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Successful Implementations in Lean

Manufacturer of Film/Adhesive Products Sticks with Lean

By Karen Myhaver, Outreach Specialist, MassMEP

FLEXcon Company, Inc. of Spencer, Massachusetts, has manufactured pressure-sensitive film products for more than 50 years. By the 1980s, the company had reached $100 million in revenue but was experiencing too many workplace injuries and customer complaints about late deliveries. FLEXcon recognized a need to establish stronger quality control procedures if they wanted to fully meet the requirements of their customers and their employees. During the next decade, they focused on improving quality processes through Statistical Process Control (SPC) and successfully achieved ISO certification. With OSHA’s assistance, they made great strides with on-the-job safety as well.

In 2001, FLEXcon began to experience a reversal of 44 years of consistent growth in revenues and profit. During this time, FLEXcon President Neil McDonough learned about the potential of Lean to improve efficiency and produce other revenue-enhancing improvements. He told other members of management, "We need to do this." McDonough and two other managers attended a Lean seminar and their journey began.

$52,000 WTF Grant
FLEXcon began implementing Lean five years ago with the assistance of Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP) Project Manager Steve Szydlowski. All FLEXcon employees participated in workshops on basic Lean principles so everyone would understand the terms and tools and be part of the process.

MassMEP helped FLEXcon obtain a $52,000 Workforce Training Fund grant which they used to train their workers, help assess their processes, improve productivity and service, and reduce physical waste.

According to Mike Engel, Chief Operations Officer at FLEXcon, "FLEXcon is a 34-acre campus with additional facilities in Nebraska and other locations in the US and Europe. We are a $300 million-plus company. It is not just about the money, though. The $52,000 grant made a HUGE impact and we are millions ahead of the game as a result of adding Lean to our tool box."

The Cost of Doing Lean


FLEXcon’s initial cost of training, supplies, employee education


WTF grant



(FLEXcon’s investment in dollars)

Return on Investment (ROI)
Through Lean initiatives and other measures, FLEXcon have saved millions of dollars through:

  • 90% reduction in late shipments
  • 40% reduction in accidents
  • 11% reduction in waste
  • 35-40% increase in productivity

FLEXcon asks, "Can anyone really afford NOT to do Lean?"

What does Lean Mean at FLEXcon?
Lean is all about speed and getting it right the first time. "FLEXcon has had success because they are relentless," said Steve Szydlowski. "They look for opportunities and act on them. They do not spend time blaming each other for problems that they find; rather they put their energy into fixing them. Commitment has come from the top down. They use the Plan, Do, Check, Act method and document, set baselines, and keep moving forward. This is why they have been successful."

Mike Engel attributes the company’s success to listening, questioning, and fully understanding their customers’ requirements, then providing them with solutions. 

FLEXcon has manufacturing and distribution facilities in North America and Europe with approximately 1,100 employees in total. Most have been with the company an average of 13 years.

"Our partnership with Mass MEP was essential to our success," says Howard Letendre, Director of Finishing Technology at FLEXcon. "We needed the extra push and guidance to keep us headed in the right direction. Nine supervisors participated in train-the-trainer events so they could facilitate projects internally for us. Then, all of our employees participated in four-hour basic Lean training events. Many said it was the best training they had ever attended."

Lean implementation at FLEXcon included 5S activities (sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain) as well as Value Stream Mapping (VSM) and Kanban activities. The company introduced pull systems and used Kaizen teams made up of employees who actually do the specific job, their support people, and some employees from outside the department(s) to ask the "naive" questions. FLEXcon runs four shifts (two on weekdays, two on weekends), and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  Kaizens include representatives of all shifts and all areas, so there is no shift competition!

Idea Generation
Ideas generated by and acted on by employees have been a key to success for the company.  Employees have ownership and are committed to maintaining the integrity of the Lean process. Everyone communicates and works together. They are addressing customer needs as one company, whether in Massachusetts, Canada, Nebraska, Holland, or Scotland. They all share information and participate in Kaizens and VSMs. Active projects are posted on the company’s Intranet site so people can interact online. Making things visual and sharing suggestions has allowed everyone to participate and has made it easier to transition materials into ISO manuals.

Major Kaizen events have been held for packaging, scheduling, productivity, transportation, waste reduction, processing, and material handling. There were Lean Office Kaizens and Lean for Sales training, the latter having been invaluable to the sales force in helping them prepare for sales calls. Customers have responded favorably.

5S and VSM = Cost Savings
An example of a 5S improvement is the creation of a common set of tools. FLEXcon had been spending $1,200 per month for tool replacement. Each production employee had their own set of tools. Organization and standardization through 5S resulted in the creation of one common set of tools for each machine, which are returned to a specific location on a "shadow board" after use to assure the next worker can find them easily. FLEXcon now spends less than $1,200 per year on replacement tools.

Four other manufacturing plants supplement the Spencer manufacturing facility. Thousands of different products (film, topcoat, adhesive, and release liner) are manufactured by FLEXcon. During peak times, FLEXcon was experiencing a level of late orders that was of concern to both the company and some of its customers. Value Stream Mapping indicated needs related to reducing lead times, eliminating late orders, increasing productivity, and reducing waste. The Kaizen team chose to use Visual Scheduling over ERP or MRP systems. Using a visual approach (including color coding to indicate processes, equipment, or status) communicates objectives and provides clear expectations. Scheduling of equipment is done according to whatever is most efficient. Production workers can look ahead and run jobs consecutively that require the same machine or same adhesive. This reduces changeover time and waste. They can see the big picture, eliminate bottlenecks, and avoid duplicate handling of materials and paperwork.

The system allows for communication at a glance and can be tailored to specific needs. Visual Scheduling has also allowed FLEXcon to prioritize machine usage to most efficiently accommodate preventive maintenance.

Lead times have decreased from 13 to 8 days or less since implementing visual scheduling. The company has achieved a 90% reduction in late orders and 98-99% consistent on-time delivery.        

Cleanup and changeover improvements and the addition of new machines have helped produce an 11% reduction in waste.

Fewer Injuries, Less Waste
Injuries were reduced by automating parts of the process of moving the rolls of film on the packaging line. This was previously done manually. There have been no lifting injuries or back injuries in packaging since this automation was added. 

Dave Lachapelle, Inventory and Materials Manager, indicated that changes made through truck traffic and recycling training were done in the six interconnected Spencer facilities during four-day Kaizen events using employee teams. Value Stream Mapping and Spaghetti Diagrams of previously existing situations showed the number of fork truck trips per day, miles traveled per day, and worker-hours by fork truck operators per day.

The results of the VSM and diagramming encouraged the 15-employee team to create central hub locations in the facilities. This required moving warehouse and staging departments. Two facilities were combined. FLEXcon now utilizes point of use storage (POUS) and packaging is located close to finishing. They revised the internal trucking procedures, and changed the inventory storage system to plastic pallets and rolling racks. Internal and external suppliers make "milk runs" to replenish supplies. The group mapped zones and identified hubs within these zones which utilize fork trucks most effectively.

FLEXcon achieved a 4% reduction in trips, a 29% reduction in miles, a 10% reduction in hours, and a 50% reduction in material handling. They also saved more than $100,000 on fork trucks and their maintenance. Waste and damage in this area has been cut by about one-third over three years.

In addition, a new packaging system with no end panels and core plugs has decreased damage. An annual saving of $160,000 is a direct result of this new packaging alone.

Lean is Ongoing and Employee-Driven
FLEXcon employees are periodically updated with the results of the work being done. Individuals are coached to help them develop new competencies as projects continue. If manpower requirements are reduced for certain activities (such as fork  truck operations), FLEXcon is conscientious about preparing workers for, and assigning them to, other, value-added jobs. This means no one loses their employment due to Lean improvements, and allows for reduction through normal attrition (retirements and other voluntary departures.) This is management’s commitment to the employees. Lean implementation at FLEXcon is employee-driven and as it moves forward, Lean problem solving and decision-making have become an integral part of the day-to-day process. It is no longer something they have to remind themselves to do.

Tom Kubacki, Director of Coating Technology at FLEXcon, made the following suggestions for successful Lean implementation:

  • If it is good, do it immediately.
  • Throw out traditional concepts.
  • Ask "why" five times.
  • The ideas of 10 people are better than the knowledge of one.
  • Don’t accept excuses.
  • Improvement knows no bounds.

In closing, Mike Engel focuses on the factors motivating FLEXcon’s Lean Implementation:

Survival: FLEXcon wanted to be here tomorrow and needed to invest in that.

Greed: We are all here to make money. Everyone benefits when the company is successful.

Employees: There are some 1,100 employees at FLEXcon. They expect management to make the right choices so that everyone can benefit.

Culture: It starts at the top. Management is expected to schedule time for continuous improvement and help foster that culture among employees.

"The Lean training and continuous improvement have helped with consistency throughout all of FLEXcon’s locations," stated Engel. "Continuous improvement is the core cultural need in any organization. The advantage of working with MassMEP is that they have trained facilitators with years of manufacturing experience who coached our people to succeed and to sustain the gains. This was key in getting the output and buy-in of our employees."


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