Snap-on Power Tools: IW Best Plants Profile 2010

Dec. 14, 2010
Staying Power: How do you create an 'enduring manufacturing footprint' in a hard-hit North Carolina town? The lean way, of course.

Snap-on Power Tools, Murphy, N.C.

Employees: 223, nonunion

Total Square Footage: 168,000

Primary Product/Market: Professional and industrial power tools

Start-Up Date: 2002

Achievements: Reduced order-to-delivery lead time by 55% over past three years; 96% first-pass yield for all finished products; OSHA SHARP site; winner of silver-level North Carolina Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence in 2007

Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, the small town of Murphy, N.C., seems right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. But with the exodus of textile mills and other manufacturing plants in recent decades, Murphy's economy hasn't been a picture of small-town utopia.

A material handler enters newly built parts into a database, which will create a bar-coded inventory ticket for the parts.

That's why Snap-on Power Tools, which occupies a former Levi Strauss plant that shut down in the late 1990s, has a clear vision for its Murphy operations: to "create an enduring manufacturing footprint" in the sleepy town of 1,600 people.

"This area has seen a lot of jobs come and go," explains Todd Rowe, RCI manager for the plant. "So we wanted this facility to be here many years into the future."

With that goal in mind, Snap-on's vision statement describes the plant as a "world-class manufacturing facility specializing in producing a broad range of power tools in relatively low individual volumes."

"We want to be really good at what Asia doesn't want to do," Rowe explains.

The Murphy facility subscribes to lean principles with an almost religious zeal. Since 2003, lean -- or "rapid continuous improvement" (RCI) in Snap-on's corporate lexicon -- has been the plant's core operational strategy. The plant formed an RCI department in 2004; its nine employees facilitate the plant's lean activities.

IW's 2010 Best Plants

See the other winners of IW's 2010 Best Plants award and find out how they made the top ten.

Walking the factory floor is a study in lean concepts in action. For example, a redesign of the plant layout vastly improved the flow in the machining area, where dedicated cells organized by component families have replaced a convoluted configuration of process departments. A supermarket with kanban replenishment tags, located between the machining and assembly areas, has replaced the MRP approach to scheduling the production of machined parts.

Visual cues abound at the plant. To ensure that the factory stays clean, older equipment in the machining area is painted white to make dirt conspicuous, while machine guards are painted yellow. Fluids for the machines are stored in color-coded containers.

The plant's andon systems provide cell-by-cell updates of stock-outs, equipment problems and other issues, ensuring that workers don't have to leave their cells to get supplies or flag down maintenance personnel.

The facility's overall lean strategy has three components: benchmarking and training (the plant credits the help of Shingijutsu USA for some of its biggest breakthroughs); linking processes (through material presentation, kanban signals and other lean principles); and optimizing processes (through one-piece flow, setup reduction, total productive maintenance, standardized work and other continuous-improvement concepts).

A good indicator that the plant is on track with its goal of long-term viability: In 2009, the Snap-on Power Tools division shuttered a 68,000-square foot plant in Natick, Mass., and moved its five assembly lines and 38 machine tools to Murphy. Even with these operations, plant manager Brian Spikes estimates that the Murphy plant has freed up 12,000 square feet of space for future assignments -- and the plant makes it plain as day by leaving that space open.

"When people from corporate visit, their first question to us is: 'What goes here?'" Spikes says. "We tell them, 'Whatever you want to put here.' We keep reducing our footprint to prove we're a good plant and a profitable plant for them."

Power to the People

Snap-on Power Tools' Murphy, N.C., plant drills down to the plant floor for continuous-improvement ideas.

Snap-on Power Tools' Murphy, N.C., manufacturing facility began its lean journey in 2003. The last few years of the journey have been focused on creating a culture in which plant-floor associates are empowered and encouraged to identify continuous-improvement opportunities, RCI manager Todd Rowe explains.

The Murphy plant, which makes pneumatic and cordless DC power tools, is well on its way. The plant boasts a nearly 90% participation rate in its RCI (Rapid Continuous Improvement) program, and estimates that employee suggestions saved the facility $330,000 in 2009.

One of the keys to creating a continuous-improvement culture, plant manager Brian Spikes says, is subscribing to "the No. 1 rule of brainstorming."

"There is no bad idea," Spikes says.

It's also important to have an effective system in place to funnel and implement employee suggestions. The Snap-on plant certainly has that. Its RCI department, headed up by Rowe, evaluates the roughly 25 ideas submitted by associates each week and ensures that the most promising ideas see the light of day by working with cell managers and associates to determine the best ways to put them into action.

A points program encourages associates to continually look for improvement opportunities. Employees can receive points for submitting viable ideas (suggestion boxes are stationed in the machining and assembly areas), and can be awarded additional points if the ideas are implemented. The number of points is determined by the value and difficulty of the improvement projects.

Associates also can earn points by participating in mini kaizen events, reading continuous-improvement materials available in the RCI library and volunteering to serve in the RCI department for three months.

Every quarter, the plant gives cash awards up to $300 to the three associates who accumulate the most points for ideas that were implemented, and gives $50 to the associate who accumulates the most points for submitting ideas. The awards are doled out at quarterly plant meetings.

Another key to creating a continuous-improvement culture has been the RCI rotation. Each quarter, two associates rotate into the RCI department, giving them the opportunity to lead mini kaizen events and facilitate other continuous-improvement activities as a full-time member of the department. The two associates must fill out an application and go through an interview process to get on the three-month rotation.

Typically, one associate from assembly and one from machining participate in the rotation. Three months in the RCI department helps the associates expand their horizons beyond their work areas and "learn everything that goes on inside this plant," Rowe explains. When their three months are up, the hope is that the two associates return to their normal jobs as lean champions.

"So when they go back to their work area, we look for them to be one of the people that help spur ideas for continuous improvement," Rowe says.

One Month Makes a Difference

A 30-day mentoring program has had a big impact on safety at Snap-ons Murphy, N.C., plant.

Safety is a point of pride at Snap-on Power Tools Murphy, N.C., facility. But RCI manager Todd Rowe acknowledges that the plants safety performance took a hit in 2008, when the facility was producing power tools at a record volume.

We were still below the [OSHA] industry average, Rowe points out. But we took a step back at that time and tried to figure out what was going on.

The plant concluded that the spike in its OSHA recordable-incident rate was largely due to the fact that we were putting a lot of people in new areas, including temporary workers brought on to accommodate the increased production, and we were producing at a lot faster rate than we had before, Rowe explains.

The solution was a mentoring program. Now, any time an associate -- whether its a new hire or a seasoned veteran -- starts working in a process thats new to him or her, the associate must shadow an experienced mentor for one month to learn proper procedures and practices.

In the Murphy facility, which needs its associates to be able to work in multiple areas so the plant can shift production based on demand, the mentoring program has had a huge impact on safety. The plants OSHA recordable-incident rate dropped from a peak of over 6.0 in July 2008 to 0.0 in July 2010, and its OSHA recordable-incident rate for injuries and illnesses with days away from work was 0.0 in 2009. Plant manager Brian Spikes attributes that improvement to the implementation of the mentoring program.

The mentoring process also benefits the mentor, Spikes adds.

You get more information back to the guy doing the training, Spikes says. Because when hes doing the training, the other guy is asking a lot of questions, and it makes [the mentor] think about why hes doing things the way hes doing them. It helps both of them get a refresher course.

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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