Fired up for success

Ask Bill Burke about the lean manufacturing techniques he implemented as president of Fire-Dex Inc., and he’ll recite the Japanese 5S plan for housekeeping: sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain.

“One of the cornerstones of lean is learning, understanding and implementing these Five S’s,” Burke says.

Fire-Dex, a manufacturer of protective firefighting clothing and emergency response apparel, employs nearly 100 people and has annual revenue of about $15 million.

Smart Business spoke with Burke about how he encourages continuous improvement and how ISO certification has contributed to Fire-Dex Inc.’s success.

How do you encourage continuous improvement?
For the last 15 years, our employees have participated in an Opportunity For Improvement program. It’s our suggestion system, but we live it. Our OFI program is how we continuously improve through employee involvement.

Employees write up suggestions called OFIs. OFIs can be anything. They can be, ‘Hey if we did it this way, we’d save a little bit of cloth,’ or ‘If we did it this way, we’d shave a few seconds off of production of this unit.’

Each OFI suggestion does something to improve the company. There are seven categories of OFI: quality, customer service, labor efficiency, safety, material utilization, work environment and cos -reduction.

At the end of the year, employees get a profit-sharing check, and Fire-Dex’s profit-sharing checks have gone up every year because of OFIs. Everything we do today in production is a result of OFIs.

How has this benefited your company’s growth?
In our lean manufacturing, most of the things we do are a result of somebody saying, ‘What if?’ These small, incremental improvements are the difference between being successful and being very successful.

Financially, it’s a win-win situation. The company wins — we’re making clothing in the United States, and there aren’t too many clothing manufacturers in the United States. The fabrics we deal with … highly engineered, technical fabrics made from very expensive fibers, so our material cost is very high, which makes our labor very small on a percentage basis. We’re able to be competitive with any manufacturer on the globe so we can get more orders.

It means that we’re able to buy new machines, the best equipment and have a very nice work environment. We have company-paid luncheons and company outings to sporting events, a variety of nice things that companies that are pinching every penny and on the verge of bankruptcy can’t afford to do.

Turnover’s down, wages are up, profits are up and morale is up. Life is good.

How important was it for you to upgrade to ISO 9001 2000?
ISO says, ‘Do smart things.’ There’s nothing stupid about ISO, so (when other companies) say, ‘We’re not ISO,’ I generally will say, ‘Why?’

It’s best practices that have been worked on for years by thousands of companies all over the globe, and they’ve honed them into eight chapters or so. One of the chapters might say, ‘Document work instructions.’ Why wouldn’t you want to document a work instruction?

One of the chapters is, ‘Survey your customers.’ What do we do right? What do we do wrong? What would you like to see us do differently? And we should do it every quarter.

Everything that is in ISO is just good business practices. Any company that’s not ISO should be or certainly should look into it because if they talk to other manufacturers that are ISO, they’ll find that ISO was good for them.

It’s discipline. Write down what you do, do what you do, and then verify it on a consistent basis to make sure you’re doing it.

As an example, they doing the same thing for five years (but) if the work instruction doesn’t say that’s how they do it, then they’re not in compliance with the standards. So the work instruction needs to change or the process needs to change. It’s a consistency standard.

When you hire a new employee, you can hand them a book and say, ‘In this cell, here are the 40 things we do, and here’s how we do them. Here are pictures and pictographs so you can read how to do it and you can see how to do it.’ Then the next day, they can go out and do it. It’s a phenomenal training tool. To not have those work instructions is bad business.

HOW TO REACH: Fire-Dex Inc., (330) 723-0000 or