Batesville Casket Co.: IW Best Plants Profile 2009

Dec. 10, 2009
Creating a Culture of Self Improvement: Lean isn't just a project at Batesville Manchester; it's becoming part of the plant's foundation.

Batesville Casket Co., Manchester, Tenn.

Employees: 375, union

Total Square Footage: 430,000

Primary Product/market: Funeral caskets

Start-up: 1970

Achievements: 7.2% drop in hours per unit since 2006; 45% improvement in recordable incidence rates from 2007 to 2008; 2004 IW Best Plants winner

When Batesville Casket Co.'s Manchester, Tenn., plant took its first steps toward streamlining operations 14 years ago, identifying and removing waste was the chief priority. Lean techniques and continuous improvement exercises were adopted on a broad scale.

Those efforts paid off, as Batesville Manchester saw its cost per unit plunge by nearly one-fourth since 1995, while floor space was reduced by more than half, creating the flexibility to create new initiatives. In just the last three years, Batesville Manchester has reduced its costs by 3% above inflation.

But the plant has also found that there's a profound difference between eliminating waste in a production process and creating a culture of self-improvement that's embedded in the very roots of the company.

"We're looking at trying to develop a system of self-healing and self-improving," says Aaron Withers, Batesville Manchester's plant controller. "We want to create one that can recognize problems, correct them and improve on a daily basis. We've accomplished a lot at this plant, but I can also honestly say that we're not there yet either. We always try to create a learning environment."

It's also an environment driven by competitiveness. According Mary Jo Cartwright, Batesville Manchester's director of operations, that tone begins at the management level with CEO Ken Camp and works its way down.

"Most people, when they're younger, are accustomed to competition because you grow up with it in sports and any number of activities," says Cartwright. "But as your life changes, very few of us stay competitive. And what we've seen is these people like competition. It gets them going."

When management sought to lower the company's hours per unit, Batesville Manchester not only lowered it by a third in less than a decade, but has continued to reduce it 7.2% since the beginning of 2006.

"Batesville is the largest casket manufacturer in the world, producing 18- and 20-gauge steel caskets in 27 shapes and a wide palate of color combinations, along with thousands of personalization options. The Manchester plant manufactures over 1,000 caskets a day.

Batesville Manchester is unusual in that it produces 98% of the 224 parts that go into assembling a casket. That means all metal stamping, fabrication, plastic injection molding and painting is done in-house.

A section of the plant is devoted just to rubber molding, while another houses a fabric shop for cutting, stitching and stapling all the material used to line the interior of caskets. Batesville Casket even produces the metal bed frames, pillows and cushions.

"It allows us to control our own destiny," says Withers. "A lot of companies that outsourced to China for better prices are now coming back because of the flexibility that comes by doing it yourself. You can react to the needs of your customer quicker and you have a lower lead time."

That all goes back Batesville Manchester's initial first step in lean, which emphasized the power of resourcefulness.

"You can never be satisfied with where you're at because there's always more you can improve," says Cartwright. "You just have to keep looking."

Implementing Robots Sometimes Isn't Automatic

Trials through automation process reveal powerful lessons for Batesville Casket.

Sometimes the monetary results from self-improvement aren't nearly as valuable as the lessons learned in uncovering waste and inefficiency. For Batesville Casket's Manchester, Tenn., plant, which produces over 1,000 caskets a day for the largest manufacturer of caskets in the world, what began as a push toward automation resulted in a deeper understanding of its processes.

In 2005, Batesville Manchester began a project of automating several key processes that the company saw were putting a heavy physical burden on its workers. Operations that had previously required the lifting and rotating of caskets would be done quicker, more efficiently, and most importantly, increase safety.

"Our first focus with robotics was safety," says Mary Jo Cartwright, Batesville Manchester's director of operations. "On one of the processes, workers were lifting the caps [the lid of the casket], which is probably 65 pounds, and they'd do a sanding operation. That put a lot of pressure on the shoulder, because they were lifting it up and moving it to a band saw to be cut -- and they'd do it 500 times a day."

The second project again involved flipping caps and sanding. But this time, there were a slew of issues, as the parts weren't aligned correctly, and the robot didn't understand how to adjust, resulting in a poor quality in removing the weld.

At first, no one could figure out why such sophisticated automation was producing so poorly. But a team of engineers, managers and operators discovered that when the process was manual, if a part wasn't aligned correctly, an operator could identify the problem, and place the part in position so the process continued smoothly. The robot, however, didn't understand how to adjust.

Batesville Manchester found that the problem wasn't with the automation, but rather several processes before it.

"We started going back downstream," says Cartwright. "What we found was parts weren't coming out of previous processes mating very well. People can compensate for it by seeing it. Robots can't. We didn't realize the equipment was not as repeatable as we thought it was."

Equally important, managers also found that the easy part is purchasing the equipment. The real labor, says Cartwright, is learning from the operators what each process entails along a stream and finding a way to incorporate the human element to the machine.

"It teaches you to be smarter in how you approach things," says Cartwright.

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