“We’re on a mission to always get better,” says Brian Gale, president and majority owner of ID Images headquartered in Brunswick, OH and with operations in Illinois, North Carolina and California. “It’s a competitive industry, and if we’re not improving we’re not going to have a business.”
In leading this drive to improve, Gale has become a vocal advocate of ridding his company of muda, a Japanese word for “waste,” which includes any processes that are unnecessary, steal time, or that produce excess material that must be thrown away. It is a key part of the lean manufacturing processes that help drive his company forward and that have also been adopted by numerous other packaging converters producing labels, folding cartons and flexible containers.
The lean philosophy stems from the Toyota Production System or TPS, which stands as a pinnacle of manufacturing prowess and has been adapted to fit countless other manufacturing environments. Among its best-known hallmarks are just-in-time delivery, constant improvement to gain operational efficiencies, and reducing waste. While the latter is often thought of as materials, it can also be time, such as when employees are idle, waiting for the product they are working on to arrive. For a converter, muda can be waiting for plates to be made and mounted, long times for roller or die changes, or the amount of substrate used during makeready, and more. “It’s anything that’s part of a job but that you really don’t get paid to do,” says Gale. “We get paid to make labels. So how can we do it better?”
Gale had heard about lean practices and was beginning to investigate when he attended a luncheon seminar led by Brian Furlong, a lean-thinking guru and partner at Lean Enterprise, Inc. (www.leanvalue.com), a consultancy specializing in building efficient operations and cultures in all types of businesses.
“That luncheon was an epiphany,” recounts Gale, who, with two of his management team, went on to take a course in lean manufacturing at a local college. That course, half a day per week for several weeks, spurred he and his colleagues on. Back at ID Images, “…our team saw we were serious about implementing lean processes and wanted to do it right.”
Still, there were skeptics. For some, lean was thought of as the latest idea from management. But as the thinking and processes were rolled out and implemented, it became part of the culture. “Now people will see something being done a certain way and say, ‘That’s wrong—that’s not lean,’ and look for a way to change it. It’s become part of who we are and how we operate,” relates Gale.
To accelerate the process of lean adoption, Gale assigned Tammy Bivens, the company’s production manager, the task of heading up the lean practices roll-out, and brought in Brian Furlong, the consultant who had led the lunch meeting that kicked off the process.
“Bringing in Brian to kick this off was important,” affirms Gale. “Our employees saw that we were serious, and a message delivered by someone outside a company is often stronger than when it only comes from inside.”
The process began with teams doing simple things like cleaning and organizing work areas to streamline the flow of work and materials, a process that’s part of “5S,” the initial steps in developing a lean organization (see sidebar, “The Language of Lean”). One big early win was a shadow board—a peg board for tools with the place for each tool outlined on the board so it was obvious where each tool went—and showing if one was missing—thus encouraging users to put tools back on the board. This simple addition meant less time spent looking for needed tools. Such lean-thinking changes were all driven by shop-floor employees and supervisors. “People want to do a good job, and it’s our responsibility to help them,” affirms Gale.
Yet in any number of companies, suggestions from employees are regarded with skepticism, if not totally ignored. But such illogic on the part of management is turned on its head in the presence of lean manufacturing. In a lean environment active suggestions are encouraged, under the concept that the people who best know how to do a job better are the ones who do it everyday.
Although a shadow board seems small, it’s one of many simple things that in combination increase efficiency and reduce the time required to do something. “When you carry little changes over to running a press you might cut two minutes off a roll change,” says Gale. “But when you do that 10 times a day on 10 presses, there’s a cumulative difference that adds up to a big number very quickly.”
Sometimes, a hands-on demonstration of different approaches is the best proof of a concept.
For example, another label converter had his production team attend a SMED event, a training program designed to trim die changes on flexo presses to under 10 minutes, hence the acronym for Single Minute Exchange of Dies. The team subsequently videotaped themselves setting up a six-color job—a 45-minute process—which they broke down into individual steps. This showed them the benefit of having multiple people working on the press simultaneously. And they shaved 23 minutes off the set-up time.
Not all scrap is created equal
One of the greatest benefits to date has been in the reduction of scrap material—waste. Scrap is an inevitable by-product of any type of printing, and press operators usually know how much scrap their machine produces for a certain type of job or on a given shift. But not all scrap is created equal.
For ID Images, scrap was in many ways the low-hanging fruit for lean practices. “Throughput and press speed and time are critical, but the vast majority of our costs are material. So if we can improve that, it goes right to the bottom line,” says Gale. “If you buy $20 million worth of material, a one percent reduction is $200K.”
One place lean thinking has helped is in setting up for jobs that use expensive substrates. ID Images now uses a less costly material when achieving a color match instead of the more expensive one. “This comes down to supervisors’ and press operators’ awareness of the processes they use and how they relate to the operation,” explains Gale. “If the correct material costs several times more and it takes 150 feet of it to get the color correct, we see savings that have a direct impact on the cost of that job and on our bottom line.”
Giving such autonomy to press operators has been challenging at times. The company offers production staff as much autonomy as possible but knows not everyone is comfortable making a decision. “It’s OK for them to stop and ask if they are uncertain,” explains Gale. “If there is a contradiction in a job order or some other reason to stop a job—like a die going bad—then an operator or a supervisor knows to stop it. But an operator can also stop a job because the job order says to use PMS 280 but other notes for the job say to use PMS 283. I’d much rather not run it than have it run incorrectly, because then we’d have to run it again and lose the time and money of the incorrect run.”
Gale admits that he and his management team have to get better at acknowledging those kinds of on-the-floor decisions, saying ‘Thank you,’ and letting staff know they are paid both to run jobs—and to think. “Our employees always hear me saying we have to run faster and improve productivity, so we still need to strike a balance in delivering messages. We don’t always get it right, and like the rest of lean practices, it’s a constant effort of improvement.”
This is often the case, not always admitted, for every organization that has adopted lean manufacturing. In packaging and elsewhere, manufacturing is a complex undertaking with many moving parts, most involving all-too-fallible humans. Mistakes happen. But the underlying theme of lean is to learn from mistakes and identify ways to avoid future errors by implementing processes that can reduce or even eliminate points where errors can occur.
Hindisght is always 20:20, and Gale looks back and sums up what he could have done differently in two words: broader and faster.
As for any printer or converter, the manufacturing operation is where all the critical moving parts seem to be, so it was natural to start there. But Gale says he should have made the change company-wide, from office to plant floor, and much faster—in three to six months instead of six to 12.
“It’s actually more challenging in the office because many processes are not as clearly defined,” he says. But that doesn’t mean the office side of a business should be less process-driven. For example, if all incoming orders are processed the same way, every time, the result could be fewer errors further downstream.
“The pushback from customer service or prepress is that ‘we’re different,’ but when you step back you realize they really aren’t and that there is muda or other inefficiency in the process, and we should be looking for ways to eliminate it.”
Value and benefits
Now a few years into the world of lean, Gale is still measuring the value and benefits. Scrap continues to decline, but also near and dear to Gale’s heart is on-time delivery. “We’ve seen a dramatic improvement in the number of orders we ship on time,” says Gale. “We’ve gone from OK, at 94 percent to excellent at 99 percent. It’s important to our customers—and to us.”
Moving forward, Gale says ID Images continues to measure and track all its activities and find ways to do everything better. “If there is something to be measured, we usually find a way to measure it. And then we can find a way to improve it.” pP
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