Feb 13, 2008

Lean from the ground up

Last month, Dick Townsend and Paul Neblock, my friends at Kobalt Partners, arranged for me to visit Huron Automatic Screw Company (HASC) in Port Huron, MI. Ed Brooks, and brothers Warren and David, have been ensuring that this family precision machining company will survive global competition.

You can get threaded fasteners from a lot of places, so the Brooks brothers (sorry – no shirts for sale) are trimming costs and building a pervasive lean culture. The end customer for their parts is primarily the heavy truck industry, which has not been hit as hard as consumer automotive markets, so they have fared better than similar companies in Michigan.

Among other improvements like detailed attention to setup reduction and employee involvement and idea implementation, the plant itself is getting a makeover. “One of the outcomes from our strategic planning was a five-year facility and equipment plan.” Ed Brooks told me. “Last year we went through an energy audit with DTE, [the electric utility company] and they showed us some cost saving opportunities, especially lighting. So we contracted with a company that changed all the lights in the plant and the offices, to be more energy efficient and to improve the quality of the lighting. The difference was like night and day.

“We’ve been here since the 50s, and our building was built in three phases up into the 80s,” Brooks continued. “In the oldest part of the building, the floor was uneven and dirty, even though we tried to clean it with scrubbers and so on. So we made a commitment to replace the entire floor in that section of the building.”

Replacing a factory floor is not like putting do-it-yourself laminate over the vinyl in your kitchen. At HASC, they tore out all the old concrete and replaced it area by area. That gave them a more uniform surface and solid foundation, and then they added an epoxy coating. It’s clean so you can see oil spills and other signs of potential trouble. “Physically and visibly,” Brooks said, “it’s really helped upgrade the quality of the plant. It’s been a real project, and we’re not done.”

The 5S team, that Warren and David actively participate on, has started to clean up and repaint all the machines, white and blue instead of battleship gray. That provides the visual opportunity to see where the leaks are coming from. Before, the accumulation of dirt on veteran machines would cover up problems. “It’s a matter of needing to make a commitment to that,” Ed Brooks told me, “because it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations and say, ‘We can’t afford to have a machine down for a week while we clean it and paint it,’ but we can’t afford not to do it.”

When Warren took me on a plant tour, he pointed out some of the effects of the renovation. One operator took cleanliness seriously. The whole area around his machine was spotless. Warren said that if anything dripped or dropped on the floor, he was there with a rag, immediately. Tracking dirt from the parts of the plant that haven’t been cleaned up is inevitable, but the operator was known to discourage anyone from setting foot on his floor.

Warren and I also looked at some carts used to move parts in and out of the plant’s first cell. Before the carts were added, containers were placed on the floor and manually lifted. Wheels wouldn’t have been possible, Warren told me, before the floor was replaced. Bumps and cracks would have kept the carts from rolling easily enough.

The company is strategically adding new equipment, including a Euroturn multi-spindle screw machine a year or so ago. A bar feeder is due next month. Automation only where it makes sense. Small and simple improvements where they make a difference.

“I’d like to think that the commitment that we’ve made, not only the 5S, but also the facility and equipment investments, indicates to our employees that this is a business that’s going to be continuing for another generation,” Ed Brooks told me.

Since everyone is well aware that lean is a journey that they’ve just embarked on, I’d give them pretty good odds that they will.

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