Work Cells Reach New Levels Of Productivity

Super Sack Manufacturing produces flexible intermediate bulk containers at its manufacturing plants in Texas, Virginia and Mexico. The containers are made from woven polypropylene and used for shipping, handling and storing dry materials.

Columns From: 1/2/1999 Modern Machine Shop,

Super Sack Manufacturing produces flexible intermediate bulk containers at its manufacturing plants in Texas, Virginia and Mexico. The containers are made from woven polypropylene and used for shipping, handling and storing dry materials.

Super Sack used traditional manufacturing techniques until 1989, when the company experimented with a manufacturing cell. The experimental cell worked so well that Super Sack has established self-directed manufacturing cells at all of its plants. During Super Sack's manufacturing "transformation," the company learned many things.

Super Sack established the experimental work cell by taking the best people from each department and grouping them together to produce complete products. The members of the cell were asked to develop ways to improve the quality and productivity of the products being made, while focusing on the needs of the customers. According to Christina Krebbs, Super Sack's corporate training manager, the cell was established to foster an environment where people understood that they made a difference.

Although the experimental cell was a success, with improvements in quality and productivity, the success was not without headaches. The company found that using the best of the best workers caused disagreements. These highly skilled workers had developed their own ways of doing things and were not always open to other team members' ideas.

The next cell was set up in a new plant in Bonham, Texas. The cellular implementation went relatively smoothly, as the people involved learned from the successes and failures of the experimental cell. It took about one year for the operation to be deemed a success.

Super Sack established its third cell in Savoy, Texas, in an existing facility. The cellular arrangement required retrofitting the existing plant. In Savoy, change was much more difficult. Comments like "We like the way it is, why change?" were frequent. There also was a greater fear of employees losing their jobs in this plant. After three years, though, the Savoy implementation was deemed a success.

Since the Savoy implementation, Super Sack has established team-based cells in new plants in Virginia and Mexico.

According to Ms. Krebbs, Super Sack has learned a great deal about what makes self-directed manufacturing cells successful in its plants. Lessons learned include:

  • Employees must take ownership of the areas of the business assigned to them. You have to treat employees like business partners. Assign responsibility to teams and trust them to fulfill these responsibilities.
  • Recognize that any type of change is uncomfortable. Try to focus on what the new team responsibilities are going to be, then provide the needed skills training.
  • Cellular implementations are smoother in new sites than in existing plants.
  • A team environment must demonstrate trust (especially from management), sharing of information, sharing of expectations, accountability for all members of the team, and mutual respect.

Communication and problem-solving.

A team leader is critical to the success of a manufacturing team. The team leader counsels members of the team who may not be performing effectively, assures all safety procedures are followed, and recommends candidates for the team to hire. The team leader also has the following responsibilities:

  • Leads but doesn't push,
  • Asks and doesn't tell,
  • Coordinates team meetings,
  • Shares information,
  • Tracks productivity and scrap levels for the day, and
  • Handles the payroll.

Also, morning meetings maintain the momentum. These meetings should recap the previous day's results, establish and gain commitment to the current day's goals, recognize team contributions, share information (including finances, job openings, customer feedback, and capital planing), and celebrate successes.

Super Sack's manufacturing cells have effectively handled the responsibilities of production goals, quality control, documentation, and problem-solving. In addition, these team-based manufacturing cells have created positive momentum, a key to Super Sack's ongoing success. 

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