More than just southern hospitality

People-focused culture is the foundation for success at Plymouth Tube's Eupora plant

The Tube & Pipe Journal January/February 2009
January 13, 2009
By: Eric Lundin

Since its inception in 1924, Plymouth Tube Co. has had a strong faith in the capabilities of its people. Its plant at Eupora, Miss., recently made some changes in the way management formulates strategic plans, and it now includes input from all of the plant employees in executing its strategy. This result is sustained, measurable improvements in safety, quality, and productivity.

TPJ 2009 Industry Award

It's a jungle out there. The environment is dynamic, fiercely competitive, and full of threats. Resources are scarce. Every inhabitant is either predator or prey.

It's the U.S. tube and pipe industry, and the main hazard is foreign competition. The industry's domestic output has grown over the past few years, but imports have grown faster. According to data culled from Preston Pipe & Tube Report, the amount of tube and pipe produced in the U.S., exports excluded, grew from approximately 14.6 billion net tons to 18.6 billion net tons from 2000 to 2007. In the same time frame, imports grew from about 28 percent to 43.6 percent of U.S. pipe and tube supply

Competition from overseas is aggravated by domestic ills, especially a shortage of skilled labor. This problem is widespread in manufacturing, and especially acute in tube and pipe production, because the skills needed for running a mill aren't taught in junior colleges and vocational schools.

How can a tube or pipe producer survive? Plymouth Tube Co. has proof that a tube producer can not only survive, but thrive in such an environment: Its mill in Eupora, Miss., is the recipient of this year's TPJ industry award, which is sponsored by TPJ-The Tube & Pipe Journal® and the Tube & Pipe Association, International® (TPA). The award is bestowed on the applicant that has best demonstrated success in its operations (shop floor operations, safety, and training); marketplace (business growth, customer satisfaction, and innovations); and community involvement (support of manufacturing as a career choice and philanthropic activities).

Changes in Manufacturing, Management

Founded in 1924 in Plymouth, Mich., the company initially was a manufacturer and distributor of precision mechanical tubing. It managed to survive the Great Depression, and its success was later aided by the two manufacturing booms of the 1940s: military-related production during the first half of the decade and consumer products, notably appliances, during the second half.

Quite a bit changed over the years. As the company evolved it split into two separate entities, manufacturing and distribution. The manufacturing side closed its original location and eventually moved the company headquarters to Warrenville, Ill., and through acquisitions and growth, it ended up with what is now a 10-plant operation.

Like most manufacturing firms, Plymouth has made other substantial changes through the decades. Batch processing, large inventories, and huge amounts of work-in-process have given way to pull systems, just-in-time manufacturing, and lean manufacturing. Relentless competition has led to continuous improvement. Adherence to OSHA standards is now augmented by wellness programs and work/life balance for its employees.

Despite many changes since the company was founded, some things haven't changed. For example, it still has a strong presence in the mechanical tubing market. This is one of the Eupora plant's specialties. It produces welded tube which it then anneals and draws to produce mechanical tubing for automotive applications—steering, air bag, and suspension system components—and firearms. It also produces welded-and-drawn tubing for fuel lines, hydraulic lines and assemblies, fittings, and hose assemblies.

Another constant is a strong faith in its people, according to General Manager Lonnie Potts.

"The Van Pelt family is a great family to work for," Potts said, referring to the family that founded and still owns the company. "They don't just say that the people are the company. They mean it. They recognize it and believe it." Plymouth's management style, which was a conventional, top-down approach, has evolved with the times and reflects this belief, according to Potts. This different management style began with the help of the supervisors and eventually expanded to everyone in the plant.

Plymouth Tube Safety Sign

In addition to displaying the current safety status—indicated by the red, yellow, and green of a common traffic light—the safety sign also displays the number of days since the last safety incident.

"We recognized that we, as management, do not have all the answers," Potts said. "We also recognized that solutions to any problems we have really are on the shop floor. So we started by incorporating our supervisors and production managers."

This later spread further and now includes the equipment operators. These days everyone is encouraged to contribute ideas for improvements to propel the plant forward.

This is the most critical element in the plant's success, according to Potts.

Strategic Planning. Eupora's strategic planning used to be based on top management attending an annual off-site meeting to review budgets and analyze the plant's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). The outcome was a list of projects and improvement initiatives for the departments to execute and goals for them to attain.

This started to change sometime after Potts joined Eupora in 2000. The tipping point was the realization that management typically bit off more than it could chew.

"It evolved from an off-site meeting where we generated more than 200 action items," said Senior Process Engineer Robert Zelinka. "It was definitely a matter of 'More is better,'" Potts concurred.

This sort of thing had happened before. The problem wasn't the validity, but the sheer quantity. It had become common that less than 50 percent of the action items would be completed within a year, evidence that the goals were not closely aligned with the resources needed to reach them. The Eupora plant shed this traditional approach and now develops annual plans that rely heavily on input from everyone.

"Middle managers are now called value stream leaders, and each one is responsible for everything in their value stream—their metrics, their people, their safety, and so on," Potts said. "Each value stream is like its own little company," he added.

The plant's senior management team still meets annually to determine which critical few breakthrough objectives require focus. But discussion is broader than before. These days it includes inputs such as the customers' voice, employee surveys, a current SWOT, and ideal- and future-state value stream maps. From this it develops a three- to five-year vision, and determines the three or four obstacles or breakthrough objectives that need to be exploited to realize the vision. The team also develops key watch indicators and goals and presents them to the value stream leaders (VSLs).

Tactical Planning. Each VSL then meets with the employees in his value stream to develop specific tactics to support the plant's general strategy. They brainstorm to come up with ideas, determine the necessary resources, and develop a comprehensive plan. The VSLs then report back to the managers, who provide some guidance as to whether the team is in danger of overextending (or underextending) itself, and the outcome is a set of final plans.

Plymouth weld mill operators

Job duties aren't tied to job titles at Plymouth Tube Co.'s Eupora plant. Weld mill operators perform many preventive maintenance checks previously handled by the maintenance personnel.

"Some of what we do today is how I operated at another Plymouth site," Potts said. "I completely rebuilt the management team at Eupora, and they were very good at refining some of these concepts. At one point the light bulb went on and we realized that we don't have all the answers. We might think we do, but we don't, and we realized we had to get more people involved, and it evolved from there. And we were right—the people on the shop floor did have a lot of the same concerns management had and provided many of the answers."

Making It Happen

Rolling a steel strip into a tubular shape and welding the seam shut seems relatively straightforward, but it really is a complex task. Adding several more steps, as Eupora does—normalizing in a furnace, lubricating, drawing, cleaning, stress relieving, straightening, testing, and cutting—means adding plenty of opportunities for initiative, innovation, and improvement. These show up in the equipment it uses and, by extension, the processes it develops for making tube and pipe.

"Most critical pieces of equipment are designed and built by Plymouth," Potts said. "We may buy a furnace, but the equipment that gets the material into and out of the furnace is designed and built by us. Our drawing, pickling, and packing equipment also are Plymouth's unique designs."

This gives Plymouth more control over its processes than it otherwise would have—control over process time, part handling, quality, and so on.

"Some pieces of equipment have motions in two directions," Potts said. "When they are moving in one direction, they are working, or you could say they're making money. When they are returning, they're not. A draw bench is a good example—the longer the return cycle is, the less efficient it is. We have designed systems that maximize the advantage of our workcells and the processes performed by the equipment in them. Our designs answer questions such as, What is the quality of that product? How long does it take you to make the product? How easy is it to make? How much handling is required? We try to make sure that every step we take is a value-added step in the customers' eyes, because value is what customers buy."

The company also has developed several of its own products. In addition to SEA-CURE®, tubing for highly corrosive environments, it also provides three proprietary products: Hydrabrite®, a cold-drawn, bright-annealed, low-carbon tubing for hydraulic applications; seamless ProMoly™ (4130), intended for racing applications; and XtraLowStress™ for feedwater heaters, used in power generating stations. Its products include round tube, shaped tube, and engineered profiles in steel; near-net shapes in steel and titanium; and cold-drawn shapes in steel and titanium.

And, of course, it develops its own processes. For example, the plant has instituted Managing for Daily Improvement (MDI). This is a daily meeting in which equipment operators review safety opportunities, make suggestions for improvements, and follow up on previous suggestions. The shop floor productivity improvements run the gamut—some are small, one-time modifications, whereas others turn into extended projects that result in substantial process changes that net extensive productivity improvements (see Taking the Reins). Others affect safety, quality, and customer satisfaction.

Safety. In 2007 the Eupora mill recorded four OSHA recordable and lost-time accidents. The plant has put more emphasis on safety, which is paying off: In 2008 the mill had zero lost-time and recordable accidents. Its safety program incorporates training and proactive thinking. It uses a specific orientation program for new employees and performs regular safety audits with estimated fines for each potential violation.

Management doesn't stop there. It also records any "near-miss," a situation that could have resulted in an injury or equipment damage. Zelinka mentioned that two cranes making contact is a typical example.

"We have two overhead bridge cranes operating in close proximity to one another," Zelinka said. "When they approach each other, they slow down, but recently there was a light tap. A severe contact could cause an injury or damage to the equipment. Even though this incident didn't result in injury or equipment damage, we recorded it as a near-miss. That drives corrective action. We issue a millwide e-mail so everyone knows the circumstances, and we get a team of people together to investigate it and treat it as a real accident."

Plymouth daily improvement meeting

Continuous improvement comes in many forms. At the company's Eupora plant, it's called Managing for Daily Improvement, a specific meeting time set aside for generating new ideas and following up any that were previously introduced.

"A near-miss is any incident that makes you leap out of the way of something, or anything that makes you say, 'That was close!'" Potts explained.

"Lonnie got a traffic light—an actual traffic light from the City of Eupora—and we use it to let everyone know about any safety situation," Zelinka said. "In the case of an OSHA recordable incident, the red light would come on. Yellow is for a near-miss, and green indicates no near-misses and no injuries. It's located right in the middle of the mill, where everyone can see it."

"The way we engage people has changed too," Potts said. "It's typical in a meeting to say, 'Let's be safe.' We go beyond that and ask, 'Where is the next accident going to happen?' It's a different mindset, and it gets people thinking," he said.

Quality. The plant also is proactive in its approach to quality. Instead of emphasizing weeding out bad parts, it strives to make only good parts, according to Zelinka.

"Traditionally, the way of verifying quality is to inspect the product," Zelinka said. "In the tube world, you measure the OD and the wall thickness to verify that you are in compliance. We still do some of that, but a much more proactive way is to audit the processes or systems that make that product. For example, on a draw bench, we have a quality process audit system that we use to rate everything on a scale from 1 to 5—criteria such as, Are the TPM checks being done? Are the standards in place? Is the operator trained to those standards? Is the standard work in place? Are the gauges calibrated? What is the cycle time? Are changeover standards in place? Are the operators using those standards? Does the process have errorproofing? Are errorproofing steps being used by the operators?

"All of these efforts focus on processes and systems, which should predict a good quality of product."

Customer Satisfaction. Plymouth tries to stay one step ahead of customer complaints too. Every employee has the authority to stop production if he or she sees anything that could lead to a customer being dissatisfied with a shipment, Potts said. When asked how Eupora employees discern between things that are irrelevant and those that aren't, Potts responded that every concern is relevant.

"They vary in significance, but where customers are concerned, nothing is irrelevant," he said. "Some things might seem insignificant—how the paperwork is presented, how the labels are put on the box, where the labels are put on the box—and they increase in significance, all the way up to product quality. The people are well aware that it is OK, and it is part of their job, to stop the equipment or stop what they are doing if they have any concerns or questions that could lead to dissatisfaction from a customer. They recognize that they have the power to do that," Potts said.

"On occasion we get a call and a customer says, 'This isn't a big deal, but the way the truck was loaded made it difficult to unload,' or 'This isn't a big deal, but the labels were upside down and they were difficult to read,' or something like that," Potts said. "Many companies might consider that insignificant. We don't."

The customer said it wasn't a big deal, but in fact he did call to mention it, so as far as Plymouth is concerned, it will turn into a big deal. Maybe not this time, and maybe not next time, but eventually it will, so Plymouth takes corrective action as quickly as possible.

"We go through the whole process, enter a 'dissat,' and that leads to corrective action," Potts said. "We might send personnel from management, quality control, or operations to visit the customer and see that the problem has been corrected before we close out the corrective action report. That way, we are confident that the problem won't happen again."

A Cultural Change

A close look at some of the facts at Eupora reveals positive trends—increasing output, improving efficiency, and fewer injuries. These can be traced directly to various programs such as lean manufacturing, 5S, and safety training.

But according to Potts, something else is afoot at Eupora. The entire work environment itself is changing. It's not in the processes or the procedures. It's in something much more important than that. It's in the people.

"The most pleasure I get out of my job is seeing people progress," he said. "The people at Eupora have grown a lot over the past eight years. I have been watching them embrace all of this and the attitudes have become, 'If it is going to be, it is up to me,' and 'I can make a change,' and 'I can take a risk.'"

Showing improvements in a company's culture isn't as easy as measuring tangibles such as efficiency or output, but Potts has evidence that Eupora's work environment is changing for the better. In 2006 the mill was named a finalist in the "Best Places to Work in Mississippi" contest, a program devised by the Mississippi Business Journal and sponsored by the Time Warner Business Class.

"To me, it's really all about the people," Potts continued. "And this is something I don't take lightly—I take this very, very seriously. Watching people evolve is an exciting thing. At one time, the perspective was, 'I just need a job and a paycheck,' and now they have recognized that it's much more than that, and they recognize that they really can be part of something much bigger."

Taking the Reins

Plymouth's Eupora, Miss., plant has discovered that the key to improving productivity is to consider all suggestions, big and small. For example, the distance from the shipping area to the cabinet that stored a hardness tester was inexplicably long, and one of the quality controllers found she was wasting a lot of time walking back and forth. She found a new place to store the tester close to the shipping area. Similarly, some of the mill operators took it upon themselves to move several hand tools closer to their point of use. They also documented the location of all the tooling to speed die changeovers. Small initiatives like these added up, and over a couple of years resulted in a 70 percent reduction in die changeover time.

Some of the equipment operators even decided that job descriptions and functions weren't static and began taking over the weld mill maintenance functions.

"Now virtually all of the weld mill maintenance is performed by the equipment operators through their total productive maintenance standard work—checking the bearings, checking the tooling condition, greasing moving parts, and so on," said Senior Process Engineer Robert Zelinka.

Some projects are even more substantial.

"We had an old furnace we weren't using, and one crew took it upon themselves to remove the entire loading conveyor and used the freed-up space to bring coils of steel closer to their point of use," Zelinka said. "They applied their training in visual systems and 5S—they put the system in order, then drew lines and drew minimum and maximum quantities, the whole thing. I walked out there and suddenly the conveyor was gone and the material was there. It was a great change and a pleasant surprise, and they did this completely on their own, without any help from the maintenance department."

Eric Lundin

Eric Lundin

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8262

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The Tube & Pipe Journal

The Tube & Pipe Journal became the first magazine dedicated to serving the metal tube and pipe industry in 1990. Today, it remains the only North American publication devoted to this industry and it has become the most trusted source of information for tube and pipe professionals.

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