The Big Picture: Leadership Insights from the IW Best Plants -- Don't Check Your Brain At The Door... You'll Need It

Feb. 7, 2009
Staying mentally tuned-in is critical to General Cable's accomplishments and future success.

Almost a decade ago, our vision was to have our factories become an integral part of General Cable's commercial sales force by achieving sustained manufacturing excellence (the Strategy). The goal of manufacturing excellence prescribed an operation that performed reliably without flaw over the range of 12 Operating Principles (the Path), including safety, delivery, cost, quality and training. By doing so, we would be an enabler to our sales teams to earn and maintain business.

To achieve this objective, we launched a formal continuous improvement effort that has evolved from the application of simple lean tools into the creation of an army of problem solvers consisting of LeanSigma (the Toolset) technicians, greenbelts, blackbelts, master blackbelts and champions. These dedicated individuals lead the attack on muda (waste) every day via purposeful application of the combined toolsets of lean and Six Sigma. One focuses on eliminating the muda of the value stream, while the other reduces the variation of the value-add process. The establishment of OLPC, or Operator-Led Process Control (the Culture), represents the final piece of the transformed General Cable operational puzzle.

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General Cable Corp.: IW Best Plants Profile -- 2003

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We firmly believe that when armed with information, our associates are able to make the best business decision possible. OLPC is about giving information to our people and empowering them to make decisions. This comes with the responsibility for each operator to take control of his or her process.

Here's a quick example: Traditionally, General Cable had a small army of production control experts who would spend days running special algorithms that ultimately led to release of work orders indicating what to make, how much to make and when. This was of course immediately followed by a series of expedite meetings to establish the informal schedule, which was asynchronous to the work order due dates. Confusion ensued and no one had control.

Today, with lean tools, we use visual factory management techniques extensively -- call it kanbans, supermarkets, FIFO (first in-first out) lanes, two-bin systems, min-max, etc. -- as our visual replenishment signals, replacing the muda of schedules and reschedules in the form of hot lists and expedites. Operators have taken control of the scheduling system and, put simply, it works.

People often ask what spell we cast in order to have 10 of our company's 18 North American manufacturing facilities selected as finalists in IndustryWeek's Best Plants competition during the past eight years. My answer, as you might suspect, is that there is no magic. Certainly, in the wire and cable industry, our raw materials, capital equipment and factories have no sustainable advantage to industry peers. Likewise, today, most any company can learn and adopt the lean manufacturing and/or Six Sigma tool sets. I attribute our differentiation and broad-based improvement to three things: a common strategy, leadership and the OLPC culture. The strategy of manufacturing excellence is well understood within our organization and we protect it carefully. For nearly a decade, we have stayed the course with a common language, a familiar path and a steadfast vision of what excellence means and how it can be achieved.

Leadership comes from the plant managers, their direct reporting team, and the formal and informal leaders on the factory floor. It is their unyielding belief that every process can be improved every day through the elimination of some form of muda in the value stream that has driven General Cable's incredible operational progress.

But, most important to the success is our OLPC culture -- the buy-in of our associates. Our associates know their jobs inside and out. By allowing them to take action, instead of asking a supervisor what to do, we have empowered them to think and act. Yes, they can stop production if they see a quality issue, and we trust their judgment.

Today, General Cable associates believe in OLPC. Beyond just being heard, their thoughts matter and they are placed in positions of responsibility to act on ideas. By harnessing the cumulative intellect of our associates, we quickly and comprehensively advance our continuous improvement curve.

Mark Thackeray is senior vice president, North American Operations, with General Cable Corp., a manufacturer of copper, aluminum and fiber optic wire and cable products. Since 2001, General Cable has had 10 plants selected as finalists in the Best Plants competition. Five of those plants have gone on to be named one of the Top 10 Plants in North America, including: Altoona, Pa., (2003); Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada (2005); Tetla, Tlaxcala, Mexico (2006); Indianapolis, Ind. (2007); and Manchester, N.H. (2008).

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