Continuous Improvement

By Jack Kenny | April 26, 2007

Lean Manufacturing and other continuous improvement methods have been in place at many converting plants for up to a few years. Here's a progress report.

Lean Manufacturing was first implemented in the previous century, so the story goes, by Toyota. Taiichi Ohno was a Toyota executive who abhorred waste, and developed a program called the Toyota Production System, now world famous and the model for many an improvement plan. The word for waste in Japanese is muda, and one of the best descriptions of muda comes from Lean Thinking by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones:

"Muda. It's the one word of Japanese you really must know. It sounds awful as it rolls off your tongue and it should, because muda means 'waste', specifically any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value: mistakes which require rectification, production of items no one wants so that inventories and remaindered goods pile up, processing steps which aren't actually needed, movement of employees and transport of goods from one place to another without any purpose, groups of people in a downstream activity standing around waiting because an upstream activity has not delivered on time, and goods and services which don't meet the needs of the customer."

Lean Manufacturing was developed to attack and eliminate the above obstacles. Though it has been in practice for some decades, the label converting industry, and printing in general, has expressed interest only since the turn of the century. Lean is one of several continuous improvement strategies being pursued today by a fair number of converters, and a few have shared their thoughts about the process and the results that they, their employees and their customers have experienced. Opinions are also provided by a few consultants to the industry.

Hub Labels

"We tried to implement Lean in the 1990s, but it was a miscalculation," says Thomas Dahbura, vice president of Hub Labels, Hagerstown, MD, USA. "We thought that people could self-direct in teams, but it didn't work. They liked not being the boss, or didn't have the skills to be the boss."

Dahbura underwent training in continuous improvement strategies after that experience, and instituted a Lean program in one of the company's two print production areas in 2006. Everyone involved undertook kaizen events, which examine a problem in detail with the goal of continuous incremental improvement.

"We wanted to decrease our setup times, so we defined the setup function as a series of 'touches'," Dahbura says, adding that a touch is every operation that goes into setting up the press. "After the kaizen event and implementation of changes, the touches went from 12 minutes per touch, in some cases, to five minutes. That's a significant reduction."

"Since then we have reduced our setup times 30 to 50 percent, and our run speeds have increased easily by 30 to 40 percent."

Luminer Converting

Inventory control was a major problem at Luminer Converting, Lakewood, NJ, USA, according to President Tom Spina. "Even though we had a system, it was not functioning properly. We had too much inventory, too much money being spent on it, too much cash outlay, not enough spent on other things.

"We attacked that area viciously, got everybody involved, did as much as we could to cut out inventory. In three or four weeks we removed four 30-foot Dumpster of crap. Then we took two tractor trailers and put in it the stuff we didn't want to throw away but probably wouldn't use. We opened up 2,000 square feet of floor space and put the packaging area there. We had been looking for more space in an outside building, and now we don't have to do that. We put in a bar code system for inventory, and now we can see every item we have on our computer.

"The dollar ramifications are huge. We pay bills in 10 days now because we have fewer bills to pay, and now we have discounts. We made back the money we paid last year in interest on our credit line because we have so much less inventory. In 18 months we took our inventory from well over $400,000 to under $200,000, and in those 18 months the company grew 20 percent.

"It was an enormous undertaking, but it was worth it," Spina says. "This Lean is a bunch of sayings, and one of them is: If you have too much inventory, you probably don't have what you need when you need it."

While some companies focus directly on print production as their first targets for continuous improvement, that's not  a requirement. "You can apply Lean to specific aspects of your company and get great results," says Spina. "There's another Lean saying: 'Pick the low hanging fruit, and you'll get the biggest rewards.'

"The next area we focused on was our press benches. We got rid of everybody's tool boxes and standardized. No other tools in the building. We went on a shopping spree at Home Depot, we moved out extra work benches, set up shadow boards, and mounted all the new tools on them. If a tool is missing at the end of a week they pay for it. We cleaned up the floors, and now the shop is really open and clean looking. The next step is to put up modular walls and install air conditioning."

Luminer Converting has been assisted in its Lean venture by the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program; similar operations exist in almost all US states. "Through them we received a grant which paid for 90 percent of the consultancy fees we incurred," Spina notes.

Tailored Label Products

At Tailored Label Products in Menomonee Falls, WI, USA, President Mike Erwin has been heading the Lean Manufacturing effort since he joined the company three years ago. The changes, he reports, have been significant.

Illustration courtesy of Tailored Label Products.

"In the past 12 months we have made a dramatic step change in inspection and product verification," he says. "Because of the complexity of some of the products we are converting for some clients, we have added horsepower in process engineering and process planning. In one area we added a 20-year veteran chemical engineer for inks and coatings formulations and substrates, to better dial in the process in converting of exotic films. We are diecutting laminates and labels and also creating finished products for clients out of multiproducts. Our pre-production planning is dramatically stepped up.

"A year ago we went through a full-blown value stream mapping in the front office, with the goal of accelerating order entry and streamlining all front end processes. It took more than five months: measuring literal distances people walk, positioning equipment, supplies, work stations, automating some things using computer capacity versus some manual structure. We segmented types of orders into groups so we won't do them all the same way.

"The company grew in the high 20 percentile last year and we didn't add a single head in the front end of our office," Erwin adds. "We freed up capacity by doing this.

"And the results are awesome: A typical order could, in theory, take 40 hours from the time a customer called until the documents were at the press. We got it down to three to four hours."

One of the critical steps in the Lean process is to create a value stream map (VSM), which identifies every action required to design, order and make a specific product. These actions are aptly categorized in Lean Thinking: "(1) those which actually create value as perceived by the customer; (2) those which create no value but are currently required by the product development, order filling or production systems and so can't be eliminated just yet; and (3) those actions which don't create value as perceived by the customer and so can be eliminated immediately."

Mike Erwin describes a recent result his company has had from mapping value streams. "We have an old press that is too setup intensive as far as cleaning and prepping and managing inks. The press has been used mostly for a family of products that use a lot of flood ink. There are four types and sizes of tags, so the permutations were extremely waste intensive, given the web length and the antiquated nature of the old press. We charted and tracked the color-to-color waste, idle time and size-to-size waste across two shifts. Now we can easily cut time and waste in half, and this is a direct result of our value stream mapping and waste reduction analysis. It gave us the elements to define the cost that helped us rationalize funding a brand new Nilpeter press."

Label World

With the backing of an investment company, Richard Spencer acquired Label World, in Rochester, NY, USA, in January 2006. He understood continuous improvement, and wanted to put his knowledge to work at a label converting plant. "Prior to acquiring the company I had made an assessment of operations right down to analyzing waste and machine up time," he says. "I had an ingoing hypothesis of where I needed to take the business from an operational standpoint. But I didn't bring that in from Day 1. You have to get buy-in; it's important to involve people, to get commitments, to follow up on commitments, to engage people in the whole process. I  started by talking about continuous improvement, that it would be a major theme of the business for the coming years."

They started small, choosing a pilot area. "We took some equipment and focused on changeover times, machine condition and throughput rates on that equipment. We ran several kaizen teams over several months. One area of improvement that resulted was in roll change time. We saw a dramatic reduction. Our roll change time target was 50 percent. What they delivered was 70 percent. We made a video of the changes, and the teams begin to see that there actually is a lot of waste in the processes. This collection of information had a significant impact on the overall throughput rate."

With all the machinery, they established clean-and-check events. "Our teams picked over each machine and identified every leak, rattle, screw, and warm part," Spencer says. "We got the machines back into sort of original condition and developed a maintenance schedule to operate it in almost new condition. This served to stablize the equipment and get it into optimal condition. We looked at throughput rates, trying to understand the limitations to machine speeds. As you dial speed up you create problems, so we experimented, looking for constraints and identifying them.

"We studied layout work methods, how to reconfigure the positioning of the equipment so that everything is in the hands of the operator, so that there is no looking around for materials. We examined methods to get more good product through the process. Each of these events involved several operators as well as others who didn't know the process as well but injected thinking into it.

"We took the same concept to the warehouse. We needed to have a specified slot for each material so we could find them at the press of a button. We have implemented a new IT system and improved the way we catalog inventory. It used to rely on a talented associate wondering where everything was; now the system knows. With 800 to 900 transactions a month, you have to have that information accurate.

Introducing continuous improvement to the actual printing process, Spencer says, is a challenge. "It's a complicated beast with lots of different process variables. It generates lots of waste and downtime, plus wait time for inks, substrates, plates, what have you. When we really drill into it we find that the percentage of time it's producing good saleable product is surprisingly small. Most of the time is spent setting up, washing up, wrestling with problems, running waste. When we took all of that out of the picture and saw how much time are we actually making good finished product that we are going to sell, there was a bit of shock and surprise, a revelation to the associates."

Label World recently invested in Visual Factory, a machine monitoring system from dmmTechnology, a division of REI LLC. "It measures every foot of substrate, all waste," Spencer says. "It gives real time feedback during the job, allowing operators to try to do something about a problem right there and then. We piloted one system on a press for a while, and recently have rolled it out across all major presses. We are beginning to see progress. It has heightened awareness to what's causing waste of various kinds. It has stimulated a fantastic dialogue about figuring out better ways, stimulating debates about what causes waste and downtime and how to run more efficiently."

Spencer adds that the Label World had been "completely full, spacewise, but we have freed up 15 percent of the plant" by implementing improvement strategies. "When the time is right to invest in additional equipment we now have a home for it. We have done 35 percent more volume in the first four months of this year than in the first four months of last year, and at the same time have improved on-time delivery." The work force, he adds, has grown slightly.

Advice from the experts

Help is also available in our industry, through consultants and suppliers. Avery Dennison has an in-house program called Fasson Optimum Performance which gives continuous improvement training and advice to its customers. The members of the Fasson team are trained in Six Sigma methodologies, as well as Lean Manufacturing, and are known as black belts.

"We target projects to be 100 days," says Renae Kulis, manager of the Fasson Optimum Performance team. "If it's longer, typically the momentum will fall. If it's a large effort, sometimes it never will get finished. Our goal is to have them not become dependent on us. We will help them implement a continuous improvement program, and we don't have to come back, except to work on another aspect of their operation."

This year the team will do about 20 projects, Kulis says. Its focus is on every aspect of the company, from the front office to production, the entire value stream of the plant.

What company is right for a Lean transformation? Ron Irwin, a former label company executive and president of REI LLC, a Lean consultancy based in Flagstaff, AZ, USA, says that the process is more difficult for smaller firms.

"The bigger the company the more committed they tend to be to the process," Irwin says. "They have a corporate initiative. Mid-size and smaller companies want to be Lean, but many can't maintain it. Things come up in their businesses and they just kind of wander. More people are trying, but I'm not sure that they will have the longevity.

"For a mid-size business to maintain the process, it almost has to have a change of management — someone coming in from outside, perhaps from a Fortune 500. The reason outside people can do it much easier is that they have been indoctrinated from the beginning; that's the only way they think, and they personally don't have to change. The owners who lose sleep over this don't know when enough is enough, or not enough, and it drives them nuts. You almost have to be born with the Lean gene to do it successfully."

Tom Southworth is president of Southworth Consulting, a recently launched firm based in Niantic, CT, USA, aimed at working specifically with printers who want to pursue continuous improvement.

"Label printers have embraced Lean Manufacturing more easily because of the size of orders, the quickness of turnarounds (much smaller than commercial print jobs), constantly changing dies, and the running of three or four orders in a day. Label printers have embraced some of the tools in Lean that help them with that type of market: quick changeover, getting cycle times down, getting jobs through faster. They have not embraced transforming their businesses with everything Lean can give them."

From time to time he encounters companies who say they have "dabbled" in Lean.

"They don't understand what this is all about," says Southworth, who has held management positions at several label converting companies. "Their management team decided to dabble with a couple of the tools and thinks that's Lean. That's like looking at a pile of wood and a hammer and thinking that you have a house."

Managers and workers

"Printing companies have heard about this Lean thing," Southworth says, "and they decide to appoint a company to look into it. That's not the way it has to happen. It has to be the top dog who has to embrace this, the top executive, who has to understand this and motivate everyone.

"In my experience, when the site manager, plant manager, general manager, the owner — the highest level site executive — is driving this change, it's always successful. If he or she is not driving it, it's doomed.

"Lead by example. If you are willing to change your own personal habits, you can change your company. But if the owner does not show the willingness to find the time for Lean, then no one else will have time for it."

Lean training involves a series of tools known as 5S. The original words are Japanese, but they have been anglicized as Sort, Set in order, Sanitize, Standardize, and Sustain. According to Southworth, they are roughly defined as follows:

-    Sort: Get rid of the junk you don't use daily
-    Set in order: Put it where it's going to be used
-    Sanitize: Clean up
-    Standardize: Make it your way of life
-    Sustain: Keep it going

"Most people are very good at the first two S's, maybe the third, but not too much. The fourth and fifth are terrible. They revert to sloppiness, they slide back because they don't understand that 5S is a tool, not the entire package of Lean. Again, it's ownership from top, an everyday way of life.

"When I go into some place, I push 5S from the beginning. First, it's very visible to everyone; second, it gets folks behind it, and energizes them. Third, it gives an insight into management, whether they will have the stomach for the hard stuff in Lean.

"If the top managers are not out there every day walking the walk, making sure people are doing sustaining and sanitizing, if they don't have the determination to make 5S stick, there is no way they will be successful in making a Lean transformation."

Continuous improvement requires the dedication of the employees, and it requires them to change the ways they think and look at their workplace and work life. It also might involve saying goodbye to some people. But not always.

"People quit because of the way it's presented to them," says Tom Southworth. "Some people have refused to participate, saying that they've been there for so many years and they know what they're doing. We call them CAVE people: Citizens Against Virtually Everything.

"Sure there are those who can't be changed, but almost nobody comes to work the first time as a CAVE person; they are driven there by management. These people usually have good ideas and intentions and want to do a good job, but were told to check their brains at the door and do as they are told. That's why, again, the owner has to take ownership of this: 'It's not the person that has to change, it's the process.'

"Listen to these folks. Allow improvements to happen. Your employees are going to have very good ideas. Some will not, but you have to allow them to try their ideas. The moment you say no to them you will shut them down. In your shop you have hundreds of years of experience. Some of them know a better way."

Southworth says that a company engaging in a Lean Manufacturing transformation must have a no-layoff policy. "If you do, you will kill your momentum. Put them into other positions. Some will go. Don't leave the best people on the equipment. Take best people and make them your next change agency, make them run the next kaizen event, use them to continuously improve.

"You need to free up resources, you have to decide in the beginning, before the beginning, if you have too many people. Let the anchor draggers go before you even begin the transformation. This message — 'We are not going to let people go because of the improvements we are going to make' — must be made clear.

"People also need to understand that printing companies have seen every management fad: Deming, Zero Defects, TQM, JIT. They've heard it and seen it. They are going to look at this and say, 'Here we go again.' The owner or top manager has to do a lot of convincing with everyone, to be open and honest and up front with them. It has to be the business owner."

"It's hard. It's really hard. This is one of the hardest things I've done in my life," says Hub Labels' Thomas Dahbura. "I've had sleepless nights, wondering if I've done the right things. You have to tough it out, and you have to have a good group of people around you."

"Lean isn't hard," says Southworth. "Believing in Lean is hard. It's so contrary to what we have been taught. It flies in the face of conventional business thinking."