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September 2017
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Connecticut company uses self-directed work teams to improve on-time delivery and quality

For one Connecticut manufacturer of close tolerance precision metal parts, a nearly 20-year commitment to lean manufacturing has naturally evolved into using self-directed work teams (SDWT) to achieve such ambitious objectives as 100% on-time delivery and 100% quality. With the help of a committed management team, a zealous companywide SDWT champion, dedicated team leaders/cheerleaders, and most importantly, participation of everyone on the shop floor, Farmington, CT-based Connecticut Spring & Stamping (CSS), is well on its way to meeting its ambitious goals, just two years after launching the initiative. They’ve used several tools to get them to their objectives, including following steps laid out in what some consider the SDWT “Bible,” establishing an achievable, yet challenging reward system, and instituting a new way of visualizing work that synchronizes front end scheduling with actual shop floor execution. What began as an experiment with one pilot work team, has now been expanded to twenty-one teams that include both shop floor and office processes.

Lean manufacturing sets the stage for SDWT CSS embarked on its long lean manufacturing journey in 1994. Continually looking for a way to embrace a cultural change that would help them reduce waste and increase production, in 2006 they sequestered 34 of their key management and production personnel to brainstorm on ways to implement lean manufacturing at the plant. Since then, CSS has looked at a variety of different approaches (both top-down and bottom-up) to help implement their lean philosophy; management readily admits that some succeeded and some did not. In 2010, the company began seeking a new approach or increased level of commitment to help them provide 100% on-time delivery of product to their customers, with 100% quality, and at the same time reduce internal wastes and costs. They opted for the use of self-directed work teams (SDWTs), one of a long line of ideas that had been floated over the years as possible lean initiatives. A SDWT is defined as a group of employees who combine different skills and talents to work, essentially without managerial supervision, toward a common purpose or goal. And that’s where it got personal for Gaston Pelletier, who was delegated the task of implementing the approach as part of the firm’s 2010-2011 business plan. Gaston, who serves as VP of Continuous Improvement for CSS, began to educate himself on the SDWT philosophy, and figure out how it might work at CSS. Gaston discussed the approach with CBIA (Connecticut Business and Industry Association) to learn if there was any training that he could participate in, and to find out if anyone was using the approach locally. Then, he and a small group visited Dur-A-Flex, Inc., an East Hartford, CT manufacturer of seamless commercial and industrial flooring systems, which had adopted the approach a few years ago. Gaston really liked what he saw and began getting excited.  He really “saw the light” after reading Leading Self-Directed Work Teams: A Guide to Developing New Team Leadership Skills, by Kimball Fisher. The book is widely cited as the SDWT “Bible,” and provided a much-needed road map that would break down the approach into steps and guide their efforts. After reading the book (and insisting that others on the management team also read it), he began working with a pilot group selected to try out the approach. The group selected was the 11-member automatic loop and torsion (Auto Loop) team, which makes extension springs and complicated wire forms. When this part comes off a machine, it is usually a finished product and does not require many other processes. As one of the more self-contained of the work groups, auto loop does not rely on many of the other shop departments, making it easier to effect change by their own efforts.

Pilot self-directed work team takes off With a SDWT, management’s job is to set the initial objectives and then provide all the resources the team requests to accomplish them. The team is also free to develop its own sub-tier objectives; basically steps it wants to take to get to the overall objective (100% on-time delivery of product to their customers, with 100% quality). The team meets frequently, decides on achievable goals, and keeps working toward continuous improvement to accomplish them. Management is responsible for giving the SDWT the necessary authority to do whatever it takes to improve the process and reach new heights in terms of delivery performance – and then they step aside. “This is definitely the biggest step we have taken on our lean journey,” said Gaston. “We involve all the shop floor people to the ultimate level, and remove management from the picture.”  Giving the team the levers to pull led to a gradual taking on of more and more responsibility and ownership. Gaston himself served as a coach, initially guiding the team but ceding more and more latitude as the auto loop pilot team got rolling. He notes that the team immediately embraced the idea that they could make their own decisions and are in charge of their own destiny. Once they got going, they held numerous brainstorming sessions and the ideas began to flow. The shop floor workers had always found that there was not an effective feedback mechanism between the shop and the front office. This led to a variety of problems and issues, resulting in reduced performance. For example, detail on jobs was often lacking, there was incomplete understanding of which jobs should be run on which machines, and teams would frequently use different machines for particular jobs but not communicate that back to the front office. Jobs that required the same tools were scheduled to be set up on the same day on different machines. There were days-long gaps between finishing one job and setting up the next job on particular machines. Sometimes, three jobs with the same start date would be scheduled for one setup person, but no time set aside for set up on the previous week. Jobs were getting done, but slower and less efficiently. Rather than making required changes to synchronize the electronic schedule with actual shop floor realities, the group had just made them on an ad hoc basis, not communicating the issues with the master schedulers. The team’s first decision was to improve the business on the front end to make it work better on the shop floor. One of the first things the team did was to radically alter the way the actual work flow and timing of work among teams was synchronized with the master schedule and electronic systems. They developed a brand new master schedule job tracker/work flow board system to help them clearly visualize each job, including how long each will take, which machine it will run on, how much set up time is needed, and which operator is responsible for the job. The scheduling board displays all jobs scheduled for the next 6 months.  The scheduling personnel are alerted immediately when there are any conflicts or issues.  The team also established a process to continually provide feedback and changes to the master scheduler.  The electronic scheduling system was updated with the changes for all future work.  This process helped minimize schedule juggling going forward.


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