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Evan Miller


Mueller Pivots to Data-Driven Culture

Finding the ‘hidden factory’ that produces nothing but waste

Published: Wednesday, April 26, 2017 - 12:02

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The Mueller Co. was ready for a change. The multiplant manufacturer of water distribution products had an excellent reputation in the marketplace, but that good reputation came at a price. Internal scrap and rework metrics told the story. High costs reduced the bottom line and took a human toll. With executive support and a broad-based team effort, the company’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, facility is serving as a transformational model of the focused, strategic shift to a data-driven culture.

Joseph Benford, director of corporate quality, describes it this way: “We had the ‘monthly one-off syndrome.’ Every month we had a different reason why we didn’t make our target.”

Problem-solving teams shifted their focus constantly to address the current emergency. They lacked constancy of purpose over the long term. To make matters worse, data that could help them identify and solve problems were sadly lacking.

“It was chaotic,” Benford recalls. “Everybody was working like maniacs. They were all super-busy. It wasn’t that our people weren't working hard or even that they didn’t understand what they needed; the issue was they didn’t have the data in front of them to know what to work on. Or if they made an improvement, how to quantify it.”

Although the plants were not in danger financially, there was plenty of money being left on the table from the high scrap and rework costs. Those high costs were a “hidden factory” that produced nothing but waste. If a company with 20 machines operates routinely with a 5-percent scrap rate, it is the equivalent of one machine in the factory dedicated to producing waste. This is the hidden factory.

Implementing GainSeeker Suite in combination with a comprehensive staff development effort resulted in significant savings in scrap and waste in the company. Click here for larger image.

Manual data analysis was slow and suspect

The Mueller team members were frustrated. They took a step back from the intense firefighting and recognized that the company was not living up to one of its core values: making problems obvious. “Quite often we say we want to make problems obvious, but we’re not quite sure what that means,” says Benford. The team realized they needed tools that made problems obvious. They needed to uncover the hidden factory.

The company already had a lot of tools, including its JD Edwards enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, as well as Excel, Minitab, and a corporate issue-tracking system. What was missing was ready access to real-time, actionable data. One colleague had experience with Hertzler Systems’ GainSeeker Suite at another company, and knew it was the missing link for automating data collection and reporting.

Prior to implementing GainSeeker, Mueller had been spending 60 to 70 hours a week (in one plant alone) on the administrative tasks of collecting, massaging, and reporting quality data. The manual systems undermined confidence in the company’s ability to solve problems. “You would go to meetings, and everyone brought their own data to the meeting,” says Benford. “They were defending their data vs. moving the organization forward.”

“There was no centralized data source that everyone trusted,” added Michael Broggi, the company’s manager of process engineering and quality assurance. “So instead of coming together to solve problems, we would spend the entire time in our data.”

Automating data collection had two immediate benefits. First, automation saved a significant amount of time. What used to take the plant up to 70 hours per week now takes about 5 hours a week. This timesavings enabled the plant to redeploy staff from clerical work to solving problems.

But more important, the company’s confidence in the data and what could be done with it increased significantly. With more time and reliable data, they could solve problems faster, and monitor the impact of their solutions much more effectively.

Broggi notes that GainSeeker is “a primary tool for us to leverage when we go to solve problems.”

Transformation leads to supply-chain stability

Deploying GainSeeker provided a foundation for a culture shift that turned Mueller from a reactionary organization into a proactive company. This culture shift was supported by extensive training and coaching in problem-solving methodologies, using actionable data from GainSeeker Suite. (See related story below: “Setting the Context for Culture Change”).

This shift led to many benefits, including:
• 90-percent reduction in scrap and rework
• Time required to capture, manage, and analyze data reduced from 60–70 hours to fewer than 5 hours
• Reduction in escaped pieces from 8 percent to 0.5 percent

Mueller Co. has seen a major transformation in the way it is collecting and using data. It has shifted from being reactionary to being proactive. “We’re trying to be anticipatory,” Benford explains. “We want our team members to be in a position that when their boss asks for something, they’ve already got it.”

This transformation has already delivered significant financial and personal benefits. The team expects GainSeeker will enable transformation well into the future.

Setting the context for culture change

Benford will be quick to tell you culture change is a multiyear journey. He’ll also tell you that even the best software tools can’t cause change, and that change is a team effort.

Toward that end, the Chattanooga facility was full of opportunity. “The business was not at risk,” says Benford. “It wasn’t the kind of thing where you go to work every day wondering if the door is going to be locked. When you come to work, the question was, ‘OK, what will be today’s emergency?’ My office isn’t in the plant, but I was there every day. I was taking time away from other responsibilities just to lead the team to get the plant where we wanted it to be.”

Click here to learn more about Mueller’s multiyear quality journey.

Initial launch of GainSeeker Suite

Mueller introduced GainSeeker first at its Decatur, Illinois, plant. “We paid for our first installation just by reducing the clerical hours we were spending to address rework,” says Benford. “Rework was a critical issue that we didn’t really understand. The scrap rate was driving other metrics. So we started an effort to track first-time yield.”

Following that initial deployment, the team expanded to a mobile data collection application for in-process quality audits.

In addition, the plant captures all data from its foundry lab using GainSeeker, as well as SPC data about foundry processes. With ready access to this data, the team finds that its relationship with suppliers is changing. “Suppliers have actually requested us to work with them on getting data to them so that they can see and make changes to their process,” says Benford.

Click here to read more about Mueller’s multiplant expansion.


About The Author

Evan Miller’s picture

Evan Miller

Evan Miller is co-owner, president, and CEO of Hertzler Systems Inc. Prior to joining Hertzler Systems, Miller taught technology education in Canada. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and his master’s degree from Ball State University, Indiana. Miller has served on the boards of IU Health Goshen (Indiana) Hospital, the Maple City Community Orchestra, and Pathways Retreat.