Firing up the idea machine

When Bill Burke was appointed president of Fire-Dex LLC in
1996, he stepped into what he bluntly refers to as a terrible situation.

“When my former partner bought the business in 1983, he
thought he was buying a low-cost, Southern factory; it was only
Southern,” he says. “For 13 years, we went through plant manager
turnover to the tune of one every other year. We went through
rank-and-file production employees to the tune of 50 to 100 percent per year.”

Burke was no stranger to the problems plaguing the manufacturer of firefighting turnout gear before assuming the role. He had
joined the company way back in 1983, which at the time contained
a separate, more successful entity. In his time there, he soon realized that part of the problem was that Fire-Dex’s manufacturing
plant and corporate headquarters were more than 600 miles apart.
There was no way to effectively manage the company’s day-to-day
operations, so in 1998, he moved the manufacturing portion from
Rome, Ga., to its current location in Medina.

“Having everything under one roof was phenomenal for Fire-Dex,” he says. “We had top manager and ownership involvement
on a daily basis.”

By being able to walk the factory floor five days a week, Burke
began to notice subtle areas where small changes could yield big
improvements. For example, he realized his sewing team wasted
considerable minutes changing between different colored threads
on its machines.

“We were using six different colors of thread to make these
suits,” he says. “I was standing by a sewing machine, and I see all
these thread colors everywhere. I see the sewing machine operators stopping to change thread. It takes a while, like 10 minutes to
change over. I went to the customers, and I said, ‘You currently buy
a red suit. Do you care if it’s sewn in red thread? Would black be
OK, or white?’ And the customer said, ‘Yeah, black’s fine. Actually,
black kind of looks cool.’ So we went to two colors.”

Though seemingly isolated at the time, Burke’s simple change
started an avalanche of improvements that have since been harnessed in a formal system of suggestions called Opportunities
For Improvement, or OFIs. The program allows employees to
submit ideas that are immediately reviewed and, more than 70 percent of the time, implemented.

“If it’s a good idea, we’re going to implement it,” Burke says.
“Instead of just having one guy thinking — the president and CEO
— let’s have the whole fricking organization thinking.”

Fire-Dex has seen positive growth every year since the inception
of the OFI system. Previously a break-even business, the company
reported revenue of $10.3 million in 2004, its first year over the $10
million mark. Last year, that number jumped to just under $17 million.

Here’s how Burke boosted revenue by encouraging employees to
think of opportunities for improvement.