On May 12th and 13th, the AME Champions held their May meeting in Portland, Maine. AME is the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (ame.org). The AME Champions are an elite group of Lean practitioners that meet four to six times per year to benchmark and learn from companies that are well down the road in Lean.
The Maine meeting showcased three premier manufacturing companies in the State of Maine; Idexx Laboratories, Volk Packaging and Hancock Lumber.
Idexx Laboratories hosted the Champions for the first day. From Wikipedia: Idexx Laboratories, Inc. (NASDAQ: IDXX) is a multinational corporation engaged in the development, manufacture, and distribution of products and services for the companion animal veterinary, livestock and poultry, water testing, and dairy markets. Incorporated in 1983 and headquartered in Westbrook, Maine, and EMEA in Hoofddorp, Netherlands, Idexx conducts operations through 60 locations around the world, and employs approximately 5,000 people in full-and part-time positions. There are mainly three segments in the company, namely Companion Animal Group, Water, and Livestock and Poultry Diagnostics. In addition, the company also engages in SNAP tests to detect antibiotic drug-residue in milk and OPTI point-of-care analyzers to measure electrolytes, blood gases, acid-base balance and other parameters.
Idexx has an advanced Continuous Improvement program based on Lean, and based on the principle, "What can we make better today?" The Program is called "FIVEX, Focused Improvement, Visible Excellence" Their program is unique in that it has a somewhat open five year plan, with no specific yearly goals. Their planning targets are within a two to three year period, and operates to serve the ever changing business needs of the business and not to achieve year-end goals or objectives.
The plant is exceptionally clean and full of visuals. The Gemba Boards and Leader Standard work are leading edge. The Continuous Improvement achievements are significant.
What caught the attention of the Champions, however, was the use of the term, "white space" and what it means. Essentially, the company focuses on the employees, and their interaction with the community. Each employee is given two days per year to participate in a community activity. The selection of the activity is up to the employee. In addition, the company has constructed approximately two dozen hot boxes on the sunny side of the building. Employees or employee teams have their individual box in which they grow vegetables. The company allows the employees time during the work day, to tend the gardens. The resulting crops are given to the local food banks. The company has just planted several fruit trees. The fruit from the trees will also be given to the food banks.
Another innovative concept that Idexx has pioneered is a new office building that was designed for Lean. Where there are cubicles, they are of the low wall type where each person occupying a cubicle can see all other people int he area. This concept promotes more communication and greater team work. The innovative part involves the creation of "nomads" and nomad stations. These people have no office or cubicle. They wander around the plant to wherever their work is. When they need to sit at a desk, they go to one of several nomad stations throughout the plant. The plant is approximately 500,000 square feet in space, so that their is a lot of travel involved in their daily activities.
Two years ago, when I last visited the plant, approximately 50% of the people were "nomads". Now, approximately 80% of the people are "nomads".
The AME Champions are very grateful and thankful to Idexx for sharing so much information and providing a long and comprehensive Plant Tour. Idexx was rewarded by receiving three improving ideas from each of the attendees. In addition, Idexx conducted their own Plus/Delta feedback of the event and provided the results to the AME Champions.
On the second day of the event, the AME Champions were the beneficiaries of presentations from Derek Volk, President of Volk Packaging, a third generation, family-owned business and by Kevin Hancock, President of Hancock Lumber, a sixth generation, family-owned, very successful business in Maine. Derek and Kevin are very well known in the State of Maine.
Derek is also the Board Chairman for the Manufacturer's Association of Maine, MAMe. He shared the challenging nature of the Lean Program at Volk Packaging, a business with many challenges and complexities, especially the need to buy corrugated sheets in bulk quantities in order to get a favorable price. This practice, common to the corrugated box industry, requires extensive material storage and warehousing needs, along with extensive material handling.
Derek also talked about his book, "Chasing the Rabbit". This is a story about his son Dylan, who has Asperger's Syndrome. Each of the attendees received a copy of Derek's book.
Kevin Hancock shared his story of how Hancock Lumber started its Lean Program. Several years into the program, Kevin lost his voice and could hardly speak. This forced him to listen more. As he listened to his employees, he found that they had great ideas, and he did not have to be the "boss" and tell people what to do. He found that they already knew what to do and how to do it. He also found that they also had great ideas on how to improve the business. Kevin found himself giving more decision making power and authority to the employees to a point where the employees now run the business. This has given Kevin more time to do what he loves to do, and that is to work with the Oglala Indian Nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Kevin has written a book, "Not for Sale" which describes the history and plight of the Oglala Indian nation.
In all, the AME Champions were privileged to hear about the Lean stories and journeys, from three Premier and Marquis companies in the State of Maine: Idexx Laboratories, Volk Packaging and Hancock Lumber. Hopefully, they came to understand that Maine is not just about lobsters and lighthouses, but is a great state for Manufacturing.