2018 IW Best Plants Winner: Johnson Controls Gives the OK to Empower Workers

March 12, 2019
Johnson Controls' plant in Norman, Okla., encourages workers to speak up, a practice that has put the rooftop A/C unit manufacturer on a productivity hot streak.

It was the last year of the 1980s, and not really sure what to do with her life, Vicki Davis walked into the stocky, blocky YORK International HVAC factory to start work as a shop floor temp. Passing through the doors of the concrete plant shyly sprouting from the Oklahoma prairie clay, Davis must not have thought it was heading anywhere special. It was a living, though. And her mom Dorothy (Wren) had supported the family from within these thick slabs for about 15 years, a few years after Westinghouse opened it in 1972.

Back then rooftop commercial HVAC units were made here in Norman, just south of Oklahoma City. They still are today. And Vicki and Dorothy, plus a lot of others working here 30 years ago, still come in every day, too. That's about the end of the similarities, though.

Johnson Controls now runs the light commercial operation, the 572,000-square-foot building has expanded to 1 million, and Davis, who went full-time in 1991, has blossomed from painting sheet metal and bending copper coil to managing the entire plant, one of this year's best in the country.

"I didn’t have a lot of opportunities in front of me, but I came in here and applied myself," says Davis, who earned a bachelor's and master's degree while working her way up to plant manager, a role she has held since 2014.

The plant still uses temp-to-permanent hiring, and has 1,200 employee total, nearly 700 involved in manufacturing. Those workers are all grouped into 20-member High Performance Teams (HPTs), who meet weekly in large conference rooms (created in the expansion) to discuss problems and recommend solutions.

"The idea of the HPT is to empower people to make changes, to not just rely on upper management and supervisors to make those decisions and look for improvements," Davis says. She adds it helps find missing KPIs on the line without an engineer coming in to "gut an entire area."

In one instance, a team wanted to find out why coils were getting damaged. With the whole team in one room, they discovered that it was caused by operators struggling with screw guns and solved by the previous station leaving a screw on a panel loose. CI manager Janet Box says the simple fix took five minutes to discuss and saved several thousand dollars.

"Without the engagement of the HPT, it's not the five why's, it's the five who's, as in who's to blame," Box quips.

   Johnson Controls International

   Norman, Okla.

   Employees: 1,200 (700 manufacturing)

   Total Square Footage: 1 million

   Primary Product: Light Commercial HVAC fabrication and assembly

   Start-up Date: 1972

   • 25% increase in total productivity since 2009
   • Annual safety cost reduced by $1.9 million since 2009
   • Zero lost time incidents since 2010
   • 60% Increase in machine utilization in last three years
   • 10% energy consumption decrease from 2015
   • $5 million saved due to CI in 2018
   • 7% improvement in plant defect rates since 2015

The Norman team also beared down on safety, reducing annual safety cost by $1.9 million per year over the last decade and recording zero lost time incidents since 2010. Safety is a big part of gain sharing for the teams. Up to 5% of extra salary is at stake, so workers are more likely to call out unsafe practices.

These smaller meetings also help standardize the culture and ensure everyone hears the same thing, which wasn't always the case in cramped rooms near the noisy machinery.

And all that machinery doesn’t work nearly as good without well-oiled workers to operate them, says Raymundo Sanchez, quality & CI manager for Johnson Controls Building Technologies & Solutions.

"If you don’t have the right discipline and the right culture to follow processes, you can implement whatever system you want, but you will not get the output you want," Sanchez says.

That discipline was formalized through the corporate-wide benchmarking via the Johnson Controls Manufacturing System in 2013, and by 2015, the efficiency started to show, with the plant making half the units as in 2011, but with the same profits. They also had 300 fewer employees then in 2009. Through last year, fabrication was 52% better, in part due to automation, though that's not the case in assembly.

"The units still get screwed in the same way and we still wire them manually, yet our assembly lines are 25% more productive than in 2011," Davis says.

A shift to data tools also empowered the workers. Installing an MES and connecting the ERP to the fabrication lines helped provide visibility and end frustrating material "black holes" and stop time-sucking "manhunts," Davis says. The raw aluminum and copper can end up as 1,000 different parts, so tracking is crucial to drive production orders and keep track of inventory, Davis adds.

"Before we were kind of blind as to what was actually running through our fabrication departments," says operations manager Charlotte Idleman, who started as a temp along with Davis. She explains that workers now scan key components, which are acutely tracked and displayed by the MES at workstations. "It lets the operator know what's coming up next and helps drive the materials between groups in the facility."

The teams are productive, and at least for now, appear happy. Voluntary turnover decreased from 8% in 2016 to 4.6% in 2018

"The people own what they're doing; that's why you have longevity around here," says purchasing manager Tommy Allen. "This is a plant where you can have a lifelong career, and that's fleeting."

The plant has lost about ten a year since 2016, with many more approaching. Meanwhile, due to the expansion, they want to double their business in the next two years.

"It keeps me up at night thinking how we are going to get them in here and trained," Davis says.

Sanchez says the key is to perfect the system, so the skill level is not as important.

"The strategy is to have controls in place to have a consistent and reliable process as much as we can to be sure we can overcome that learning curve," he says.

And for those that come in, Davis makes sure to tell them her story, and let them know the same success can be theirs.

"We will put opportunities in front of you," she tells them. "It's your choice to grasp them and take the initiative and learn and advance."

[Download an application for 2019 Best Plants]

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