2002 IW Best Plants Profile - Collins & Aikman Rantoul

Feb. 14, 2005
Lean And Clean Employees thrive in an orderly environment.

Collins & Aikman Rantoul Products Plant 1, Rantoul, Ill. 

At a Glance

  • Plant size: 202,000 square feet
  • Start-up date: 1984
  • Special Achievements:
    • QS 9000, ISO 14001 certified.
    • Earned Continuous Improvement Safety Award from Textron Automotive Co. in 1997, 1998, 1999.

A place for everything, and everything in its place. That's how the Collins & Aikman Rantoul Products Plant 1 keeps on top of things. Indeed, if a whirling dervish roared through the automotive instrument panel and trim plant, it would be simple to return things to order thanks to the plant's adoption of 5S.

Don't know where the dustpan goes? Look for its shadow on the tool board. Pallets out of place? Look for the yellow-tape outline on the floor. These initiatives and myriad others that pepper the plant such as kanban, heijunka, value-stream mapping, kaizen, quick mold change and visual factory, were a long time coming for the injection-molding plant.

If you ask any of the 500 employees what the plant was like a few years ago, they'll tell you it was a nightmare. Nothing was where it was supposed to be, things were dirty, and there was a definite line between management and production employees.

What caused such a turnaround in the union plant represented by the Teamsters Local 26? Bob Somers. While the plant manager himself insists that it takes more than one person to make a difference, many of the plant's employees insist otherwise.

To be sure, Dave O'Rourke, human resources manager and 15-year veteran who has seen the plant evolve from an American Motors-owned operation to a Chrysler plant to a Textron Automotive plant to its most recent iteration—Collins & Aikman—recounts Somers' first day on the job.

"He went on the floor with a notepad and met every employee. He actually wrote something about each person so he could remember their names." O'Rourke says. "Many employees asked, 'Is he for real?'"

He is for real, and many of the Teamsters aren't shy with their praise. Walking through the plant, which is located in the middle of cornfields just 19 miles north of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and 120 miles south of Chicago, production employees greet Somers with a welcome smile. Each team, whether it is the Dodge Durango, Dakota, Ram, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Stratus, Mitsubishi Galant and Eclipse or the Chrysler Sebring, is sure to say how much better life is in the plant since Somers came along.

"You used to count the reasons not to come to work," notes Tony Frye, a maintenance worker. "Now you can count the reasons to come to work."

While he admits that a team effort aided in the turnaround, he points to Somers and his leadership team as the catalyst that got the plant moving.

Frye and his co-workers seem to flourish at the Rantoul plant. The proof is that employee turnover has decreased from 26.4% to 9.6%, and absenteeism has decreased by two-thirds. O'Rourke notes that factory life, in general, is tough.

"But as the plant matures, employees get acclimated to the life. It offers employees a sense of security."

In addition, many employees have found a sense of pride. One employee, Kris Wheeler, who is a Dodge Ram Paint lead-worker, was nearly moved to tears explaining what management's respect means to her. And the respect that she feels is given back to the plant.

Wheeler's area, which looks like a dry cleaner's conveyor belt packed with instrument panels all awaiting a spray of paint from one of the six robots in the plant (Plant 1 also has two back-up robots), was "the worst in the plant six months ago," notes Somers. "Now it is probably one of the best."

The kaizen event of the area that Wheeler and her team completed included current, future and yearly value-stream maps; 5S applications; and relocation of the entire assembly operation. This effort reduced WIP by 58%, forklift travel distance 80%, and increased communications between the paint and assembly teams.

Rantoul employs an engineering team that is always ready to tackle improvement initiatives. One such area is error proofing. Each line has its own error-proofing device (there are a total of 885 error-proofing devices) that virtually eliminates mistakes—be it a camera that sees if a screw is missing or a light board that shows the operator exactly what needs to be done to complete the part.

Indeed, in 1998 customer defects were 508 ppm. In 2001 the plant achieved a ppm rate of 61—an 88% improvement. Another benefit to error proofing is training.

"We can put a new hire on the line and be confident that they will put out a quality product," says Somers.

The engineering team also devised a more efficient way to monitor the plastic resin pellet silos. The old system took weeks of training to operate and several minutes to monitor once the operator knew what he or she was doing. The new system uses ultrasonic sensors and a touch-screen computer to instantly tell anyone on the plant floor the level of all 10 silos.

Other tactics that the plant uses to achieve world-class status are visual factory methods. Visual aides include electronic message boards that show real-time productivity. The long, rectangular boards -- the kind you would see in front of a bank scrolling the time and temperature -- act as a scoreboard for employees. The bright red type set against the black background displays OEE percentages and how long the machine had to wait for the operator.

Placed above several areas, the boards are there for encouragement -- not Big Brother. In fact, management believes in empowerment of its employees. Not only are employees cross-trained, but fully 100% participate in self-directed workteams. And in order to prove to the production workers that management appreciates the work they do, many supervisors and administrators switch jobs with a production worker for a day.

Indeed, human resources manager O'Rourke, who fancies himself a wine connoisseur and lover of Monet's "Haystack" series, has switched jobs several times. His next assignment: an oil sucker, purifying water that has been contaminated with oil.

"I'll do the training and whatever it takes to learn the job," says O'Rourke. "It's hard work, but I don't care. In the end it pays big dividends. [Employees] expect to see me out there for an hour and leave, but I'll work overtime if they do."

The spirit of cooperation within the plant is bolstered by the mutual respect between the Teamsters and plant management. Garry Collett, president of the Local 26, appreciates the communication and cooperation he receives.

"Rantoul always works with us. In this [geographical] area, they are the best with getting back to us with anything we request."

Adding a good word for the labor relations is Employee Relations Supervisor, Brian Altenbaumer. Altenbaumer admits that prior to his position at the plant he was of the understanding that union workers and non-union management made for rough waters, let alone smooth sailing when it came to implementing lean practices.

His views have since changed. "I would be ashamed to say that the union holds us back," adds Somers. "They don't. They provide a good check-and-balance system, and getting support from the Teamsters is paramount."

Somers certainly gains support from the union and its members. "We aren't dictated to," Frye says. "And because of that, we get so much more done. We don't work harder, we work smarter."

Web-Exclusive Best Practices

By Traci Purdum 

Area Operating Teams The Collins & Aikman Rantoul Products Plant 1 implemented teams, called Area Operating Teams (AOT), to troubleshoot problems in the plant and develop possible solutions. Each cross-functional AOT consists of operators, maintenance personnel, engineers and supervisors. The informal weekly meetings are designed to hash out production issues, and the team is fully empowered to implement the changes needed to correct problems, streamline processes and reduce costs. "We come up with better ideas as a team than we would on our own," explains Tony Frye, maintenance worker and electrician at the plant.

Stoplight For Safety Located in a central part of the plant is an actual traffic light that offers passers-by a visual on safety concerns. A green light means there are no lost-time accidents or OSHA recordables for the current month. A yellow light means the plant has had an OSHA recordable for the current month. And a red light means there was an OSHA recordable that was also a lost-time accident for the current month. Next to the traffic light is a life-sized poster of a crash-test dummy named Pat. Pat's job is to display all of the OSHA recordables for the current year by way of a label next to his body part where the injury occurred. The label shows the nature of the injury (cut, strain, etc.), the department in which the injury occurred and the date of the injury. The lesson for employees: Be aware of those injuries to ensure they don't happen to you.

Full-Time Translation The Collins & Aikman Rantoul Products Plant 1 is proud of its diverse workforce. According to Human Resources Manager Dave O'Rourke, there are 10 nationalities represented, and 40% of the workforce are minorities. To aid the plant's Spanish-speaking employees, the plant employs a full-time translator and interpreter. Ivonne Boatright, the current translator, is responsible for on-the-floor translations as well as document translations. Assisting Boatright is Maria Freeman, a quality auditor. Additionally, Teamsters Local 26 -- which represents the hourly workers at the plant -- recently implemented bilingual contracts to accommodate the diverse workforce.

Employee Morale For employees at the Collins & Aikman Rantoul Products Plant 1, celebrating achievements is paramount. To get the celebrations rolling, the plant has a committee of 12 that sees to it that employees who have reached goals are recognized. For example, each year the plant has a banquet to honor employees who are celebrating anniversaries with the plant. The gala event includes dinner, dancing and gifts for the honored guests. The best part: The plant picks up the tab. Additionally, a yearbook is made to capture honored employees in the act of celebration. Doris Williams, a paint lead-worker on the Dakota line who has been with the company 14 years, and Ofelia White, a quality auditor who joined the plant 13 years ago, have been making the yearbooks since 1998. The books feature a bio sheet -- complete with pictures, funny quotes, nicknames and aspirations -- of each employee celebrating a milestone at the company.

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