The Journey To World Class

April 6, 2001
Key elements at the start include training, training, and more training.

Editor's Note: Jim Cauhorn is manufacturing advancement manager at the JW 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 JW Harris in September 2000 to assist the company in its goal to reach world-class status. This article is the first in a series of reports by Cauhorn documenting JW Harris' continuous-improvement efforts. In this initial report, Cauhorn provides a broad overview of the company's plans and progress in becoming lean. Future articles will update the firm's progress and provide a more detailed look at specific efforts under way.

I arrived at JW Harris Co. Inc. in September 2000 and found what was very typical in my experience -- a good operation with good employees and a good image within its markets, but a company that was continually fighting customer back orders, quality problems, rising costs, and diminishing return on investment. After spending several weeks assessing the situation, talking with virtually every employee, and hiring a new plant manager, Jeff Boothby (a long-time associate of mine), a plan was established to guide JW Harris to world-class manufacturing status. This plan included the following elements: teaching everyone in the company the principles of "lean," training the supervisory staff, conducting an employee survey, designing a demand-flow process (the process of responding directly to customer demand rather than building inventory to a forecast) using kanban signals, conducting kaizen events, and training the employees to use the new kanban system before full deployment. This was a very ambitious six-month plan.

The First Step: Training

The "lean" training addressed the principles of total quality, lean manufacturing, the identification and elimination of waste, the benefits of a visual workplace, demand flow, kanban, and the power of kaizen events. It was a two-and-a-half-hour presentation designed to provide an overview of the change to come and to energize people to pursue the new direction. Variations of the training, customized for the particular audience we were addressing, were presented by myself and Boothby to all departments in the company, including the outside sales force. We conducted training of the workforce in groups of six to 10 per meeting to facilitate good interaction and participation. The training began in November and was completed in the first week of December. The response to this training was extremely positive. The employees are ready for change.

In December we conducted our first, week-long kaizen event. (At JW Harris we call kaizen events "AIM" for Accelerated Improvement Mode.) Kaizen events are short-term, team-based efforts to rapidly improve a process. The objective of this event was to develop a streamlined process for packaging and loading UPS shipments. We have a goal at JW Harris to ship orders the same day they arrive; however, this goal was being missed all too frequently.

We selected six workers from the shipping area and one man from maintenance to work on the project. Two members of our human resource department sat in for the week-long event to observe and learn. They will help facilitate future events. Prior to the AIM event we videotaped the existing process to use for analysis. We spent the first day of the event training the participants to recognize and eliminate waste. For this purpose, we recounted the seven wastes of the Toyota Production System -- overproduction, waiting, transport, overprocessing, inventories, movements, and defects -- and added two of our own: lost creativity and excessive information. We reviewed elements of our training in lean techniques, and we then studied the videotape.

A Slow Start

As with most of the events of this nature with which I have been involved, the event started slowly. The participants were wary what to do, how open to be, and how assertive to be with their ideas. However, it didn't take long for them to figure out why they were there. We made a process flow map on white boards, brainstormed ideas, and tried new methods. Afterward, we went out on the floor and began moving furniture and equipment around. We received excellent support from our information technology people, who moved and upgraded computers, and upgraded software to enable the advanced use of bar-coding to eliminate opportunities for error.

This is what AIM events are all about -- making things happen, eliminating waste, building a teamwork ethic, and setting continuous improvement in motion. By the end of the week, the team had increased overall capacity fivefold, eliminated numerous opportunities for error, eliminated unnecessary operations, created a smooth flowing process, organized and standardized the work, labeled everything (a place for everything and everything in its place), and planted the seeds of teamwork throughout the department.

Several weeks after the event the team was still contributing ideas for further improvement. Best of all, the total expenditures for the event were within $200. We later purchased an additional powered package conveyor for about $4,600. This event has helped set a tone of accomplishment, teamwork, and a bias for action that will spread throughout the plant. Our second AIM event -- to streamline the flux department -- resulted in the transformation of what was previously a disjointed, poorly organized area into a well organized, smooth-flowing process. We plan to hold at least two of these events per month. We have a long list of objectives and workers who are impatient to "Take AIM."

More On Training

In my experience, well-trained supervision, in whatever form - whether you call them leaders, foremen, whether they are hourly or salaried -- are a company's most important level of management. They are the ones who have direct contact with the workers. They can motivate or de-motivate, manage or lead, encumber or enable productivity. Too many companies do not provide enough training or direction for this important segment of the management structure. Without exception, every company I have worked with, either as a consultant or as an employee, has made this mistake. Firms usually promote the best hourly workers to supervision, presuming that they will automatically make good leaders. Minimal training is offered. The new supervisors then are left to figure things out for themselves.

At JW Harris, we chose to utilize the resources of a local institution -- Xavier University -- for our leadership training. We worked with the instructors to help custom design the program. It includes case studies that relate directly to JW Harris rather than ambiguous, generic issues some employees would have difficulty relating to. The instructors spent time in the plant and interviewed many of our shift leaders to understand the issues and problems with which they are confronted. The last thing we want to do is provide expensive training that is ignored or forgotten once the trained personnel are back on the production floor. So, among other efforts, the annual employee-review process for those employees includes an emphasis on components of the leadership training.

Demand-Flow System

In December JW Harris began to design a demand-flow system. Two-hour meetings were held daily and included the plant manager; the warehouse, scheduling, and inventory-control manager; the kanban manager; the purchasing manager; and myself. Currently we are designing the demand-flow process to the current realities of the manufacturing processes. By this I mean that no attempt will be made early on to indiscriminately reduce inventory levels or arbitrarily shorten replenishment times.

We will pilot the new system in our solder department, where we will debug and finalize the process. Procedures will then be written, and all employees will be trained on the system before it is deployed plant-wide. We expect this entire process to take several months. Our demand-flow system will use kanban signals to trigger operations, by customer order, all the way to the ordering of raw materials. (Kanban signals are a method of signaling suppliers or upstream production operations when it is time to restock.)

The JW Harris Co. is highly vertically integrated. We not only extrude our own wire, but we also cast our own billets in the phos-copper and high silver areas. In the manufacture of aluminum welding wire we extrude the wire but purchase the aluminum billets. So the plan has been set, the process has begun, the training is in progress, and thus far, employee support has been excellent. Much has yet to be done, but we are off to a positive start.

See Also: The Journey to World-Class, Part 2

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