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The Big Picture: Leadership Insights from the IW Best Plants -- Batesville Casket Continuously Challenges the Conventional Wisdom

Nov. 7, 2008
Sometimes the best solution is to rely on amazing people rather than high technology.

Batesville Casket Co. had always been an aggressive company when it comes to productivity improvements. We were well schooled in industrial engineering. We meticulously studied jobs and made reductions. It was a target-rich environment. Capital money was available for projects with big returns.

I would like to elaborate on one such project. Picture a large cut-and-sew department with manual and automated processes running batch production feeding an assembly line. We had several days of inventory being moved manually with poor flow. Not a pretty picture.

We studied the jobs and quickly determined that automation could reduce operators and inventory and improve flow. We reviewed several conveyor delivery systems and settled on cutting-edge technology. It eliminated so many positions that the payback was very quick. Parts were routed through the department and into a sorting area to be automatically picked for the products coming down the assembly line. I love technology, and this was cool.

We were really proud of this engineering marvel. The department looked high-tech with great flow. Then, reality started to set in. While this all looked good, we weren't ready for cutting-edge technology. It required engineers to program and mechanics to maintain all the little switches and gates.

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Don't get me wrong -- we had excellent engineers and maintenance techs, but this was an entirely different beast. The downtime had gotten so bad that we positioned full-time mechanics on the line. The engineers were constantly struggling with the sorting and delivery software. We were missing cycles on the main assembly line and having to manually run interiors over to catch up with product. There was considerable capital investment and lots of sweat equity. Unfortunately, all of our efforts weren't enough. I am still amazed by technology, but this was overkill.

We became students of the Toyota Production System. We initially worked with TBM and Shingijitsu lean consultants. They were excellent senseis. We looked at the basic question of: What are we truly trying to accomplish? The answer: We want to build the component parts just in time (JIT) to meet up with the correct unit on the assembly line.

We had a weeklong kaizen event to target one component part. The first event moved a considerable amount of equipment into a U-shaped cell delivering JIT to the assembly line. It worked nicely on over 90% of our products. Some products had more labor-intensive components requiring more cycle time. We put in a small three-piece supermarket for the hard models only. This worked great and verified the kaizen methodology. We conducted several more events and totally changed the department layout to a much smaller footprint. The operators could actually see and communicate with each other. The interaction of great associates helped to identify even more opportunities for improvement.

We ripped out the high-tech conveyor systems and plant performance improved. The work-in-process went from days to units, greatly reducing our lead time. Our associates didn't have to put up with a bad process and frustrated leaders.

2009 IW Best Plants Conference
Click here for more information about the IW 2009 Best Plants Conference.This was a key step toward a significant manufacturing footprint reduction, going from using 450,000 square feet to roughly 250,000 square feet. We were able to in-source a regional distribution center for our logistics group. This generated great savings and created excellent synergies across the supply chain.

Without a doubt, this event was a significant early awakening in our continuous-improvement (CI) journey. To this date, in an industry that does not like to change, we have continued to use this CI/lean methodology, and are still achieving significant annual improvements in safety, quality and costs, while reducing inventory, lead times and freeing up manufacturing floor space.

I still think technology is cool, but I've come to appreciate that people are truly amazing.

Ron Johnson is vice president, global manufacturing of Batesville Casket Company. Several Batesville Casket facilities have received the IW Best Plants award, including the Vicksburg, Miss., plant in 2007; the Batesville, Ind., plant in 2006; and the Manchester, Tenn., plant in 2004.

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