General Cable Corp. -- Lincoln, R.I.: IW Best Plants Profile 2011

Jan. 10, 2012
Change is Good: After decades of batch-and-queue production, a veteran workforce has embraced the switch to cellular manufacturing.

General Cable Corp.
Lincoln, R.I.

Employees: 211, union

Total Square Footage: 384,000

Primary Product/Market: Rubber cord products

Start-Up Date: 1974

Achievements: ISO 9001:2008 and TS 16949 certification; 99.2% first-pass yield for all finished products in 2010; 85% reduction in OSHA days-away-from-work incident rate over the past three years; 50% reduction in cycle time for a typical finished product over the past three years

General Cable Corp.'s Lincoln, R.I., plant was designed to manufacture and warehouse wire and cable products. For a company that makes wire and cable products, such a facility might seem ... well, ideal.

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.

But in this age of lean manufacturing, a production flow that was efficient in 1974 -- when the former Carol Cable Co. built the facility -- isn't so ideal. "If you were looking at the flow of a factory 15 years ago, the flow of this factory was very good," plant manager Mike Brown explains. "Meaning, incoming raw materials came in at one end of the building and finished product shipped out to our customers from the other end of the building. The process started with compounding, which fed our foundation lines [wire], and then the product moved to cabling, jacketing, packaging and finally shipping. Good flow."

The problem, Brown says, is the old batch-and-queue flow created "a significant amount of WIP between processes and limited the communication of issues found downstream, i.e., quality problems, safety concerns, etc."

While there was too much WIP in the old batch-and-queue format -- 1 foot of completed wire traveled more than 2,700 feet through the plant -- the physical layout of the plant discouraged camaraderie among the operators, notes human resources manager Mary Igoe.

Not Even Talking

"They didn't even talk to each other," Igoe says. "They were just making wire and pushing it along to the next operation."

All of that has changed dramatically since the facility completed the switch to cellularization in 2005.

In late 2002, the plant began reorganizing its equipment layout and establishing work cells based on copper-gauge size, compound type and product construction. In 2003, the plant's first physical work cell -- the Small-Cord Cell -- was up and running.

The creation of the Small-Cord Cell produced immediate results. With previously segregated processes -- foundation, cabling, jacketing and packaging -- now in the same physical cell, the distance that wire traveled was reduced to less than 100 feet, and the cycle time for a finished product went from days or weeks to just hours.

Meanwhile, WIP turns doubled, scrap rates plummeted and cell members began functioning as a team.

As part of the switch to cellularization, General Cable Lincoln consolidated job titles to promote cross-functionality and camaraderie. Ricardo Peralta is an "Operator B," which combines previously separate cabling and packaging roles.

"The cell works out great because we talk to one another and we can really see what the next process needs, what my customer [another operator within the cell] needs, and I work toward that," says Randy Beauregard, a CV (continuous-vulcanization) operator within the Small-Cord Cell. "Previously, we used to run out of wire, or colors and things like that. Now we're a lot more on top of that, and we keep the cell running a lot more as a result."

The success of the Small-Cord Cell was a catalyst for the rest of the plant's operations to go cellular. Today, the plant is organized into five physical cells, all of which have the equipment needed to make cable -- from the bare copper to the finished product.

Turnover at the Lincoln plant is inordinately low, and you'd be hard-pressed to meet a first-shift employee with fewer than 30 years on the job (Beauregard, for example, is a 31-year veteran of the plant). Not lost on Brown's management team is the fact that the workforce -- and its union -- easily could have balked at such a tectonic shift in its production format.

But manufacturing manager John Tremblay emphasizes that the buy-in of the workers and the local United Steelworkers union has been key to the success of the switch to cellularization.

"You can make the physical moves with the equipment, but the real benefits come when you get the associates engaged," Tremblay says.

Creating a Safety Culture is a Matter of Trust

Plant management got buy-in from a veteran workforce by emphasizing that nothing is more important than their safety.

General Cable's Lincoln, R.I., facility has made tremendous strides in its safety performance since Michael Brown became plant manager in May 2006 and Rick Flaxington became EH&S manager in August 2006.

Over the past three years, the plant has reduced its OSHA recordable-incident rate by 60% and its days-away-from-work incident rate by 85%, and both rates now are well-below the industry averages.

Perhaps more importantly, the facility has created a culture in which the workforce -- with the support of the local union -- has taken ownership of safety.

Flaxington, though, still vividly recalls the state of safety when he took his post in 2006.

"Quite honestly, it was a horror show," Flaxington says. "We had over 150 associate concerns and safety work orders that were open."

The big challenge was breaking through to a veteran workforce that was, understandably, set in its ways. As of January 2010, 40% of the workforce of 200-plus employees had logged more than 30 years of service.

"People get programmed to do [their job] a certain way everyday for 30 years," Brown says. "Sometimes it's hard to break that thought process."

Although Brown and his management team knew that the majority of incidents were attributed to unsafe behaviors, the culture of the plant was to blame incidents on "conditional issues" such as equipment hazards. So one of the first steps the plant took was to assign maintenance to address the outstanding safety work orders.

"We had to take the excuse of conditional away," Brown says. "We spent a lot of time fixing little things on their machines -- loose bolts, loose guards, trip hazards, whatever it was."

2012 Program

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From there, plant management focused on creating a culture that viewed safety as a behavioral (and not a conditional) issue.

The culture change first took root in the maintenance department, which had been driving the plant's OSHA recordable rates because of a longstanding pattern of engaging in unsafe acts "to be a hero," as Igoe puts it.

Things turned around, though, when the plant began emphasizing the need for maintenance staffers to follow lockout/tagout procedures, to ask for help when needed, and perhaps most importantly, to avoid acts of heroism, maintenance manager Tom Flynn explains.

'We Don't Need Heroes'

"Mike Brown threw the gauntlet down and said, 'We don't need heroes. We don't need people going out and doing things that are saving the plant,'" Flynn recalls. "'We make wire for God's sake! We want everyone to go home safe.'"

Previously a textbook example of risky behavior, the maintenance department set the tone for the rest of the plant by fixing unsafe equipment -- and doing it safely. (In September 2010, the maintenance department smashed all previous plant safety records by hitting 850 incident-free days.)

"That was a real game changer for the culture in the plant," Flynn says.

In 2008, the Lincoln plant launched behavioral-based safety audits, in which workers evaluate their peers on their work practices and, if necessary, provide feedback on safer approaches.

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At first, the veteran workforce resisted, worrying that the audits would lead to disciplinary actions for unsafe behaviors. To overcome this pushback, the plant began providing Dunkin' Donuts gift cards, lottery tickets and other prizes to the workers being audited, while emphasizing that the workers' safety was the most important objective.

"People love Dunkin' Donuts gift cards," Brown says. "But the real key was when they realized that there were no repercussions when [the auditors] found something that wasn't right.

"When something wasn't right, we got it fixed, as opposed to saying, 'Whoa, Tom's been without his safety glasses six times. We're gonna fire this guy.' We didn't do that. We said, 'This is something that we all want to learn and get better at.'

"It's a trust factor with these guys."

Plant management has leveraged that trust by connecting workplace safety to the personal safety of the workers and their families at home. Through the "Zero & Beyond" program launched in 2009, for example, the plant invited workers' children to share their safe trick-or-treating practices prior to Halloween. And before the plant's two annual shutdowns, plant management provides workers with gift bags that include safety-related items such as bug spray, sunscreen and first-aid kits, with the goal of keeping safety top of mind at all times.

"That's the culture change -- that they truly believe that everyone in management truly cares about them," Brown says. "Until you get that, you can talk all you want, but things don't change."

About the Author

Josh Cable | Former Senior Editor

Former Senior Editor Josh Cable covered innovation issues -- including trends and best practices in R&D, process improvement and product development. He also reported on the best practices of the most successful companies and executives in the world of transportation manufacturing, which encompasses the aerospace, automotive, rail and shipbuilding sectors. 

Josh also led the IndustryWeek Manufacturing Hall of Fame, IW’s annual tribute to the most influential executives and thought leaders in U.S. manufacturing history.

Before joining IndustryWeek, Josh was the editor-in-chief of Penton Media’s Government Product News and Government Procurement. He also was an award-winning beat reporter for several small newspapers in Northeast Ohio.

Josh received his BFA in creative writing from Bowling Green University, and continued his professional development through course-work at Ohio University and Cuyahoga Community College.

A lifelong resident of the Buckeye State, Josh currently lives in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. When the weather cooperates, you’ll find him riding his bike to work, exercising his green thumb in the backyard or playing ultimate Frisbee.  

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