams, Bustamante says, creates an "army" of associates who understand the challenges in their operating areas and have a clear mechanism for improving them.

Plamex puts a premium on leadership and competitiveness. A leadership development program spells out a career path for every associate. "If you are a production supervisor and want to become an international buyer, we will help with that," says Bustamante. Plamex works with local schools and universities to provide programs ranging from helping employees finish high school to attaining graduate degrees in engineering.

"We are focused on being leaders at each one of the things we do, whether it is manufacturing, logistics, development of technology or technical assistance."
Every Plamex employee is given business cards. Maggi Phillips, a business professor at Pepperdine University, notes that most workers at Plamex are not locals. When they visit home, handing out their business card impresses family and friends and serves as a great recruitment device. These kinds of practices, she says, build mutual respect and keep turnover rates low.

Bustamante has made a practice of benchmarking other facilities and bringing best practices back to Plamex. The plant employs just-in-time and other lean manufacturing practices. Highly flexible production lines can handle up to 30 different models a day. That's important given that the facility must be capable of producing up to 6,000 final SKUs. Bustamante notes that the plant fills 93% of its orders within 48 hours.

Open communications are encouraged. The minutes from Bustamante's weekly staff meeting are posted at noon each Monday, an hour after the meeting ends. Meeting notes also are posted from the weekly operations meeting.

Bustamante has introduced a raft of benefits to employees over the years, including on-site healthcare, family programs on parenting and drug prevention, and, perhaps most famously, weddings. In the past 10 years, 540 employees have been married at the facility. With employees donating their help and the plant's buying power put to work for items such as flowers, Bustamante says the average wedding costs $350.

The Plamex facility hosts about 6,000 visitors a year. Kenn Morris, president of the Crossborder Group, says Plamex helps dispel the idea that the maquiladora plants are "akin to slave labor." Instead, he says, visitors come away with a new-found respect for a manufacturing facility that could easily compete with top plants in the United States or Europe.

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