Many manufacturers still question the effectiveness of lean manufacturing and whether it brings tangible benefits to a company’s bottom and top lines. However, during a recent OpExChange plant tour hosted by SixAxis in Andrews, SC on May 16th, 2023, these doubts were addressed.
The primary focus of the tour was to showcase SixAxis’s successful implementation of lean principles, which earned them the prestigious Global OpEx award in 2020. What sets SixAxis apart is not only their initial accomplishments but also their remarkable ability to sustain and continuously enhance their system and outcomes.
Jason Merschat, the Chief Operating Officer of SixAxis, warmly welcomed the OpExChange visitors and provided an overview of what they would witness throughout the visit. He highlighted that SixAxis is constantly engaged in a journey of continuous improvement, actively seeking opportunities to refine their processes and products. Merschat emphasized the crucial role of people in any improvement endeavor and expressed the company’s unwavering commitment to foster a culture of ongoing learning and advancement.
Doug Odum is the Vice President of Operations for SixAxis and has been with them for nearly thirteen years. He led the group discussion using a presentation on the key elements of their lean journey, which officially began in 2018. One of the things the OpExChange members appreciated was that Doug frequently would state, “in full transparency” as he was candid in both their successes and their obstacles along the journey.
The system adopted by SixAxis bears resemblance to lean systems commonly observed in various organizations. They ensure alignment between their system and the corporate Hoshin Kanri, effectively connecting their plan with top-level objectives. Additionally, they employ Kojo Kanri, widely known as lean daily management, for floor-level deployment. Concurrently, SixAxis has implemented total productive maintenance (TPM) practices. Notably, they place significant emphasis on their kaizen activities, specifically emphasizing the utilization of the 8D problem-solving technique. Throughout their transformation period, they completed forty-nine 8D activities.
In the course of the discussion, Doug and Jason both underscored the pivotal importance of training and education for their workforce. They placed strong emphasis on the significance of offering ongoing learning opportunities to enrich the skills and knowledge of their employees. To accomplish this, they employ a blend of internal resources along with external sources like the OpExChange and SCMEP (South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership). This approach enables them to tap into a wide range of expertise and viewpoints, thereby fostering the professional development of their workforce.
The Lean Daily Management System
Within their daily management system, they have integrated various tiers of reporting and communication. The first tier is tailored for team leads and shop floor personnel, the second tier entails team leads interacting with the leadership team, and the third tier is designated for the site management team to engage with the executive team. These levels constitute an essential component of their Hoshin Kanri and policy deployment framework.
They begin their daily operations with a Tier 1 meeting promptly at 7:00 am, followed by a Tier 2 Gemba walk. The Gemba walk stands as an all-inclusive activity, inviting participation from frontline operators to top-level executives, including the CEO and COO. As for the Tier 3 board, it consists of distinct sections dedicated to Safety, Quality, Delivery, Cost, Inventory, and Morale. The Tier 1 and 2 boards concentrate on matters within the purview of the shop floor, including Safety, Quality, Delivery, Cost and 6S. During the discussion, Doug emphasized two significant points. Firstly, prioritization follows a left-to-right sequence, with Safety always taking precedence, followed by Quality. Secondly, the boards consistently highlight the concept of internal customers, underscoring the importance of fulfilling the needs of internal stakeholders.
Does Lean Work? The Results!
During the transformation period of 2018 to 2020, SixAxis had already witnessed remarkable and positive outcomes across all key performance areas. It was these achievements that led to their well-deserved recognition and award. What is even more commendable is their ability to not only to sustain but also improve the results for the past two and half years in each of their targeted areas:
- Safety: Despite already maintaining impressive recordable incident levels, they achieved an 85% reduction in incident rates during the transformation period and a 60% reduction over a span of five years. Their consistent commitment to safety earned them the OSHA SHARP award for safety each year during this period.
- Quality: The key metric of “field problems” experienced a notable decrease of 28% during the transformation and a further reduction of 58% in 2023.
- Delivery: The improvement in on-time delivery during the transformation phase was an impressive 62%, and this progress has continued over the subsequent three years. Presently, they have attained a delivery rate of 99.7%, showcasing a remarkable 44% improvement in comparison to the levels recorded in 2018.
- Cost: Overtime percentage experienced an 18% improvement during the transformation and an additional 62% improvement over the subsequent three years.
- Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE): Their enabling metric, OEE, improved 150% during the transformation. Their current level is 20% higher than the industry standard.
These outcomes demonstrate the effectiveness and influence of SixAxis’ transformation endeavors, resulting in notable advancements in safety, quality, delivery, and cost management within a relatively brief timeframe. Moreover, this has positively impacted the morale and engagement of the entire workforce.
SixAxis Guided Tour
After the presentation and discussion, the group embarked on a ninety-minute tour of the facility. Two groups were led by Doug and Jason, while Jeff Reichert, CEO of SixAxis, guided the third group. The tour consisted of several stops at tier boards strategically positioned throughout the shop. At each stop, a member of the production team offered an overview of their corresponding tier board and answered any questions from the visitors. The aim was to provide the visitors with a firsthand experience of the daily Gemba walks and their significance.
The factory displayed an impressive visual organization, with evident delineation of departments and products throughout. Within the facility, two distinct value streams are in operation: make-to-order and make-to-stock. The make-to-order system is integrated with their ERP system, effectively capturing all relevant costs, and associating them with corresponding work orders. Conversely, the make-to-stock value stream operates autonomously from the ERP system, employing a completely visual management approach. This approach utilizes a kanban pull system to manage workflows including the initiation of material purchases. Doug emphasized that they are effectively running two separate production systems within the same lean daily management system.
The Gemba walk begins at 8:15 am every morning and proceeds through both value streams. Participation in the walk is open to anyone within the organization, fostering a culture of inclusivity. The discussions during the Gemba walk are led by production team members at their respective boards, following a standardized format for efficient communication. Once the Gemba walk concludes, the onus falls upon the leadership team to address any unresolved issues and actively eliminate obstacles that hinder the productivity of the production team.
Tier Talks: Standardizing Communication for Success
Irrespective of the department, each tier board follows a standardized layout. From left to right, the boards featured Safety (S), Quality (Q), Delivery (D), Cost (C), and 6S, with an emphasis on increasing importance towards the left. Additionally, each board incorporates a dedicated section for the department’s kaizen activity, highlighting their ongoing focus on continuous improvement.
During the tour, one of the visitors expressed admiration for the consistent cadence observed at each board during the facility tour. Despite having distinct production areas, each associate adhered to the same sequence. This adherence to standardized practices reflects a fundamental principle of lean manufacturing, where standardization is employed to minimize variation and, consequently, reduce waste.
During the board meetings, a standardized set of questions is posed on a daily basis: “What is your biggest problem? How do you know? And what are you doing about it?” This consistent inquiry fosters a proactive problem-solving approach and encourages associates to identify and address issues promptly.
The utilization of standard cadence and the implementation of standardized questions exemplify the commitment to efficiency and waste reduction inherent in lean manufacturing practices. SixAxis recognizes that by establishing a consistent framework for communication and problem-solving, they can effectively identify and mitigate challenges, leading to improved productivity and continuous improvement.
The SixAxis Facility
One of the OpExChange visitors remarked on the exceptional cleanliness of the metal fabrication shop, stating, “For a metal fabrication shop, it is incredibly clean.” Arguably, it deserves recognition as one of the cleanest facilities within the OpExChange network.
The arrangement of the facility and the integration of equipment and automation are equally impressive, with a strong focus on minimizing transportation distances and eliminating potential safety incidents. Within the make-to-stock value stream, a circuitous automated powder coat line serves as an exemplary illustration of a pull system that effectively reduces transportation and work-in-progress waste. Doug provided a metaphor to describe this line, likening it to an oval interstate highway. On the left side of the “interstate,” cells supply parts to be powder coated, entering via on-ramps. On the right side, off-boarding ramps directly deliver the finished parts to the packaging department. When a pallet is removed from the packaging department, it triggers the purchase of more parts to sustain the system, creating a continuous flow.
Each morning, a fleet of tractor trailers arrives to deliver parts. Rather than the conventional method of unloading the trailers using a forklift and then transporting the goods to the warehouse, an innovative approach is employed. The trucks actually drive through the facility on one side, unload the items directly at point-of-use locations, and then exit on the other side. This streamlined process eliminates unnecessary handling and transportation, optimizing efficiency and reducing potential bottlenecks.
The final leg of the tour took place in their Innovation Center, which serves as a hub for customer interactions and training sessions for their commercial team. Inside this expansive room, a designated area is allocated specifically for training setups and tear downs, enabling effective hands-on learning experiences. The Innovation Center also showcases an impressive display of their products, providing visitors with a comprehensive overview of their offerings. Notably, the center features a full-size replica of an oil tanker car, complete with a rolling and mobile platform designed for safe access to the top of the car. Additionally, an innovative cantilevered and adjustable rolling platform is available as an application for accessing private airplanes, barges, and other similar structures.
SixAxis Success & Collaboration
Shigeo Shingo, one of the world’s leading experts on the Toyota Production System once said, “The outside of a factory is a reflection of the inside.” This notion resonated strongly during the OpExChange visit to the SixAxis plant. As the visitors arrived at the facility, they were greeted by the sight of impressive Erectastep platforms spanning over a reflective and illuminated pond at the entrance. This visual motif carried forward as the group was led to a spacious auditorium reminiscent of a movie theater, setting the stage for engaging presentations and discussions. The attention to detail in the facility’s aesthetics resonated throughout the visit.
Many operations in the United States have started lean journeys with the same tools as SixAxis but with varied levels of success. One of the themes discussed in the wrap-up discussion was that companies that achieve results with these tools have some common factors – engagement of employees, true servant leadership, and a collaborative team drive to continuously improve. SixAxis demonstrates all three.
Their commitment to collaboration extends beyond the boundaries of their organization and encompasses the broader South Carolina manufacturing ecosystem. This is exemplified by their active involvement with the OpExChange. Jason succinctly captured their role within the OpExChange, stating, “This is a fantastic group. We have had the opportunity not only to participate in some of the tours but also in a lot of the training. We meet people along the way and remember whom to [contact] if we ever need help. This is fantastic. I appreciate the opportunity to participate, and for us, this is some give back.”
SixAxis was founded by Fred Harmon and Rob Honeycutt in 2002 to deliver high-quality loading rack and fall protection solutions to companies around the world. In addition to SafeRack, product-specific brands such as ErectaStep, RollaStep, YellowGate, AeroStep, and MarinaStep have been developed to engineer and manufacture innovative products that increase safety and boost productivity. For information about how SixAxis is changing the world of manufacturing, visit www.sixaxisllc.com.
The OpExChange, sponsored by the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, is a peer-to-peer network of manufacturers and distributors in South Carolina known for generating success for members through benchmarking and best practice sharing. Member companies host events and share practical examples of industrial automation, lean manufacturing improvements, and leadership development. It is an invaluable resource to South Carolina companies that provides access to others who are on similar improvement journeys. If your company is interested in participating in this collaborative effort to improve both the competitiveness of your operation and South Carolina, contact Mike Demos (Mike@OpExChange.com). More information and upcoming plant visits are available on the OpExChange website www.OpExChange.com.