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Gore’s ELIXIR® Strings: Gains Support Customer Service/Sales #18 OE Newsletter

To drive the Lean transformation in their organizations, mid-and top-level executives need to develop skills and experience in effectively applying Lean techniques, some do this by participating in the Lean Manager Certification Program (LMAC), a four-week comprehensive training co-developed by Productivity Inc. and The Ohio State University’s (OSU) Fisher College of Business.

“Developing Lean concept knowledge, leadership and facilitation skills, an understanding of when and where to apply the Lean principles, project management capabilities and “telling the story” are skills developed during the program.

This is accomplished inside and outside the classroom. A key program element is selecting and facilitating a project that develops the individual’s skill and confidence while contributing to their organization’s success”, according to Paul McGrath, Sr. Management Consultant for Productivity and lead LMAC instructor. Participants select a project—a business process or value stream—incorporating Lean techniques and complete regular improvement assignments in their selected project to meet the program’s homework requirement.

LMAC participant Brad Way, the W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc. Industrial Products Division (IPD) continuous improvement leader at the Appleton East plant in Elkton, MD, shared his thoughts about his project selection and execution: “I originally signed up for the Productivity Inc. class at OSU due to my new job at IPD. Recognizing the best way to learn was to address a major problem, the selected project focused on the ELIXIR® Strings business, where sales were being constrained by our ability to produce. Basically, we didn’t have the production capacity to keep up with what sales could sell.”

Craig Theorin, a business leader for ELIXIR® Strings (currently with Portable Electronic Vents) added, “It was clear that our strategic intent was being constrained by our production capacity. We decided to leverage continuous improvement (CI) tools and align the ELIXIR® Strings team around CI initiatives.” The project concept: Investigate and implement means to improve the string manufacturing process, to achieve a 50 percent productivity increase without negatively affecting safety, quality, delivery, investments or the culture.

Way worked with Elkton plant associates at the facility to revamp workforce scheduling, standardize production line practices and increase OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness), as he fulfilled his LMAC improvement project assignment. By the spring of 2014, they had improved ELIXIR® Strings manufacturing productivity by 50 percent, raised equipment run time 48 percent, decreased leadtime by nearly 70 percent, advanced product quality by 3 percentage points and achieved what Way described as “a nice improvement in cost per string”—without adding headcount or capital assets. Productivity and quality performance continues to improve, he added.

These significant operating performance improvements enabled ELIXIR® Strings to meet the pressing challenge of resolving capacity issues and also contributed to the success of sales and marketing initiatives, Theorin noted. For example, when making a certain volume of product, reduced lead-times and predictability support sales and marketing programs during holidays and other peak sales periods. “Before, we could not leverage our production to build to the levels wanted by sales and marketing,” Theorin said. Removing capacity constraints solved the problem.


Testing Different Models and Strategies

Way commented that his LMAC CI project targeting capacity issues initially was operations-focused. “As I went through the LMAC class and took a number of Lean principles back, value stream mapping (VSM) revealed constraints in our operations,” he said. “When we took a look at our OEE, we found that our machines were not being utilized as much as they could be. We came up with a plan that we believed would increase capacity by 50 percent, using Lean tools.”

By tightly focusing on increasing utilization, together with an open-minded approach to various combinations of Lean tools and various models for deploying resources, we ignited needed change in ELIXIR® Strings manufacturing operations within several months. “A big factor for us was standardization,” Way said. “When we had moved people around from one line to another, different practices among the lines affected cycle time. We learned that we needed to eliminate wastes through standardization.”

Also, after evaluating the traditional seven-day/four-shift operation, Way and other associates discovered that it made more sense to collapse the schedule to a five-day/three-shift operation. Gaining buy-in for repositioning the work week meant teaming with manufacturing leadership and human resources (HR) to help associates understand the benefits of the five-day schedule and make the transition to the new schedule. The only employee who didn’t want to make the switch to the five-day operation found an opportunity in another Gore plant. “Our culture is different from some others,” Way said of non-union Gore. “We have an extremely flat organization, and we work to make decisions by consensus. We want people to feel that our choices are the right thing to do.”


Key Learnings

Gore traditionally views itself as an innovation company. However, CI has been welcomed in some areas of the company more than in others, said Way. The success of recent capacity utilization projects—employing CI/Lean tools—paves the way for tackling challenges in other areas of the business, he believes. “I wanted to be sure that I would be working on a project that supported our business, and learned by reaching out to Craig Theorin about constraint issues in the ELIXIR® Strings business unit,” Way said. In turn, his project—a collaborative process among various functions—helped to enhance capacity and supported the first ELIXIR® Strings sales promotion in two years, which resulted in increased sales.

“One of the things we’ve learned through Lean is the escalation process,” added Theorin. “As soon as we learn how to make a process work better, we make the change to the new process. We recognize that, if there are problems with making some bad strings, it’s typically not the people, but the process that needs tweaking. If yield drops, we bring in subject matter experts, then stop and improve the process.”

“My big learning was about working together as a team, not just on frustrations in production, but also issues effecting sales and marketing and the technical folks,” said Way. “Getting leaders from all these areas involved and aligned in CI changes (including a VSM project involving the various functions), we started to build momentum. We are learning to become more agile, serving our customers faster, in this way.”

A three-legged stool approach—showing through actual projects and results how operations, technical and sales (each a leg of the stool) create “elegant synergy” by supporting each other, helps to grow the business and drive enthusiasm for additional CI advances, said Theorin. Learnings from the productivity-boosting CI project were shared with the rest of Gore’s CI community in a recent meeting and through the Gore intranet. Theorin composed a related ballad and sang it with Way for the CI facilitators, yet another method for nurturing shared CI learning.

Asked about “do” and “don’t” suggestions for others traveling the CI/ Lean path, Way suggested: Leadership buy-in/support needs to be clearly evident—to paint a picture of the future state vision (increased capacity, more flexibility, higher sales etc.) and set priorities for change. “Create ‘pull’ for CI projects so people understand their value and invite you in,” he said. Cultural change and buy-in for CI initiatives “spread through the amoeba effect— when people see the need and how CI meets that need, you gain converts,” added Theorin.


Ask The Consultants

Q. We’ve done several kaizen events focused on an ergonomic issue with our production line. We’ve made some improvements, but still haven’t solved the issue completely. Is there another way to try and solve this problem?

A. I’d suggest you employ the 3P technique. In contrast with kaizen’s “incremental improvement” method, there is nothing gradual about 3P; it’s a systematized way to achieve kaikaku—step-level change. 3P (short for Production Preparation Process) is a method in which employee teams conceptualize, develop, validate, and deploy radical improvement in product and/or process design. 3P projects can be process or product focused and can be done in both manufacturing and service environments.

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