By day I work in quality assurance, and by night I write about wine. So when the opportunity arose to tour Nomacorc (wine) and see how they assure manufacturing excellence (quality), I jumped.
Nomacorc has fully embraced the tenets of Lean manufacturing. At its heart, Lean is a philosophy focused on respect for people and continuous improvement. Lean can be used to reduce waste in a process, enhance quality, and optimize worker satisfaction.
Lean approaches grew out early twentieth century production innovations. Early prototypes included Henry Ford’s Detroit car factories, whose process improvement approaches centered on the concept of continuous flow.
Toyota, too, played a key role in Lean’s evolution. The company got its start in the 1920s as a textile works with automated high-speed looms, but in the 1930s it began a new automotive division. From the 1950s through the 1970s, a Toyota executive named Taiichi Ohno and his colleagues studied the Ford model and improved upon it, codifying new approaches to streamline production.
These techniques soon spread internationally, dubbed simply the Toyota Production System. Today, people often just call it Lean.
When applied well, Lean allows you to limit all types of waste in your workplace—or, to use the Japanese terms, to get the muda out of your gemba. And waste isn’t just about leftover material. It’s everything wrapped into the acronym DOWNTIME: defects, over-production, waiting, non-utilized talent, transportation, inventory, motion, and excess processing.
Lean can be applied to massive industrial operations, but it’s also useful for knowledge work and services. A common misapprehension about Lean is that lessons learned from auto manufacturing in Japan couldn’t apply to a law office or hospital environment, but success stories abound.
At Nomacorc, Lean is a driving force, influencing every aspect of the business, from the central product manufacturing right down to the level of warehouse operations—even where they place the trash bins.
In keeping with Lean principles, Nomacorc relies on workers to notice improvement opportunities and convey them to management. They also make sure that each worker is continuously enhancing his or her ability to notice defects and make suggested changes. And as in other companies with a healthy Lean culture, problems and solutions are discussed between employees and managers, with a shared goal of success for the company and satisfaction for the customer.
I talked with Nomacorc’s John Wojcik, vice president of operations, North America, and director of their North Carolina facility, about their methods, and asked him to describe one small improvement they’ve recently celebrated. He described an all-hands-on-deck effrot to rid scrap from the printing process and take performance up a notch. A new Nomacorc engineer installed a GoPro camera inside one of the printing machines, which gave the team video of an entire twelve-hour shift to pick apart and analyze. With this information, Nomacorc was able to make relatively small fixes, mistake-proof their process (called Poke Yoke in Lean parlance), and reduce scrap levels.
Through detailed inspections and equipment audits, employees were able to capture other opportunities for improvement. Wojcik continued the story:
“We had all of our associates looking for opportunities where corks were out of place. We set up flip charts and used yellow sticky notes to capture information at the printing machines.”
“These results were recorded for one week, then we started to put together solutions that could be implemented quickly. We passed those on to Process Engineering, which either came up with process changes or passed them off to Technical Services, who either made design changes or specified requirements for new equipment.”
“We’d started at the lowest possible level—the direct operator interaction—and flowed upward into the resolution funnel. It’s how we’re using our knowledge to move problem solving from the point of use to however high in the engineering realm it needs to go to be resolved once and for all.”
Lean can be used for more than production enhancements, too. Safety is very important in a factory, and I saw great attention to safety details in Nomacorc’s North Carolina plant. They use visual management techniques to make safety issues obvious. For example, they’ve mounted a “Wall of Fame” board highlighting improvements.
They’ve also posted a life-sized cutout of an employee decked out in standard operational gear. When somebody on the plant floor has an accident and hurts, say, a foot, an adhesive bandage goes onto the boot of the cutout. Over the month, if the bandages pile up, and you start seeing a lot of bandages on hands or heads, it’s time to find the root causes of the problems and modify safety procedures.
Recently, Nomacorc ran a six-month contest to gather safety-related improvement suggestions. Called “Team Up for Safety,” the idea was for cross-functional teams to work together to suggest safety improvements. For every one they made, they’d get extra safety glasses, ear plugs, hair nets—whatever. At the end of the contest, the teams donned all of the gear they’d earned, and the one with the most dressed-up team members won a big prize. “We had over 35 safety improvements implemented from June to December on the plant floor,” recalled Wojcik. That’s a lot of safety (and a lot fewer bandages).
Nomacorc’s commitment to Lean has also inspired several of its customers to examine their own internal processes. Customers have taken plant tours, then returned to their own wine production facilities inspired to make improvements. And Wojcik also makes sure they know that he’s there to help. “Basically what I do is let them know that we’re an extension of their plant. They can think of us as part of their process.”
Some might worry that applying Lean to the wine industry would mean making every Chardonnay taste exactly the same throughout the world. But Lean does not mean eliminating the unique qualities of an individual product, and Lean is also about respect for humanity. Feelings and thoughts are an important part of the value stream, too.
“I think we show people that it does exist in the world,” said Wojcik, referring to Quality Enhancements. It’s all about making things better than when you first see it.”