When Korean automaker Kia decided to begin manufacturing cars in the United States in 2009, it chose a site roughly halfway between Atlanta, Ga., and Montgomery, Ala. And in that same small town where Kia set up shop—West Point, Ga.—one of its Tier 1 suppliers also began operating, in a move mirroring the keiretsu tradition initiated originally by Japanese automakers and now a standard best practice for automakers worldwide.
Adient West Point, located just down the road a couple miles from the Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia (KMMG) plant, has a simply-put motto that is quite complex in its execution: “Safety first. Quality always. Excellence everyday.”
Parent company Adient plc is the world’s largest supplier of automotive seats, responsible for providing roughly one out of every three automotive seats. The $17.4 billion company, which spun off from Johnson Controls a couple years ago, has well over 200 manufacturing plants worldwide. Each plant follows the Adient Manufacturing System (AMS) approach to manufacturing, which is built on four foundations: customer focus, stable operations environment, zero tolerance for waste, and organizing around customer pull. However, the West Point plant is the first U.S. just-in-time (JIT) plant to achieve AMS Level 3, which requires implementing and demonstrating evidence for 556 manufacturing objectives.
The plant’s continuous improvement initiatives include the use of Six Sigma, lean manufacturing and Kepner & Tregoe problem-solving. The hourly workforce has also been certified in “5 why” analysis, which aims to discover the root cause of any problem areas.
A major key to Adient West Point’s success has been its adoption of High-Performance Teams (HPTs), as the facility has become the benchmark plant for HPT within all of the seating plants in the United States. And under the leadership of Tracy Breeding, plant manager, the facility has one basic goal: “To be the best damn JIT plant in the Americas.”
The West Point plant was the pilot plant for HPTs for the company. It took a year to prepare the workforce, Breeding notes, a process that “included lessons in teambuilding, building trust and teaching the hourly team the plant metrics. The HPT effort launched in 2017, with the full engagement of the hourly workers, and the plant achieved significant improvements in safety, quality, delivery (no customer disruptions in the past two years) and cost, Breeding says. To date, the company has achieved 526 days and counting with no OSHA recordable incidents, which was a new milestone for the plant.
KMMG not only recognized Adient West Point as its best supplier in safety but has asked Adient’s safety manager, Robert Brock, to train 29 other local suppliers in best practices in environmental health and safety (EHS).
According to Jason Martin, engineering manager, “I’ve been here and at Johnson Controls for 22 years and I’ve seen a lot, but HPT was something new, and Tracy’s enthusiasm for it has been infectious.”
“Some managers focus on process, but I focus on people,” Breeding explains. “I assume that if I treat people well and with respect, they’ll take care of the process.”
Adds Steve Perdue, operations manager, “We as leaders can sit here and say how everything in the plant should operate, but without the live workers on the floor buying in the process, it’s useless. And the floor workers are keeping us accountable because they’re asking us for the information they need to do their jobs better. That didn’t used to happen before we started HPTs.”
As Perdue describes, the various departments at the plant used to function in silos, but “now we work together as a team. Communication is there now. People’s voices are being heard and their issues are being addressed.”
“Communication is key,” Brock agrees. “That’s the common link between salaried and hourly workers, and between all the departments. Communication is geared toward resolution.”
“When we have monthly meetings, nothing I say about what happened should come as a surprise to anyone in the plant,” Breeding adds. “We should be sharing information continually throughout the month.”
“If you treat people well, they’ll work harder for you,” Breeding emphasizes. That’s the secret sauce.”
And one more benefit from the HPT philosophy: It’s a good way to circumvent the difficulty many manufacturers have in finding new talent. “The word on the street is that Adient is a good place to work,” says JR Smith, HR manager. “That makes it easier to recruit new hires.”