Matt LaWell, IndustryWeek
A counter outside the Johnson Controls plant in Nuevo Leon Mexico

2016 IW Best Plants Winner: Johnson Controls’ Magic Ingredient is Leadership

March 20, 2017
In Monterrey, Mexico, hundreds of Johnson Controls employees build thousands of batteries every day — delivering them on time, in perfect condition, in large thanks to individual ownership and ideal team leadership.

CIÉNEGA DE FLORES, Nuevo Leon, Mexico — Working under the umbrella of a global corporation includes certain benefits, of course. Goals and objectives, for starters, are often more defined, as are successes and failures. Production processes are streamlined and perfected, with improvisation and experimentation often cast aside. Best practices pour in from around the world.

The inverse of those benefits, though, is that working in a building with a familiar name out front has more than a handful of drawbacks. There has to be a top performer, but it can be difficult to stand out from dozens or hundreds of other locations when each amounts to a line item. You can always get lost in the shuffle.

The Johnson Controls Optima plant in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, about 200 miles west of the Gulf of Mexico and about 300 miles southwest of San Antonio, has had no such problems during recent years. Since 2013, it has improved its first-pass yield rate for all finished products more than 66%; further increased its on-time delivery rate to customers; and gone more than three years without a recordable accident. It is the company’s top Central and South American plant, a significant accomplishment for a group that stretches across dozens of plants and two continents.

And, after careful review, it is a 2016 IndustryWeek Best Plants winner.

Johnson Controls, Optima Plant

Ciénega de Flores, Nuevo Leon, Mexico

Employees: More than 300, all union

Total Square Footage: 255,772 square feet of  manufacturing space

Primary Product/Market: Batteries for use in automobiles, boats and commercial vehicles

Start-up Date: 2007

Achievements: A 66% improvement in first-pass yield rate for all finished products over the last three years; further increased on-time delivery rate to customers; more than three years without a recordable accident.

The success enjoyed at the plant — which manufactures batteries for use in automobiles, boats and other commercial vehicles, and is part of the ever-expanding Monterrey industrial area — can be attributed in part to strong processes introduced by Johnson Controls — an in at least equal if not greater part to smart, logical implementation of those processes.

Every one of the plant’s hourly employees is part of a High Performance Team, or HPT, which is based on workers taking control of and perfecting their technical process, as well as the social interactions needed to make that possible. Those teams are small by design, just three to 10 employees, every one trained and certified in their processes and tasks.

The team approach is everywhere at the 10-year-old plant, in fact, from pre-shift meetings, to regular updates, to presentations that gather close to 20 higher-level employees — more than a third of them women. Earlier this year, it was even present at the very top, where 20-year veteran Maria Vicky Hernandez recently succeeded Juan Gerardo Garcia as plant manager. Garcia was moved to another Johnson Controls plant in Escobedo, about 15 minutes away, returning regularly to make the transition as smooth as possible.

“I gave her a personal diagnosis of every salaried member of the team, in order to understand how to follow up the operations — and Vicky did the same with (the new plant manager) in (her old) facility,” Garcia said.

“It is a fact,” Hernandez said, “that this company has a very strong program to develop employees. If you go to another facility, another plant, you can see the same system. The strategies are the same. The practices are the same. The way that we lead people is, maybe, what’s different.”

No matter the plant, leaders are expected to perform in a certain way, and at a certain level. The seamless transition, Garcia and Hernandez said, should allow the Optima plant to continue churning out batteries — more than 2 million maximum per year — while raising the proverbial bar.

“The only difference between plants,” Garcia said, “is the execution.”

“We know what’s going on in other plants, and we know what they can be doing,” Hernandez said. “The rules are the same for different plants, the targets are pretty much the same. It’s how you lead people.”

About the Author

Matt LaWell | Staff Writer

Staff writer Matt LaWell explores news in manufacturing technology, covering the trends and developments in automation, robotics, digital tools and emerging technologies. He also reports on the best practices of the most successful high tech companies, including computer, electronics, and industrial machinery and equipment manufacturers.

Matt joined IndustryWeek in 2015 after six years at newspapers and magazines in West Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, a season on the road with his wife writing about America and minor league baseball, and three years running a small business. He received his bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from Ohio University.

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