Front Row

Clean Manufacturing

By Jack Kenny | November 21, 2013

A sparkling plant improves work, product and sales.

“Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run.”
— Mark Twain

First impressions are among the most difficult things to change. One of the most discomforting experiences is walking through the front door of a label converting company into a tiny chamber with no chairs, no heat, and a window to the inside with nobody on the other side of it. Once inside, of course, everyone’s friendly, and perhaps the icy foyer experience fades. Far more disturbing is the observation that the place is not as clean as it should be.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting spotless label manufacturing plants as well as the disappointment of witnessing plants that were cluttered, sloppy and grimy. On the whole, label converters tend toward cleanliness, but there are degrees, and only a few can be counted among the shiniest.

The focus on Lean Manufacturing over the past decade and more has provided the impetus for printers to maintain a clean environment. The basic principle of Lean is to eliminate waste in every aspect of the business, and physical cleanliness, along with orderliness and tidiness, is a major part of waste elimination.

Lean practitioners are familiar with what is called 5S, the workplace organization method that underlies the entire system. The S-words are Japanese, but they have English translations also starting with S: Sorting (Seiri); Straightening or Setting in Order to Flow or Streamlining (Seiton); Systematic Cleaning (Seiso); Standardize (Seiketsu); Sustain (Shitsuke). Seiso is cleanliness.

A converting operation is not clean. Ink will do its best to color everything. Paper substrates generate great quantities of dust just being moved about the plant; run them through a press, a diecutter and a slitter and the particles fly. Dust covers everything, of course, but it adheres magically to plastic substrates, especially when not wanted. That’s why web cleaning machinery exists.

Presses require lubricants, which transform invisible particulate into grime. Machines that are dirty eventually become difficult to operate effectively, and product defects can result. Contamination of the printed and converted material itself is a possibility. If a machine is dirty, inspection is a challenge. It might be rather subjective to declare that filthy machinery can depress the operator and the operation and lower the standard of work, but I’m willing to bet that no award-winning label has been produced on a dirty press by an uncaring operator.

Lean experts have suggested that two additional S-words are useful: safety and security. If equipment isn’t clean, there’s a chance that it isn’t properly cared for, which increases the risk of machine failure and personal injury.

“I have never seen a filthy piece of equipment run fast,” says Ray Prince, a printing consultant who served as technical services director of PIA/GATF for 39 years. “And I have never seen a filthy piece of equipment run good work. The best time to clean, he adds, is “all the time.”

Sure, you can keep your equipment clean, but dirt from other parts of the operation can travel easily throughout the rest of the plant. “Dirt in the paper storage area can make its way onto and into the paper, the press room, the ink fountains, and so many more places,” Prince says.

I have been in label printing plants, all of them Lean operations, that provide highly visible areas in all production departments where brooms, mops, wipes, brushes, and cleansers are displayed. These are expected to be used daily, and they are, because it shows in the lustre of the environment.

If you put a piece of pressure sensitive material, printed or blank, into anyone’s hand, the automatic reflex is to peel off the liner and stick it somewhere. In many a label converting shop, that’s a daily practice. Press operator work areas usually display a range of stickers, as do the rewinders, the shippers, and others. I have seen large pieces of equipment decorated with random labels. In a Lean workplace, that practice will be discouraged and eliminated. Seiso might seem to be a killjoy principle at first, but it does succeed in attacking sloppiness, which is what sticker madness really is.

Trash cans. I’m quite aware that very large trash receptacles are everywhere in a label production facility, because when I visit them I bring a camera to take photos of equipment and operators in action. Without fail, trash cans will be in prominent view in just about all of the pictures. Hey, they are necessary, but they should be clean, and cleaned regularly. Without stickers all over them, too.

Don’t think that this screed about grime and clutter and dust applies only to the production areas. Cleanliness must be company-wide. Customer service and all other front office areas should be orderly and clean. The cleaning crew can see to the basics, but each employee has the responsibility to keep his or her office or cubicle in inspection mode. Visitors notice.

Keeping equipment clean all the time is the first step in machinery maintenance. It will make inspections and repairs easier. It can instill pride in employees. But are there any other significant benefits to keeping the plant sparkling?

No doubt you have had occasion to bring your customers, and your potential customers, into your plant for a tour. (Some printers in fact do not invite clients into the production areas.) How does grime, clutter, stains and stray trash work for you on those occasions? Does cleanliness, or lack thereof, play a role in the visitor’s decision to retain your services? It does.

Think that this screed about grime and clutter and dust does not apply only to the production areas. Cleanliness must be company-wide. Customer service and all other front office areas should be orderly and clean. The cleaning crew can see to the basics, but each employee has the responsibility to keep his or her office or cubicle in inspection mode. Visitors notice.

Another type of visitor is the potential buyer of a printing business, and that person or group will note well the level of cleanliness of your plant. That perception will have a direct bearing on the buyer’s assessment of the owner and his or her level of control and involvement in the entire operation. The owner of a clean plant most likely strives for order (seiton) in his personal life as well as in business life, and the potential buyer knows that that type of personality will be far easier to work with than the opposite. The unclean plant implies disorder in the functioning of the owner, and that will raise red flags in the minds of the acquiring party.

Cleanliness and order are not matters of instinct; they are matters of education, and like most great things, you must cultivate a taste for them.”
— Benjamin Disraeli

Both Disraeli and Twain, it should be noted, referred pointedly to education in their quips about cleanliness. No one is born with a hand-washing or a teeth-brushing gene. Some things, and cleanliness is among them, must be taught. Sometimes that education requires the expunging, or deprogramming, of bad habits. The diligent pursuit of Lean principles will bring that education. The training is difficult, and for some it can be painful, and might even result in a new job somewhere else.

But that clean plant will be a great new experience for everyone. For the visitor, who really should have at least a chair in the waiting room, that clean plant will provide an absolutely positive first impression.

The author is president of Jack Kenny Media, a communications firm specializing in the packaging industry, and is the former editor of L&NW magazine. He can be reached at