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BorgWarner's programs improve productivity, worker health

By Mike Elswick melswick@news-journal.com
Feb. 9, 2013 at 11 p.m.


One Longview-area manufacturing facility is taking the lean path to increased profits, productivity and improved morale and health for its workers.

BorgWarner is an automotive parts plant on East Texas Regional Airport property. Executives retained a consultant to implement LEAN manufacturing techniques at the facility and have also contracted with lifestyle coaching firm BalanceDiet to provide the staff with skills to improve their health.

The Gregg County plant's customers include General Motors and Ford, with products produced locally going into the Ford F-150 pickup models and GM SUVs such as the Tahoe.

Brett Hunter, plant manager, said quality is on the rise, waste is being reduced and profitability is climbing. The plant retained business consultant Richard Andrews, former president of Longview's Stemco plant, to introduce and implement the steps to improvement commonly called LEAN manufacturing techniques.

On the personnel side, weekly meetings with BalanceDiet lifestyle trainers and coaches have resulted in the staff trimming down, while absenteeism has been reduced to nearly nothing, Hunter said. Human Resource Manager Shellye Clodfelter said one of the best parts of the company's focus on the personal well-being of employees has been a big reduction in health care claims.

"That's been a huge success for us," Clodfelter said. "Our health claims are down from an average of $11,200 per employee in 2011 to an average of $8,000 in 2012."

She said until a recent outbreak of flu-like symptoms that kept some workers off the job for a few days, absenteeism because of health issues was almost non-existent.

"Our employees have really become engaged in the program," she said. "They love it and understand that because BorgWarner is providing that service as a benefit that the company really cares about them."

Clodfelter said from the company's standpoint, the success the Longview facility has had with the BalanceDiet program has captured the attention of BorgWarner's corporate finance executives, who are interested in spreading similar healthy lifestyles programs to other facilities.

After all, if the global automotive parts maker could reap a similar 27 percent drop in health care claims to what the Longview plant has seen, the world-wide impact would be tremendous, she said.

Lisa Nobles, director of BalanceDiet in Longview, said she has been contacted by BorgWarner plant representatives at facilities in Michigan and South Carolina about implementing the same plan.

"We do health, wellness and weight management sessions on a weekly basis at the plant with the employees," Nobles said. "The company pays for it as an employee benefit. We work on core nutrition and lifestyle changes with weight loss being one of the results they all appreciate."

Hunter said he is so impressed with the results that he has recommended it to other East Texas employers such as executives at Eastman Chemical. Nobles said Good Shepherd Medical Center's health and prevention service division has retained the firm to handle lifestyle nutritional coaching duties for the center's corporate clients.

"According to the National Institute of Health, with as little as 5 percent weight loss, you can lower your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels," Nobles said. "Studies also indicate that normal-weight individuals score higher on cognitive tests, sleep better at night and are at lower risk of depression and other mood associated disorders."

<strong>Production-side LEAN</strong>

Andrews, who retired several years ago as president of Stemco, has been active in volunteering with the Longview Economic Development Corp. and doing private consulting work to help firms implement LEAN procedures to become more efficient and profitable.

LEAN is a process designed for application in any business and implements principles to eliminate waste and make area businesses competitive globally.

"LEAN is a philosophy and a system to help companies become competitive on a global basis," Andrews said.

He completed what he called "a very rigorous assessment" of the BorgWarner plant as a consultant and offered tips on improvement.

"They had a very good assessment; they're doing a lot of things right," Andrews said. "But with the philosophy of continuous improvement, I offered some suggestions."

Andrews said among the atmosphere needed to make implementation of LEAN manufacturing principles work is a commitment from top management and a willingness to keep improving.

"You need to have that commitment from the top or it doesn't work," he said. "Brett and his people have a good attitude, and they've created a learning environment that is really enlightening - they want to get better."

Hunter said on the manufacturing side of operations at the local BorgWarner plant, productivity is rising while the cost per unit is going down with the implementation of LEAN principles.

"Communication has been a key to that success," he said. "We meet with all our managers every morning at the LEAN wall with the goal being to get everyone operating on the same page."

The LEAN wall is a long stretch of wall just off the production floor where charts, goals, outcomes and information is shared.

"We want our processes to be completely transparent to our people," Hunter said. "We start every morning by emphasizing safety and then talk about quality, production, delivery tracking, cost breakdown and waste."

Hunter said a major goal for 2013 at the plant is to take 15 percent out of the total cost of production. While that may seem to be a huge challenge, he feels it is one that can be achieved by following through with LEAN principles.

"We monitor everything from scrap as a percentage of sales on up," he said. "We share what our goals are and our business plan and enure the steps we're taking apply to our goals."

Each of the plant's work areas are divided up into cells with individual kiosks - or cubes - at each location that quickly provide vital information from workers on the front lines to fellow workers and to managers, he said. One of the most visible signs at each work cell is a flag displayed that is either red, yellow or green.

Green means things are operating smoothly, while red may mean the cell is down for maintenance or other reasons. Yellow indicates there are issues that are being addressed that may be keeping production moving forward at normal levels.

"They've embraced everything we're working to accomplish," he said, including a change in product line. The Longview facility was one of BorgWarner's friction materials plants that has transitioned to transfer case components for General Motors, Chrysler and Ford vehicles. That includes advanced products and technologies in power train components and systems solutions.

"We do parts from very small to large - it's all very precision focused with heavy metal cutting that is done while maintaining our quality and safety metrics," Hunter said.

The local plant has grown from producing about $6 million a year in revenue in 2008 to $22 million in 2012, Hunter said. The goal for 2013 is to reach $40 million.

"And I think we can do it," he said.

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