General Cable - Piedras Negras: IW Best Plants Profile 2009

Dec. 10, 2009
Operators Lead the Way: An empowered workforce is the foundation of success for General Cable's Piedras Negras, Mexico, facility.

General Cable - Piedras Negras, Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico

Employees: 402, union - some

Total Square Footage: 75,000

Primary Product/market: Wire harnesses

Start-up: 1990

Achievements: Continuous-improvement projects generated $1.4 million in cost savings in 2008; 90% of associates cross-trained in two or more operations; company record 4 million hours without a lost-time accident/incident; 99.81% first-pass yield for all finished products in 2008; recipient of General Cable's Productivity Award in 1997, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2008 and General Cable's CEO Safety Award in 2003 and 2008.

Walking the floor at the General Cable plant in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico, you don't have to go far to witness tangible examples of operator-led process control, which is one of 12 principles that guides the wire and cable plant's operations. In fact, you'd have to walk around with your eyes closed -- a safety hazard that wouldn't fly here -- to miss them.

In the raw materials cell, employees are responsible for managing nearly 6,000 active raw material SKUs. Plant manager German Zavala attributes the plant's nearly perfect inventory accuracy rate over the past four years to the fact that workers are empowered to manage entire aisles in the raw materials area, giving them responsibility for tasks ranging from shipping and receiving to kitting and cleanliness of the area.

A short walk from the raw materials cell, workers test cable samples and report the results at a table containing a wire-crimp pull tester, a micrometer and a computer. In the past, these same operators had to wait for a quality-control inspector to come to them and inspect their samples before releasing the cables to the next step in the assembly process, Zavala explains. "If they can make decisions, they'll make the right decisions," Zavala says of the plant's philosophy regarding operator-led process control.

The plant, officially called General de Cable de Mexico del Norte S.A. de C.V., continues to look for ways to place more responsibility in the hands of workers -- literally. For example, the current protocol for checking out hand tools requires workers to walk to a window at the back of the plant, where maintenance personnel issue them the tools they need. During a recent plant visit, General Cable was constructing a cage in the middle of the facility where workers soon will be able to check out tools on their own simply by scanning their badges and their bar-coded work orders (known as "travelers"). The same procedure already is in place for checking out test fixtures.

The plant's training regimen includes advanced safety instruction, education on industry standards and an extensive Six Sigma certification process. Associates are encouraged to become multifunctional by gaining formal certification in up to five training blocks, and 90% of the employees are crosstrained in two or more operations.

The facility also requires all associates to attend an introductory lean manufacturing course, and it gives them several outlets to use their lean training, including a kaizen suggestion system and a process-improvement request program. Employee suggestions have helped the plant achieve high marks in quality (99.81% first-pass yield for all finished products in 2008) and generate nearly $1.4 million in cost savings through improvement projects in 2008.

And then there's the plant's safety record: In the past seven years, the facility has made it through stretches of 2 million and 4 million hours without a lost-time accident. Zavala credits employee suggestions for creating a safe work environment. "Once the workforce got involved in safety, they fixed it," Zavala says. "No matter how much management wants to change something, if the employees don't get involved, it won't happen."

Wired for Safety

At General Cable's Piedras Negras wire and cable plant, an empowered workforce has helped create a safety culture.

How serious is General Cable's Piedras Negras, Mexico, facility about safety? So serious that when an employee suffered an ankle sprain outside the plant earlier this year, plant management decided to report it as a lost-time accident -- even though by law the ankle sprain was not considered work-related.

Reporting the accident erased the plan's streak of 4 million hours without a lost-time accident. However, plant manager German Zavala and his staff believed it was the right thing to do.

"We could've said it was not an accident. We could've continued the 4 million hours," Zavala says. "But my team's determination was, 'If were really going to focus on safety, and only zero is acceptable, we cannot overlook this.'"

As with so many of the plant's successes, Zavala attributes the facility's sterling safety record -- the plant earned General Cable's Safety Award for no lost-time accidents in 2003, 2004 and 2008 -- to operator input and involvement.

"We started out training them on risk identification, and we've driven across the point of taking care of each other. If I see something, let's say a nail sticking out of a table, I should report it -- because if I don't get injured, somebody else will," Zavala explains.

When the plant set up a suggestion box seven or eight years ago, employees flooded it with safety ideas. Some of the suggestions were "very little things" such as slip-and-trip hazards, but the end result was that safety became "ingrained and part of the culture," Zavala says.

Today, the suggestion box has evolved into the kaizen suggestion system, and the plant tackles safety issues using lean and Six Sigma tools such as kaizen blitzes and the DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) process. But the philosophy -- safety first -- remains the same.

"If [workers] feel that the company really doesn't care about their well-being, I think it translates into poor quality, poor efficiency, loss of capital equipment and things like that," Zavala says. "So I think the first step in achieving that trust from the workforce is making them understand that the most important thing we have is them. If your focus is on their well-being, everything just cascades from that."

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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