Batesville Casket Co.: IW Best Plants Profile 2007

Dec. 14, 2007
Drying Out Waste. Batesville Casket Co. wins a new battle in Vicksburg -- this time the loser is inefficiencies.

Batesville Casket Co. - Vicksburg Operations, Vicksburg, Miss.

Employees: 239, union

Total Square Footage: 73,824

Primary Product/market: wood component parts for caskets

Start-up: 1975

Achievements: named Plant of the Year in 2006 by its parent company G.C. Hillenbrand for overall performance; implemented a machine maintenance program that reduced lost production cycles by 84%; saved approximately $1 million in labor from optimization projects

A musty odor of damp wood and the sultry air that's reminiscent of a summer day in the Deep South permeate the enclosed temperature-controlled facility where stacks of oak and pecan lumber are drying. A delicate balance of heat, humidity and airflow are necessary to prevent the product from splitting, rendering it defective for the Batesville Casket Co.'s Vicksburg, Miss., operations where the company prepares wood for finished caskets.

IW's 2007 Best Plants

See the other winners of IW's 2007 Best Plants award and find out how they made the top ten.

The process is a testament to the vulnerability the lumber-products business faces. Knowing this, the Vicksburg plant has broken wood-drying down to a science and has fine-tuned the processes through continuous improvement initiatives. Watching employees test, measure and monitor the wood is like an up-close botany lesson. While such painstaking efforts may seem like overkill, they're necessary to minimize defects and optimize yields. The plant could purchase pre-dried wood but the risks are too great. "We would rather dry it ourselves than buy somebody else's problems," says Lisa Loper, plant controller.

When defects are found, nothing is laid to waste. For instance, a kaizen event in 2006 resulted in a process that utilizes wood scraps with inherent defects such as knots for the casket's side. The previously unusable lumber is now used as a core sandwiched between two other pieces of scrap. "It's actually a stronger panel than we had before," says Richard King, operations manager. The plant expects the project will improve yield by approximately 7.5% annually.

Any remaining material is either ground into sawdust to heat the drying kilns or sold to paper manufacturers. "Every sliver of wood we have in this plant is used for something," King observes. While some defects are beyond the plant's control, a strict incoming quality check conducted by in-house certified graders weeds out most defective raw materials before they enter the drying process. Approximately 20 million board feet of lumber pass through the mill each year. Pieces that don't make the cut are bundled in the back of the lumber yard and returned to the vendor at no cost to the plant.

Picker Ruth Bland pulls wood off a belt at Batesville's Vicksburg operations.

Another major improvement project took place on the plant floor with an estimated $3.5 million capital investment. The plant installed high-tech scanners at several stations that measure defects for more accurate cutting and new rip saws. The scanning technology improved yield by approximately 3.5% on one cutting line, according to King. The plant also gained efficiencies by replacing WWII-era saws.

Such strides are marked gains over 2005 when King first arrived. At the time inventory levels were high, safety was an issue and there was a disconnect between management and the union.

The transformation came when King and the management team pushed for a cleaner shop floor and lean 5s training that helped reduce recordable injuries by 58% over a three-year period. They also reduced work-in-process by 60% through a new cutting strategy.

As for the employee relations struggles, management now works more closely with the union by including members in day-to-day developments, says Dario Lawrence, chief union steward, who's been with the plant since 1992. "Our management here has strived to make it an open-door policy, and that's good for both parties involved," he says. "This is one of the better union/management relationships I've been involved in."

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Batesville's Year to Forget -- And Remember

A devastating year proves to be a test of solidarity and preparedness for this Mississippi IW Best Plant.

Few plant employees can say they've endured a fire, flood and hurricanes in the same year. But that's exactly what happened in 2005 at the Batesville Casket Co.'s Vicksburg, Miss., operations. The events that took place that year tested the resiliency of this 32-year-old wood-cutting and drying plant for casket components.

Plant managers refer to it as "the year from hell." But like a family, Batesville banded together and rebounded to become the company's top-performing plant in 2006.

The misery started when a fire raged through one of the plant's drying systems, destroying an estimated $3 million worth of inventory and infrastructure. Then, hurricanes Rita and Katrina hit. As if that weren't enough, in a separate turn of events the Mississippi River flooded, making the cottonwood trees that grow along its banks inaccessible for cutting.

=To this day, nobody knows exactly what caused the fire. The immediate solution at the time was to buy pre-dried wood from suppliers to meet demand, which cost more money. The long-term plan is to prevent the situation from occurring at all. The drying system is now equipped with a sprinkler system and heat-detection unit that if activated shuts off the drying fans so they don't fuel any flames, according to Lisa Loper, plant controller.

When the Mississippi flooded the plant needed to find a substitute specie for the cottonwood lumber used in many of its caskets. But that also cost money since the replacement didn't yield as well. The plant responded by finding a different wood specie and expanding the drying system so it could hold more inventory during the winter months when the river typically floods.

But the events that took place in 2005 weren't just economical -- they were personal, too. The storms left employees without water or electricity for more than a week. The company responded by shipping water from as far away as Indiana (where the corporate headquarters is located) to affected workers. Katrina and Rita brought everyone together because they didn't discriminate. "Management and the people on the floor were suffering in the same way," Loper says. So, they supported each other through meetings and support rallies.

If anything, the trying times of 2005 have made everyone at Batesville's Vicksburg operations more alert.

"If a tornado siren goes off, people are more aware," says Richard King, operations manager. "We had the mindset before where people would blow that off. Now, if a fire alarm goes off, people are more engaged."

Sappy Relationships

"Lumber is a relationship business," says Wilson Polk, lumber yard manager for the Batesville Casket Company Inc.'s Vicksburg, Miss., operations. That's because without strong partnerships the mill could get stuck with material that's unusable. Splits, knots, enzymatic stains and other flaws that are considered defects can be kicked back to their suppliers at no charge.

The plant has agreements with its 20 or so vendors that it will not pay for any material not meeting National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) standards. The mill utilizes in-house inspectors who are certified by the NHLA to grade the lumber after it's delivered in a rough, "green" state. The plant voluntarily requests the NHLA to recertify the grading process throughout the year and provide feedback on ways to improve the process, according to the company's IW Best Plants application.

The inspector, who is seated in a control booth, examines the lumber as it moves down a rolling conveyor belt and assigns grades to each piece. The company pays vendors based on the grading quality and rejects any wood that's considered unusable, which is then bundled in the back of the lumber yard and returned to the supplier.

A critical part of Batesville's supplier relationship is the vendors' willingness to accept suggestions for improvement. The company buys from approximately 20 suppliers that it measures monthly for performance with supplier score cards. The company uses score cards to provide vendors with feedback on whether they're meeting the mill's purchase specifications and required delivery dates.

The company also makes onsite visits to vendors for quality checks and in some instances has asked suppliers to install certain pieces of equipment, Wilson says. The suggestions and knowledge-sharing helps its vendors improve their operations while driving down costs for both partners.

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Former Managing Editor

Former Managing Editor Jon Katz covered leadership and strategy, tackling subjects such as lean manufacturing leadership, strategy development and deployment, corporate culture, corporate social responsibility, and growth strategies. As well, he provided news and analysis of successful companies in the chemical and energy industries, including oil and gas, renewable and alternative.

Jon worked as an intern for IndustryWeek before serving as a reporter for The Morning Journal and then as an associate editor for Penton Media’s Supply Chain Technology News.

Jon received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Kent State University and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.

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