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Successful Implementations in Lean

Kaizens Keep Corrugated Manufacturer Thinking Outside the Box

By Karen Myhaver, Program Support Coordinator, MassMEP

Massachusetts Container Corp’s Unicorr Packaging Group, a corrugated manufacturer, had been experiencing more financial difficulties in their Marlboro, Massachusetts facility than in any of their other five locations. With a large number of competitors in the area, they had to keep prices low to satisfy their customers. Additionally, 75% of what the plant produced was just filling shelves in the warehouse.

"For the longest time, the philosophy was that the corrugator had to run to make money," said Helene Blanchette, Unicorr’s Corporate Director of Lean Enterprise. "The mind set was that the machines always had to be operating, regardless of whether or not anyone was paying for what was produced."

Unicorr Packaging Group was introduced to the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP) by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) who had done some soft skills training work at the company and recommended MassMEP to assist them with their Lean Implementation. With lots of work ahead of her and multiple facilities to deal with, Blanchette convinced upper management that MassMEP’s involvement would be beneficial saying they are "a voice from outside which will give more credence to what we are trying to do!"

MassMEP’s Jim Gusha worked with Helene to apply for a Workforce Training Fund Grant to train the 100+ employees at the Massachusetts location first due to the availability of the grant funding in the state. Basic Lean Training was provided in both English and Spanish to familiarize all employees with Lean terms and tools so they would understand what was taking place. Other training focused on Value Stream Mapping to evaluate processes and identify wastes followed by Kaizens events to remove those wastes.

Senior managers had to learn to be coaches and not order givers in order for Lean to work.
Ten years ago, Unicorr tried to introduce Lean but management was not totally on board and employees never got involved. This made it more difficult to try the implementation this time because many thought it was the "flavor of the month".

"Had we not tried (Lean) before, things would have been easier," said Helene. "Many employees have been with the company for twenty-plus years and have tribal knowledge. Culture change was key and it is certainly on the way. Initially, many felt threatened and thought that eliminating waste might mean their jobs. Once they saw what it is all about they embraced Lean and have gotten involved. Employees realize that Lean makes things easier for them.

Visuals Make Things Easier
One challenge was to help people realize that producing corrugated to just sit around was wasteful, especially since nobody was being billed for it. Ultimately, nine or ten conveyor lines were removed from the plant floor and the space was repurposed to house a color-coded hanging rack system for over five thousand printing plates. The system is visual; it is easy to find what you need since the plates are arranged by job and are hung to prevent damage. The print jobs are stored on computer and printed out with pictures so people who may not read English can still understand how to process the job.

Responding to Client Needs
Through ongoing Kaizen activities, changes and improvements have been made throughout the plant. These include moving and relocating both the shipping and plating areas and revamping the warehouse which is 80% of the process. As a service oriented company, Unicorr needed to make their clients comfortable with the idea of "just in time" delivery as they went from producing way too much inventory to a three week supply. They eventually will reduce that further. With so much competition in their industry, outstanding customer service must be a focus. Recently, a customer honored Unicorr with a Supplier Excellence Award for their ability and willingness to assist that client in their Lean program by scheduling smaller, more frequent deliveries of corrugated, packed to specific height and box size requirements to accommodate storage capabilities.

Vendor Managed Inventory
"Chuck" Judson, Unicorr’s Maintenance Supervisor, was the only person who knew where certain tools or parts were located in his department.

"During the 6s Kaizen event in maintenance, we cleaned and sorted and threw out dumpsters full of old, obsolete, or broken parts and then started from scratch," said Judson. Now the maintenance department is a well organized area with color coding and labeling, shadow boards, and bright energy efficient lighting. Parts are arranged according to the machine they go to.

"Anyone working in maintenance can quickly find what they need to make repairs or improvements," Judson added.

In the maintenance storage room they got rid of old machinery and clutter and created an area to make up their own hydraulic hoses so they no longer have to buy them. Several suppliers/vendors make bread runs to replenish parts in the department and with this vendor managed inventory employees are not wasting time counting and ordering.

One of the most fulfilling projects at Unicorr involved a team from the machine shop working with the machine operators to determine better ways to maintain the equipment. This freed up the maintenance staff to handle the more critical situations

Continuous improvement is now evident all over the plant. The old shipping office was torn down and a new one was built on the plant floor to be accessible to the processes that utilize it. As an ISO certified facility, Unicorr documents and posts procedures and signage. For one very loud machine they have even developed their own hand signals for communicating and made posters so that these signals are the standard for whoever operates the machines. Water from the corrugated making processes is collected and cleaned and either reused in the process or on shop floor for other cleaning/washing purposes. Scrap corrugated is baled, weighed, and shipped back to the mill to make into paper again. An ink supermarket has been set up with Kanbans on racks, color coded according to which machine they are used on. At the employees suggestion, job tickets were redesigned to highlight the job number. Quality is tested throughout the manufacturing process to make sure that the product meets specifications and to watch for signs of problems with machinery. The entire warehouse has been revamped from relocating doors and departments to simply cleaning and organizing.

"Support from the union members at the facility has made the projects go very smoothly," said Ed Santiago, Production Manager. "Now it is time to revisit what we have done and bring it from nice to WOW!"

Unicorr’s Massachusetts plant has realized a cost savings of approximately 15%.

The facility is cleaner, more visual, and well organized. Equipment runs better because it is being properly maintained. Productivity has increased. Downtime has decreased. On time delivery went from 73% in 2007 to 83% in 2008. They have seen a 7.9% improvement in man hours worked per thousand square feet from 3,333 to 3,597. Machines have seen productivity improvements ranging from 4.6% to 22.35% over a two year time period. Complaints within the company have decreased 70% since 2006 and dollars associated with complaints have decreased 36.4% in the same time.

"We (MassMEP) provided Unicorr with a working process of some long and short-term improvements that would need to be accomplished," said MassMEP Project Manager John Killam. "The first step was to make some usable work space in the manufacturing area. Value Stream Mapping exercises helped the company decide which material had a purpose and which was clutter and could be eliminated to simplify and organize the work environment. They were able to reclaim space and identify other areas where processes could be improved. We worked with employees at the ground level up to management. I was impressed with the involvement of the staff and their commitment to following through with the new techniques they learned."

Much of the company’s success has come from the teamwork between Blanchette and Santiago. As the designated Lean Leader, Blanchette can focus on the process and keep people motivated and on task. Lean Express, the company newsletter she produces keeps employees updated and connected, (especially between locations) and is a vehicle for sharing ideas and helping hold people accountable. With Santiago’s assistance, Unicorr employees are scheduling their own Kaizen events.

"The people on the floor really make the company run," said Santiago. "Lean has empowered them and given them a say."

"The attitude has changed. People have opened up," stated Blanchette. "Supervisors now see that if they involve the people from the floor the message is spread further – and buy-in happens. Natural leaders step up. We have had events and people really enjoyed the team spirit because they are not accustomed to working together. The element of fear (of Lean) is gone."

Unicorr Packaging Group’s corporate headquarters are in North Haven, Connecticut, with four other facilities, primarily in the east and in New England. Their corrugated products range from simple pads, RSC’s (regular slotted cartons), and die-cuts to complicated point of purchase displays and retail packaging, from small runs to large runs. Massachusetts Container Corporation is located in Marlboro, Massachusetts.

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