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Root of the problem Featured

1:07pm EDT July 18, 2002

Order fluctuations can send your business into overtime. Playing catch-up can lead to the loss of orders and customers.

Sales trends are often predictable, and careful analysis can help prepare a manufacturing plant for an upswing. But sometimes, a continuous, moderate order volume will cover up manufacturing problems, and until orders increase, the problems remain hidden. Then when sales peak, problems become evident not only to you, but to your customers, as well.

Uncovering problems within systems and processes is known as root cause analysis. It's a strategy Mark Welcer became familiar with at Avery Dennison's Specialty Tape Division in Painesville. Through this technique, he uncovered methods of improving and increasing manufacturing output for the manufacturer of pressure sensitive tapes.

When he joined Avery in 1997, the division was in a growth mode. Within a year, sales increases caused delivery delays. Orders were shipped on time and complete only 25 percent of the time.

"There were a lot of shortcomings in the system," recalls Welcer. "The customer service reps were making promises that we couldn't keep, not knowing that was the case."

The long stretch of increased demand -- which required production to run at maximum capacity --brought to light inefficiencies in processes from start to finish. As the backlog grew, it perpetuated delays in new orders. Soon, most of STD's customers were aware of the problem.

Establishing a service improvement team that met daily, Welcer gathered key players from every department to examine the root cause of late orders. Personnel from the beginning of the process, such as purchasing staff, to the end of the process, including machine operators, analyzed and examined the path of every late order asking one simple question: Why?

By digging deeper, what were once believed to be production delays due to demand fluctuations instead turned out to be systems and process problems. Included were errors in finished goods inventory levels, as well as vendor delays of raw material that caused scheduling changes which wasted valuable manufacturing time.

Within a year of probing into production processes, on time orders were consistently shipping in the mid-80 percent range and often peaked in the 90s.

Last year, Welcer left Avery Dennison to join the Pittsburgh division of Paragon Trade Brands, the third largest diaper manufacturer in the world. Within weeks of joining the company, he found himself in a familiar situation.

"It seems like this problem follows me everywhere," Welcer says with a laugh.

Customer demand increased to the point the plant was over capacity. It looked like the diaper manufacturer was going to lose at the game of on-time delivery for its top customers. As operations manager and new kid on the block, Welcer returned to methods he used at Avery to work through production issues.

Because the manufacturing lines were already running at maximum speed, Welcer turned his attention to manufacturing deficiencies that impacted productivity. Uncovering the need for equipment upgrades along with process improvements, Welcer and his service team increased capacity on some equipment by 25 percent.

"You don't necessarily have to go out and add people or add new equipment," he explains.

Waste factors on some equipment were cut in half, and a manufacturing line that was producing 16,000 diapers per hour jumped to 25,500.

"That's a lot of diapers," he says.

Bringing together departments that may not typically work together but definitely rely on each other throughout the manufacturing process opens communications and promotes problem solving, Welcer says. Capturing and recording data in that setting puts the issues out front for everyone to see.

In the Paragon service meeting, daily results were put on a board, along with the three biggest issues that prevented manufacturing from meeting its goal.

"What that basically says is, 'Here's the expectation ... Did we get it done or not?'" Welcer says. "It's going to stay there until we get it resolved. You need to make your expectations known and clear.

"People don't mind being accountable when they know you're going to support them in getting what they need and in getting results."

Deborah Garofalo (dgarofalo@sbnnet.com) is associate editor at SBN Magazine.