Thermo Fisher Scientific
Thermo Fisher Scientific

2017 IW Best Plants Winner: At Thermo Fisher Scientific, Continuous Improvement Is a Team Sport

March 24, 2018
Each challenge is an opportunity for this Alabama workforce, and the wins are piling up.

Travel to Auburn, Ala., and it is impossible to miss the behemoth that is Auburn University. The home of the Auburn Tigers sprawls across this college town, and its football stadium embraces more than 87,000 screaming enthusiasts on Saturdays when the team is in town to play.

A few miles and a world away from university athletics is a team of a different sort, facing challenges that have nothing to do with football, but the goal of its efforts is the same: to win. And to win as a team.

“There is power in teamwork,” says Carlos James, director of site operations at 2017 IW Best Plants Award winner Thermo Fisher Scientific. “As we have improved our ability to work in teams, it has resulted in more improvements, and more consistent improvements.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific

Auburn, Ala.

Employees: 143, non-union

Total Square Footage: 120,000

Primary Product: Drug test kits, dairy testing products, infant and premature baby products, water test vials

Start-up Date: 1992

Achievements: 49.2% reduction in scrap and rework costs in the past 3 years, 100% of production workforce participates in empowered work teams, 99% on-time delivery, 50% reduction in average days on hand of inventory over the past 3 years, 99% of supplier orders are delivered on time

The Auburn site, part of Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Laboratory Products Division, makes testing kits and products, as well as performs kitting. Its patented flip-top vial containers are a cornerstone product manufactured at this location.

Visit the facility and it is impossible to miss the progress this team has made on its continuing lean journey. Stop by the injection molding machines, for example, and see the simple fix implemented to corral containers that sometimes got loose and found their way to the floor. Not only did the solution take a big bite out of scrap costs, but it also removed a safety hazard.

The saliva drug-testing kit cell is an equally promising stop. It’s been entirely transformed “from the front door to the back,” thanks in no small part to a wizard of an automation technician who introduced some much-needed, and cost-efficient, technology to improve visibility into the process.

A big change to the manual line or manual kitting area is a work in progress, which makes it a “must” visit during an Auburn plant tour. The team in that work space has been challenged to create a layout to improve the flow of product and accommodate a new machine. The current process, among its negatives, produces unwelcome levels of WIP inventory.

“How can we make this happen?” production manager Vernon Jones asked the operators. “Give me your ideas.”

(Read more about the IndustryWeek Best Plants Awards.)

Jones and the leadership team did more than simply ask for ideas, though. They provided the employees with about a week’s worth of training and exercises to help them understand and incorporate lean principles into their ideas. They talked 5S, they discussed standard work and they challenged the team to come up with a better way to do their jobs.

And about those ideas...they aren’t simply ideas; they are fully realized and detailed illustrations of new layouts—up to and including the placement of the workers--for leadership to consider.

“We gave them the tools to help them help themselves,” Jones says. “The response we received was unbelievable.”

The Auburn organization’s continuous improvement philosophy and team mindset are delivering a host of enviable performance metrics, such as a 49% reduction in scrap and rework costs and on-time delivery of 99%. The environment also is inviting to team members like Audrea Long, a former college intern at Thermo Fisher and now document control administrator at the facility, one of two sites piloting a new document control technology.

Long’s got a strong appetite to grow her skills that leadership is happy to accommodate. “They give me elbow room and opportunity to learn,” she says. “And asking a question may be the driver of a project.” 

Thermo Fisher leaders say the success of the plant’s continuous improvement efforts, combined with its team environment, has boosted opportunities to grow revenue. Nevertheless, the site recognizes, “there are still miles to go” in its lean journey.

They will go the distance as a team.

(Download an application for the 2018 IW Best Plants Awards competition.)

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