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Growing a New Work Culture at ESCO
Photos and Story by James Hill
by Chris MooreFor Portland-based ESCO Corporation, the key to competitive advantage is continuous improvement. But adopting a new culture?one that emphasizes employee leadership and problem-solving as well as best practices in manufacturing?is not easy. With the help of Portland Community College’s Customized and Workplace Training Department, the northwest Portland steel foundry has been transformed from a facility crammed with excess inventory and slowed by unnecessary downtime to a sleek, just-in-time operation.ESCO collaborated with Mary Chalkiopoulos, CWT co-director, in late 2000 to apply for federal dollars available through the U.S. Department of Labor and the Oregon Community College and Workforce Development department. The $100,000 grant was used to fund eight focused events – also known as Kaizen Blitz, a Japanese continuous improvement model – the following year.Each event focused on a different problem but followed a similar format: a group of frontline workers gathered for several days to look at current manufacturing practices and come up with ideas for improvement that didn’t involve large capital investment.Kaizen-focused events had been used at the company’s plant in Covington, Ky., with good results. Officials at Portland’s Plant 3 decided to go a step further and document the entire process so it could be shared both within the company and with other firms interested in adopting a lean manufacturing strategy."The grant allowed us to bring in PCC to help us make sense of the process,"says Plant Manager Dale Gehring. "When you’re in the middle of something, you tend to focus on results, and don’t always keep track of how you got there. PCC helped us to analyze and document the improvement process so we can replicate it."Nearly half of the plant’s 118 hourly employees took part in the focused events. Each group followed a common set of ground rules designed to promote openness and identify bottlenecks without placing blame. The result was many small changes adding up to substantial improvements in productivity.As a result of the focused events: Visual work instructions are now posted in all areas to standardize operations and eliminate guesswork; carts that are easy to move and organize have replaced storage bins; the plant has eliminated huge inventories and has cut production time by employing the "first in, first out"approach; ovens used for heat-treating are now on a schedule that eliminates waiting and cuts energy costs; the plant has grouped together complementary operations to speed workflow; and A number of changes have been made to significantly reduce setup time in some areas."In addition to making process improvements, the Kaizen events gave frontline people a chance to develop and practice leadership skills,"says Manufacturing Manager Aaron Koehler. "That was an important goal from the outset."The manufacturing process isn’t the only thing that’s changed at Plant 3. Employees at all levels are taking a new interest in making things better. "I was surprised at the way things improved,"says Dave Sabin, an employee in the Finishing department. "I didn’t think scheduling the ovens to start at different times would work, but it does.""By standardizing operations, we know what we’re looking at now,"says Finishing Team Leader Robert Van Riper. "There’s less stress and more predictability."Participants give credit for these improvements to the success of the Kaizen events. "We started thinking outside the box,"says Cal Mitchell, who works in Mold and Core. "We’re now able to do more with less, and it’s a better place to work."With the support of PCC, ESCO is sharing the wealth of learning that took place during the Kaizen events. Instructor and participant manuals are being distributed through the Business and Industry Training System, a network of contract training professionals at Oregon’s 17 community colleges, and the High Performance Enterprise Consortium, a group of companies in the greater Portland area that supports the principles of lean manufacturing and continuous improvement.PCC’s Customized and Workplace Training can also facilitate Kaizen Blitz events or provide training to help other companies implement the model and take advantage of the lessons learned at ESCO."The experience and objectivity of the people at PCC helped to make this project a success,"says Elizabeth King, training and development manager at ESCO. "We are excited about sharing our results and the process we used to get them."