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A Lesson in Continuous Improvement: Graphic Packaging Leadership Team Makes Face Masks for Employees

May 6, 2020
After identifying the steps in the process to create masks, the team time studied and balanced the tasks across five different workstations.

Life has changed for many of us in a way we never thought possible. A year ago, President Trump and Kim Jung-un had their long-awaited summit. Dozens were charged in a U.S. college admission scandal. Our plant manager and his wife were dealing with their daughter’s very serious immune system disease. 

One year later, the world is on lockdown, trying to battle its way through COVID-19. Nightly tallies of country by country cases and death tolls populate the news channels. As the numbers and anxiety go up, the stock market seems to go down. Good luck finding hand sanitizer, germ wipes or even toilet paper.

For businesses considered essential, like Graphic Packaging International, we would like to say it’s “business as usual,” but even that isn’t true. At our plant here in Wausau, Wisc., we supply bowls, cartons, sleeves and food service trays to food manufacturers and food service providers around the globe. With schools shut down and people holed up in their homes, the demand for some of our product segments, like frozen microwavable cartons and sleeves, is up 30% to 50%. In other market segments, such as food service trays, demand is down. What has remained constant is that our doors remain open, the machines continue to run and our people continue to come to work.

Every day, we have a production meeting at 8:15 a.m. and another at 1:30 p.m. During these meetings we discuss the daily manufacturing schedule and our performance to the plan. Every meeting starts out with a safety discussion. After safety we discuss quality issues before we dive into the production schedule. Most recently, we have added the COVID-19 pandemic as an important topic of our meetings each day. At our meeting on April 1, it was suggested that our SLT (site leadership team) make homemade masks and donate them to the plant. At that time, there were stories on the news and recommendations from various sources that homemade masks were another way, on top of social distancing, hand washing and not touching your face, to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

On April 2 and April 3, our SLT came together to produce homemade masks for our employees. Some members of our leadership team brought in material while others brought in equipment like sewing machines, irons and various notions. After identifying the steps in the process to create these masks, we time studied and balanced the tasks across five different workstations. The first few hours of the day, the process was a bit clumsy and not very efficient. We referred to this as the R&D cycle of our new product development. By the afternoon we had established a good flow, and defect rates had dropped dramatically. Our goal was to make 150 masks on the first day. We finished the day with 110 masks. The majority of these were made that afternoon, once we had a solid process.

The next day, April 3, our goal was to make another 50 masks. The masks from the previous day were laundered by a member of our SLT. Our defect rate shot back up as some of the ear straps for the masks (we used ear plug cord) did not stay tied in the wash. We spent the first part of the next morning performing rework. Once we started the line back up for actual production, we were able to produce another 50 masks in just a few hours. All masks were bagged in sets of two with instructions for our employees about how to handle, use and care for the masks. We posted signs in the production areas and on our communication monitors, alerting our employees that masks were available for those who wanted them. We cleared out our stock quickly!

Looking back on this effort, there were several things learned from this experience. First: The safety of our people is the No. 1 priority of our leadership team. As I mentioned earlier, we begin every one of our daily meetings discussing safety. Keeping our employees safe during a pandemic adds a level of complexity to our safety program we’ve not had to deal with in the past. I am sure many essential manufactures have learned something about this.

Second: Our SLT recently read the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. We did this to improve the level of teamwork within our leadership team. What happened on those two days proved to me that the effort paid off. We came together, we had fun doing it and we accomplished a lot in a small amount of time. All of this was done to help protect our most valuable resource, our employees. If that’s not teamwork, I’m not sure what is.

Third: Continuous improvement is a commitment that Graphic Packaging is dedicated to. There is a continuous improvement manager in almost every plant around the globe. During those two days, we used CI tools to identify, study and balance the tasks of the process, and produce these masks in the most efficient way possible. It was a definite case study on how to apply the tools.

Curt Knoll is continuous improvement manager at Graphic Packaging International’s Wausau, Wisc., location. 

Top photo: The site leadership team developed the tasks to create face masks across five workstations.

Second photo: Site leadership team is making masks.

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