Ethicon Inc.: IW Best Plants Profile 2011

Jan. 10, 2012
Icy Determination Helps Secure Ethicon's Future: Dedication to continuous improvement and training help employees meet production challenges and new-product demand.

Ethicon Inc.
Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico

Employees: 1,164; union

Total Square Footage: 102,516

Primary Product/Market: Medical devices (sutures)

Start-Up Date: 1999

Achievements: 98.5% line-item fill rate since 2007; 30% productivity improvement since 2008; 3.5 suggestions per employee suggestions implemented since 2008

Winter temperatures ranging from 0 to 10 degrees are par for the course in, say, North Dakota. But a February 2011 cold spell this extreme was so unusual for northern Mexico it caused power outages throughout the region and shut down manufacturing plants -- including the Ethicon Inc. medical device facility in Ciudad Juarez.

IW's 2011 Best Plants

See the other winners of IW's 2011 Best Plants award and find out how they made the top ten.

Ethicon, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, needed help from some dedicated workers who were willing to sacrifice part of their Super Bowl Sunday so the plant could restart the next day. The producer of surgical sutures and wound-closure devices assembled 150 hourly and salaried employees who washed 80,000 square feet of this clean-room facility top to bottom and completed startup procedures -- all within four hours, says plant manager John Schneider.

The same high level of employee participation was a key part of Ethicon's ability to reach 100% productivity on its Secure Strap line just one week after launching the device in December 2010. It's also a reason the plant expects to continue adding new products and increase revenue by approximately 21% to $772 million over the next three years. While the Secure Strap introduction represents a significant milestone for the plant, Ethicon's history is rooted in absorbable and nonabsorbable sutures.

Lean Integration Level Achieved

Managers at Ethicon's Juarez facility attribute much of the plant's growth -- from 19 employees in 1999 to more than 1,100 in 2011 -- to its focus on continuous improvement. In 2010, Ethicon reached J&J's Lean Integration level, the highest designation in the parent company's Lean Maturity Assessment.

The Integration level indicates the plant is working with all stakeholders throughout the supply chain to achieve lean goals, explains Edgar Vasquez, process excellence manager. For instance, the Secure Strap line has become such a success the plant is spending more than $4 million to improve capacity throughout its supply chain, including improvements for external suppliers, Schneider says.

Ethicon plant employees wind sutures and prepare them for sterilization. The plant produces nonabsorbable and absorbable sutures, the latter accounting for 70% of its suture portfolio.

Secure Strap is a device used to attach hernia meshes during laparoscopic surgery, and it's the plant's first new product introduction. As of November, Ethicon was on pace to reach Secure Strap volumes that weren't expected until the seventh year of production, Schneider says. On the plant floor, workers used a Six Sigma methodology known as DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) during the initial product introduction phase to spot any potential issues before going live, says Manuel Ochoa, manufacturing facilitator. This included identifying a poka-yoke, or mistake-proofing, machine that reduced the likelihood of a potentially critical defect in the cannula subassembly.

The plant's "lean Sigma" strategy offers employees the opportunity to receive Six Sigma belt certifications. But the certification process at Ethicon's Juarez plant requires more than just standard training, says Luis Roman, vice president of manufacturing for Ethicon's Americas region.

"It's not about getting certified to get certified," he says. "You identify projects and opportunities, and link them with the certification program rather than just training to train."

Safety Takes on a New Meaning in Juarez

Ethicon utilizes lean principles to help protect employees from drug-related violence.

On a clear but cool November morning commuters make their way around a recently built highway in Ciudad Juarez that bypasses the congested city roadways. The drive to an industrial area where Ethicon Inc. houses its 102,000-square-foot manufacturing facility was rather uneventful. That hasn't always been the case for drivers in this Mexican border city across from El Paso, Texas.

In recent years, drug cartels have terrorized Juarez, accounting for more than 9,000 deaths in the city since 2008. The manufacturing plants along the Mexican side of the border, known as maquiladoras, haven't been directly affected by the violence. But employees who live in the city have been impacted by the outbreak -- through deaths of friends or family members or threats to their own lives.

"They'll have people calling, and they'll say we know where you live, and we're going to do this to you," says Ethicon plant manager John Schneider.

2012 Program

IndustryWeek is accepting application information requests for the 2012 IndustryWeek Best Plants competition. Manufacturing facilities in the United States, Canada, and Mexico are eligible. To request an application, fill out the online form on the Best Plants competition site.

Ethicon, a business unit of Johnson & Johnson, responded to the situation with new safety measures and training programs designed to raise employee awareness. The company even incorporated lean manufacturing principles into some of its safety plans. For instance, Ethicon standardized transportation procedures for drivers who shuttle workers back and forth from the plant, says Raul Calderon, business unit manager. About 80% of the plant's employees utilize the company's transportation services.

Standard procedures, such as identifiable name badges and first aid kits on the buses, help employees recognize potential issues. Just like in lean manufacturing, if workers notice something has changed in the process, they stop what they're doing. The company also minimized the amount of time workers can wait at a bus stop. If the bus hasn't shown after 15 minutes, the employee is allowed to go home with no penalty, Schneider says.

Ethicon brought in safety professionals who spoke with workers about how to avoid potentially dangerous situations through heightened awareness. This includes staying away from known hotspots and keeping a low profile, Schneider says. The company reinforced the messages with videos and displays throughout the plant.

When workers are threatened or traumatized by violence, the plant provides support services. In some cases, Ethicon has provided workers with security agents who have taken the employees to a hotel or safe spot until a threat has passed, Schneider says. The plant also provides counseling services for employees who were affected by violence.

The plant implemented some structural changes, as well, to improve safety. Ethicon installed opaque walls at the plant's main gate to prevent visibility into the facility.

Juarez Today

The level of violence in Juarez has tapered off, and life is slowly returning some level of normalcy. Through Dec. 23, homicides declined 38% in 2011, according to a report in the El Paso Times. Earlier in the year, the city hosted an event called Jurez Competitiva that included high-profile speakers such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Meet The Winners In Indianapolis

IndustryWeek is pleased to announce that representatives of the 2011 winners will be presenting their stories at the annual IW Best Plants conference, scheduled for April 23-25, 2012, in Indianapolis. Look for continuing informational updates on the IW Best Plants conference Web site.

The event was designed to showcase the positive aspects of the city. Ethicon's parent company Johnson & Johnson and other major employers in the area participated in the event. As part of the feel-good spirit engendered by the event, Ethicon offered to pay for six different surgeries for people in the city. One of the recipients was Juarez Competitiva volunteer Uriel Ivarra.

Ivarra was battling obesity and the company identified him as a candidate for laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery. Just two weeks after receiving the surgery, Ivarra said he already lost 35 pounds and his diabetes was under control. The results of the surgery have provided Ivarra with confidence boost that will help him finish school, find a good job and complete his future goals, he says.

Ivarra described his work with Juarez Competitiva as an opportunity to provide "a new face for Juarez."

Indeed, the city seems to be on the road to recovery. But life for many Juarez residents may never be the same. Edgar Vazquez, the plant's process excellence manager, says he no longer goes out to clubs or other downtown attractions in the evening.

"I was born and raised in Juarez," Vazquez says. "I love this city. However, you know the places you need to go and the places you don't need to go."

While the violence has changed lifestyles for many Juarez residents, 31-year-old Vazquez says it's not necessarily for the worse.

"In the end, those are not the basic things you need to live," Vazquez says.

The situation in Juarez has helped place more emphasis on spending time with friends and family, Vazquez says. House parties have replaced many of the nights out on the town.

"People are closer to their values and their families," says Vera Ortiz, Ethicon's lean coordinator. "People used to work for cars and more materialistic things. Now family is much more important."

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Former Managing Editor

Former Managing Editor Jon Katz covered leadership and strategy, tackling subjects such as lean manufacturing leadership, strategy development and deployment, corporate culture, corporate social responsibility, and growth strategies. As well, he provided news and analysis of successful companies in the chemical and energy industries, including oil and gas, renewable and alternative.

Jon worked as an intern for IndustryWeek before serving as a reporter for The Morning Journal and then as an associate editor for Penton Media’s Supply Chain Technology News.

Jon received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Kent State University and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.

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