The Journey To World Class, Part 2

Aug. 1, 2001
J W Harris introduces a new management approach.

Editor's Note: Jim Cauhorn is manufacturing advancement manager at the J W Harris Co. Inc., a privately held manufacturer of brazing and welding supplies located in Mason, Ohio. It employs about 400 workers. Cauhorn has four decades of manufacturing experience and has been a contributing member to several IndustryWeek Best Plants winners. He was hired by J W Harris in September 2000 to assist the company in its goal to reach world-class status. This article is the second in a series of reports by Cauhorn documenting J W Harris' continuous-improvement efforts.

As outlined in Part 1 of this series, J W Harris Co. Inc. has trained all of its employees on the principles of total quality, lean manufacturing, demand flow, and AIM (Accelerated Improvement Mode) events. Cincinnati's Xavier University provided special training to the leadership, stressing good communications, decision-making skills, methods to handle confrontations, and how to effectively empower people and hold employees accountable in a non-punitive manner.

I believe our efforts at J W Harris can be categorized as two general thrusts: advancement through continuous improvement of processes and advancement through restructuring of our management approach. Both depend upon and are integrated with the other.

On the process-improvement side, AIM events, demand flow, and statistical process control (SPC) are the primary tools being used to advance. On the restructuring-of-management side, the primary tools are the Xavier training and, more recently, a comprehensive transition from using hourly rated shift leaders to the establishment of salaried-exempt supervisor position. We recently completed that transition, eliminating 25 shift-leader positions and replacing them with 10 supervisors.

Going Against The Grain, Sort Of

Why transition from hourly rated shift leaders to salaried-exempt supervisors? Although many companies are moving in the opposite direction, it became clear as we moved deeper into the viscera of the manufacturing operations that our hourly leaders were being placed in an unfair situation.

Usually, before a business can properly utilize the hourly-leader concept, the workforce has to progress through an evolution of maturity, having been practicing employee involvement and actually achieving at least a modicum of culture change to be effective.

This has not yet occurred at J W Harris. Further, the hourly leaders also were expected to operate machinery. One minute they were one of the workers, the next they were expected to hold their co-workers accountable in various ways. It created an uneasy situation at best.

We believed it was more important at this stage to develop a professional, well trained supervisory team to lead the workforce through this evolutionary process. Once we determined the necessary requirements for the supervisor position and established a comprehensive set of expectations (considerably in excess of what had been expected of the shift leaders), we announced our intention and posted the new positions. All current leaders and other interested plant employees were invited to bid on the jobs.

Selecting The Supervisors

Interested employees were given questionnaires to fill out. The questionnaires contained 10 questions that employees were asked to answer in comprehensive, essay form. The responses had to be typed (computer skills were one requirement) and submitted within one week. The questions were designed to explore the thought processes of the applicants.

We gave applicants specific scenarios involving situations we expected them to face and asked them to described either how they had handled them (if they had actual experience) or, if they did not have specific experience, how they would deal with the scenarios were they to occur. Among the questions we asked:

  • Describe an instance where you were given the responsibility for an area where labor efficiency was poor, morale was low, there were many backorders, and quality was below standard. How did you go about getting this area on track for improvement in all areas of performance?
  • Talk about a time when you were confronted with a particular operation which was responsible for many OSHA-recordable accidents and/or accumulative trauma injuries and what you did to overcome this problem.
  • Tell us about a particular piece of equipment that was prone to experience excessive amounts of downtime and how you were able to maintain on-time shipment of customer orders while taking the appropriate corrective action.
  • There is always that "problem child" employee who is non-conforming, uncooperative, sometimes even disruptive. Give us an example of how you handled this kind of employee.
  • Another frustrating kind of an employee is one who is exceptionally good, always cooperative, upbeat, but who has a terrible attendance record. What did you do in this case?
  • Give us an example of how you have taken what you learned from the Xavier training and applied it to your everyday routine. For applicants who did not participate in the Xavier training, please refer to any supervisory training you have had in your experience.

Questionnaire responses then became the basis for interviewing supervisor applicants. Interviews were conducted by three-person teams comprised of myself or the plant manager, a production manager, and a representative from the human-resources department. Each interview lasted from one to 2 1/2 hours. Once the interviews were completed, the team of interviewers spent a day off-site to review the results and make decisions. We utilized a numerical scoring process, weighting each of the pre-determined requirements and trying to make the selection process as objective as possible.

All but one of the supervisor positions were filled by internal candidates. Those who were not selected and could not be absorbed into the workforce have been given special projects to work on, such as reducing scrap, updating procedures, making disposition on hazardous waste, updating our machine inspection process, organizing our new tool crib, and training. While any process of this nature can be traumatic for participants, this one has been relatively painless. No one quit. Many of the former hourly shift leaders seemed to be relieved they no longer had the additional responsibilities.

We made every effort to minimize the discomfort. For instance, we promised that no one would be laid off as a result of this transition. We also promised to maintain current pay levels. Applicants could indicate their first, second, and third choices for department and shift. We tried to accommodate these wishes.

As a result of this process we now have a lean, committed team of enthusiastic leaders who believe in what we are trying to accomplish. I have started a series of weekly meetings with this group, including their managers, to ensure their full understanding of their environment, the company objectives, and the manufacturing world in general. These weekly meetings give supervisors the opportunity to discuss problems or situations they are dealing with and to seek help in resolving them. We also use the meetings to communicate policies, present training programs, and for special projects. I have utilized the weekly meeting approach in three other plants I have been associated with, all to very great benefit. J W Harris will be no exception.

Continuous Improvement Gains Momentum

Our continuous-improvement thrust is building momentum. We faithfully conduct AIM events every other week and have appointed a full-time facilitator to coordinate this effort. We eventually will involve every employee in the AIM process. These events are the best way to instill lean principles, teach waste-elimination skills, foster teamwork, and develop a bias for action in the workforce. Spending a week with a group of people who are working together to improve their jobs and environment is a powerful force for accomplishment.

Demand-Flow Efforts Continue

Another important improvement effort underway is our project to install the concepts of demand flow throughout the plant. Demand flow is a scheduling process that enables us to manufacture in response to customer demand rather than build to a forecast. Our pilot department for demand flow, the solder process, is complete, and the results have been excellent. Despite having sales that exceed last year's at this time, we are experiencing no back orders. We have improved efficiencies and lowered inventories. Last year we suffered chronic back orders, poor efficiencies, and very high inventory.

How was this accomplished? Basically it amounts to accumulating all the historical data you can regarding order history -- by individual SKU, internal capacity, by operation and SKU, and by your suppliers' abilities. Know current levels of in-process and finished inventory, factoring in current forecasts, replenishment times, and an understanding of bottlenecks. The purpose for gathering this information is to be able to intelligently determine what constitutes a "store" of finished goods that will support demand in relation to your ability to replenish that store before you run out. This concept could include in-process stores to buffer potential bottlenecks, slower operations, or equipment prone to downtime. Once the setting of "store" sizes is accomplished and an operation is properly balanced and flowing, demand flow then becomes an exercise in continuous improvement.

We are using AIM events to reduce downtime, overcome bottlenecks, and reduce replenishment times. The demand-flow effort is enhanced by the utilization of visual aids throughout the plant. Scheduling boards, updated inventory status, real-time production data, and efficiency feedback are crucial. Additionally, our talented IT department has developed a scheduling and reorder system that interfaces with the MRP II portion of our ERP system and provides us with the information we require to keep the operation flowing without interruption. We call it re-order review (ROR). It is the backbone of our demand-flow process. Simply stated, incoming orders are input into the ROR, which automatically calculates against available inventory and signals production when it is necessary to replenish the store. As demand goes up or down the system automatically adjusts reorder frequency accordingly. This means that we have a computerized system for scheduling our manufacturing processes based on actual customer demand.

The system reduces our reliance on building to a forecast, creating large batches of inventory we hope someone will buy. The beauty of the system is that it is dynamic, responding to realities of changes in demand, improvements in replenishment time, and the limitations of our processes and our suppliers. We don't have to continually recalculate our position; it is automatic. Yet we maintain flexibility through manual manipulation when necessary. We are not slave to the system. The demand-flow process will be rolled out throughout the entire plant in the next couple of months.

See Also: The Journey to World Class, Part 3

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