A 'Meat-and-Potatoes' Operation Its plant may seem like the antithesis of "new manufacturing," but Superior Graphite Co. has adopted many leading-edge employee initiatives.
Superior Graphite Co., Russellville, Ark.
At a glance
Finished-product first-pass yield for finished synthetic graphite electrodes is 94.94%.
Energy consumption per unit of production has decreased 29.24% in the last five years.
Productivity as annual sales per employee has increased 23.4% in last five years.
Days of total inventory has decreased 25.2% in the last five years. The work is hot, dirty, and physically demanding. That in a nutshell describes the conditions under which most of the 113 employees labor at Superior Graphite Co.'s Russellville, Ark., facility. They're engaged in the manufacture of synthetic graphite electrodes used primarily in electric arc furnaces at foundries and small steel mills. The process to manufacture these electrodes -- each of which can weigh from 200 lb to 1,100 lb and measure four to six feet in length -- requires extreme temperatures, up to 3,000 C to complete the conversion of carbon to graphite. On a sultry August afternoon in Arkansas no amount of insulation can fully contain the heat generated by the graphitizing furnaces. And no matter the attention paid to housekeeping, the manufacturing process blackens workers' clothes and smudges exposed skin. "It's not a job for everybody," admits plant manager Steve Condley, a 16-year veteran of Superior Graphite's Russellville operation and plant manager for the last 10. And in truth, the picture at Russellville is that of heavy industry at its most basic. "It's a meat-and-potatoes operation," adds Condley. Yet it is "highly technical in its own way," asserts production/maintenance manager John Church. Condley is also matter-of-fact in his observations about the management philosophies that guide the plant's growth and improvement initiatives. It's a straight-shooting attitude he shares with Scott Anderson, assistant vice president of production for the corporate entity and also a 16-year veteran of the Russellville plant. Until last year, Anderson shared plant manager duties with Condley. For example, on management philosophy: "Treat everyone like you'd want to be treated, and don't ask them to do anything you wouldn't do," says Condley. On lean manufacturing: "Is it lean manufacturing or is it common sense?" asks Anderson rhetorically. "[Lean is] another word for efficient operations." In truth, while Superior Graphite's Russellville plant appears to be the antithesis of "new manufacturing," it extends to its workers many leading-edge employee benefits, including gain-sharing, profit sharing, and an education assistance program. It is particularly proud of its safety initiatives, however, which are extensive. "We take a four-pronged approach to safety," says quality/technical manager Chad Edelen. Those prongs include a safety committee, which manages overall safety throughout the facility; a fire brigade, which addresses fire safety and training issues; a "first responders" team, which is the first line of response to accidents in the facility; and a behavior-based safety program. Introduced in 1998, the behavior-based initiative is the most recent addition to Superior Graphite's safety program. Approximately 20 employees currently make up the S.T.A.R. (Striving Toward Accident Reduction) observer group. Each has received 20 hours of observer training, and their aim is to encourage safe behavior. How does the program work? A trained worker simply asks an employee for permission to observe him at work for approximately 10 minutes, looking for behaviors that are safe or "at risk," and noting any hazards in the area. The observer then provides feedback to the employee on both good and not-so-good safety behaviors. Edelen notes that an employee may be using poor safety practices unwittingly or may have been taught the wrong way. "[The] observers are the tool that brings their behaviors to their attention," he says. The plant's goal is for each safety observer to conduct eight observations a month. With that many, employees are likely to be observed on numerous occasions. Those repeatedly exhibiting at-risk behaviors are likely to start using the right procedures if for no other reason than to avoid hearing it yet again from an observer, Edelen notes. The S.T.A.R. observer group is a completely voluntary effort; employees have no incentive to participate -- except for the obvious one. Says 13-year employee Johnny Molloy, lab technician and chairman of the S.T.A.R. committee: "We're just trying to make [Superior Graphite] a better place to work." Superior Graphite also conducts at least two full-plant evacuation drills per year, in which scenarios for emergency situations are played out to maintain a state of readiness. Earlier this year, for example, the plant conducted a drill in which a medical emergency was declared and a furnace cave-in was reported. While management and the local authorities were aware that the exercise was a drill rather than a real event, employees were not. (However, management lurked near the furnace operators to prevent them from actually shutting down a furnace, as procedures would normally require.) Every drill teaches a lesson, and this effort was no exception. The fire brigade and first responders unit performed perfectly, says Edelen. But not everything went smoothly. For example, the fire brigade discovered it needed additional hose to reach an inaccessible area. Additionally, not all employees reported to the proper location in the parking lot as called for by evacuation instructions. The safety improvements implemented as a result of the plant's initiatives are numerous: New electrode stacking procedures have been written; the material safety data sheets (MSDS) database was rebuilt and database training initiated; new exit signs were installed around the plant. The list isn't endless, but it is extensive. And as a result of its ongoing safety measures Superior Graphite's Russellville plant has reduced its workers' compensation costs by 12.19% in the last five years and reduced its OSHA-reportable incident rate by nearly 83% in that same time frame. The plant had no OSHA-reportable lost workdays in the most recent calendar year. Superior Graphite says it extends an equally impressive level of care to its customers. In addition to responding immediately to customer questions or complaints, the Russellville plant has a number of trained personnel who make on-site visits to conduct training on graphite consumption and arc furnaces. Plant personnel "assist [customers] in whatever capacity [is] needed. Sometimes that could include doing training for them on the operation of their own furnaces, or [it] could be something as minor as packaging modifications," notes Superior Graphite in its Best Plants application. For example, Superior Graphite shared its safety expertise with an Iowa customer during a visit to assist with a furnace issue unrelated to Superior Graphite electrode performance. As a result of the communication the customer built racks that ensured the heavy electrodes could not roll and potentially cause injury. Also, Superior Graphite advised the plant on methods to reduce back injuries. It makes sense, says Edelen, for a company to take such steps to assist its customers. "If we can help [our customer] be a better steel company that helps ensure their long-term life, which ensures our long-term life," he explains. The on-site service comes at no cost to customers, despite the fact that nearly half of Superior Graphite's shipments are to markets outside the U.S. "Service is certainly more of a challenge because of logistics, but we do it," says Anderson. "The service is the edge we have." Or maybe it's simply Superior Graphite extending to its customers the philosophy it shares within its own four walls: "Treat everyone like you'd want to be treated." Web-Exclusive Best Practices By Jill Jusko Benchmarking contact: Chad Edelen, quality/technical manager, [email protected], 501/968-8810. Community Since 1993 Superior Graphite has partnered with S.T.A.R. (Skills, Training, and Rehabilitation) Industries, a regional provider of services for individuals with developmental disabilities. S.T.A.R. Industries (not to be confused with the company's S.T.A.R. committee) teams with area manufacturers and industries to provide disabled individuals with opportunities to gain real-world training and experience in work situations. Initially S.T.A.R. Industries assembled cardboard end covers for Superior Graphite electrodes. In the last few years Superior Graphite made changes in its packaging, switching from a corrugated material to Styrofoam. S.T.A.R. Industries implemented the product changes and now silkscreens the Superior Graphite logo on end covers for the electrodes. Says S.T.A.R. Industries of the relationship: "From 1993 through today Superior Graphite has been one of the main sources in providing work opportunities for our individuals with disabilities." "We feel that [this partnership] is not only a benefit to our company with the high quality work that they produce, but also a benefit to our community and to these individuals to earn a living like anyone else," writes Superior Graphite. Research and Development In 2000 Superior Graphite's Russellville plant established a two-person research-and-development department that is engaged in efforts to create new and improved products. This department works both on projects solely for the Russellville plant and also in cooperative projects with other Superior Graphite facilities. The current economic downturn -- which has resulted in the plant currently operating at less than capacity -- has offered the Russellville plant an opportunity to focus additional attention on its R&D efforts. "We're not pressed for capacity, so it's a prime time to test [experimental products]," says Edelen. Redirecting employee efforts to projects such as production runs of test materials, as well as a variety of other plant-improvement efforts, has helped the Russellville plant avoid the large layoffs that have plagued other manufacturers. Pay For Performance Superior Graphite's Russellville plant is ahead of its sister plants in the reward systems it has in place for employees. It currently is the only Superior Graphite facility that offers a gainsharing program. The gainshare program, introduced in 1997, pays employees a flat rate on a quarterly basis if the plant's gross profit margins are met. Additionally, plant manager Condley says plant-level financial information is readily available to any plant employee who wants to see the information. The openness of this information to employees also is specific to the Russellville plant rather than corporate policy. "The more [employees] know, the more they'll get involved in helping us save money," says Edelen in explanation of the open-financial-book policy. "They can't help us if they don't know what's going on," adds Anderson. "We've always been blatantly honest, even if it hurts."