Woodburn company finds manufacturing extension service invaluable for streamlining production, survival
It was a dilemma with clear stipulations: double your production or die.
That’s what faced Fleet Sales West in Woodburn, a firm that manufactures, repairs and sells towing rigs. At one point in recent years to the budget line was clear; FSW was not manufacturing enough to stay afloat.
That left owner and President Donna Bookout-Coe looking for solutions. FSW Vice President of Operations Greg Gifford said a fortuitous one befell the company when Bookout-Coe heard a piece of useful information.
“Our owner was attending a seminar and heard someone speaking about it,” Gifford said, the “it” being Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership. “She was able to connect with the extension, and it turned out to be quite the resource for us…We increased productivity from about 5 trucks a month to 10 trucks, and even 12 in some months.”
The difference meant making ends meet – along with staying open and keeping the operation’s 25 jobs in Woodburn. OMEP consultant Gary Connor met with FSW leadership to evaluate the situation, one which he described as teetering on closure or moving the plant to Mexico.
Gifford affirmed, saying that without the reorganizational changes, “We would probably have had to close up shop or move the business to Mexico.”
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Evaluating the scene
Connor visited FSW to examine its production process, and juxtapose it with established improvisations that have been historically useful in similar situations.
“There’s a (list of) seven forms of waste identified by Toyota back in the 1960s and 70s,” Connor said, itemizing transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over-processing, and defects. “And so at Fleet Sales, what I first I noticed was a lot of motion; 4 tow trucks in (manufacturing) process and two people working on each tow truck. They were spending 35 percent of their time just walking and looking for pieces.”
Connor described scenarios rife with “non-value-adding activities,” such as walking, fetching, searching for a part or trying to find a tool. He also discovered some assemblers had toolboxes stuffed with implements they did not need for the task at hand
“The situation was ripe for a lean transformation,” he said.
The non-productive time added up. For instance, the analysis showed that about 12.5 percent of FSW labor expenses were spent paying employees to walk from one place to another.
“We found it took one person a full month (160 hours), to build and test a truck,” Connor noted. “If we removed the walking, waiting, and other non-value-added time, we estimated that it would take only about 80 hours to assemble a truck.
Ironing out wrinkles
While giving a plant tour recently, Gifford pointed enthusiastically at a cart in the parts room near the assembly floor passageway. What would appear as an ordinary parts storeroom stocking pushcart had actually been converted into a masterful time-saving conveyance.
He explained that every part the assemblers or technicians would need for a given day would be loaded, ready-to-go and at hand as the work commenced. Planning ahead for equipping carts by a fabrication team begins in advance, so the team knows what is needed on several days in advance.
Since FSW does a lot of customizing, the nuances of what would be needed for each project can be considerable, enough to demand many specifics that fit one project but not another. The carts provide a means to address that.
“The fabrication team and stock room staff ensure parts are produced on demand. The stock-room team stages carts at least one day ahead of each assembly team,” Connor said. “No longer are parts produced in large batches and stored for long periods. The team working on a Day 2 cart can see the Day 3 cart waiting for them. This allows everyone to mentally prepare for the next day.”
This process also improved stock room operations as workers developed a more accurate inventorying system, using a single-card, known as “Kanban” replenishment system.
“The stock room staff no longer relies on monthly cycle counts to verify quantities. Limited vendor-managed inventory (for nuts and bolts) also frees up the staff to focus on higher-level improvements,” Connor said.
Those initial changes led to other streamlining processes, and the wheels began to turn – and production increased.
The right personnel
Connor noted that Gifford also came on board as the innovations were being applied and was able to help assess the strengths and weaknesses within the staff and provide a clear vision within the process, enabling employees to excel within a framework that holistically enhanced the business.
Part of the process meant learning different roles.
Shop foreman Nick Emra of Donald has been working at FSW for about four years. The North Marion High School alum took on additional duties with the efficiency concentration, including communicating the streamlined approaches to the rest of the crew on the line.
“There was an immediate need to develop best practices and identify someone who could serve as an in-house training coordinator,” Gifford recalled. “At 21-years-old, Nick was not our most senior employee, but he was highly motivated and willing to help document standard operating procedures, and then transfer that critical knowledge to the other members of the team.”
Connor noted that Emra received training from OMEP, which included developing skills in training and coaching others.
“This helped him understand how to effectively transfer knowledge while displaying respect, empathy, and patience during the critical training period,” Connor said.
Gifford was delighted not only in the results but the growing process.
“These skills proved valuable not only for Nick but also for the entire company,” he said, noting that Emra was promoted from technician to shop foreman, one of a number of changes and promotion enabled by the production increase.
Connor added that the company also launched a 401(k) program and a new wage structure.
FSW suppliers were also imbued by OMEP’s lean-thinking strategies as tow company staff members working with parts vendors and fabricators became more attuned to each other’s needs.
“By selecting vendors and suppliers who understand lean thinking, and in some cases educating them about our objectives, we have helped them be more responsive,” Gifford said. “We had to be clear that we cannot be successful without their active participation; our fabrication partners are more like an extension of our company than just a supplier.”
Looking to grow
Gifford said FSW improvements have been vital to keep up with its large customer base, serving towing companies not only all over Oregon but along the West Coast from Alaska through parts of Canada and California and east into Montana and Idaho. There have also been some farther-flung customers.
“It goes everywhere: Alaska, Hawaii, I just sent something to the Bahamas; we just sold a truck in New Zealand,” said Sherry Zimmerman, the FSW administrative parts manager.
That growth means the company is also always looking for people interested in making a career of it, which is not always an easy task.
“Finding people who know how to build a tow truck is not easy,” Gifford said. “We’ve hired a lot of entry-level spots, but we also have needs for some more senior-level employees with experience in diesel mechanics, hydraulics and low-voltage vehicles.”
Gifford said FSW has hired a couple of women as technicians, and they are excelling in the work.
“They’ve brought different dynamic,” Gifford said. “It’s just interesting to see the different people who become interested in this line of work.”