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Kaizen Every Day – The Armstrong Lockout

In all my years doing continuous improvement work, I worked with teams during Kaizen events of short duration, or influencing continuous improvement behavior daily.  Never did I think I would be doing 6 months straight of Kaizen.  That is, until the Armstrong Lockout.

Supporting Operations During a Lockout

In 2011, Armstrong World Industries and their Marietta PA ceiling plant workers were unable to reach a contract agreement by the time the contract expired. Historically, Armstrong would allow the employees to continue working without a contract, until negotiations were completed. There was always a risk that the employees would walk out any time without notice, but that had never happened. New management decided that it wasn’t worth the risk and decided to send a message to the union by locking out the hourly production and maintenance employees until an agreement would be reached.

Armstrong was ready for this contingency and had made an arrangement with a company that supplied replacement workers and security to companies in similar situations. These workers would move to the site and fill in for the employees until a resolution was reached. Many of the Armstrong engineers, retirees, and other technically skilled corporate employees were asked to train and supervise the replacement workers and also run the complex equipment. Some non-union workers came from other plants in the Armstrong system to help too.

I had been helping a project team building a plant in China. When I returned to the United States in July, I was asked to help support the Marietta plant in an operations role, alternating between equipment operations, training, and supervision.

Armstrong employees were required to meet at an off-site parking lot, and then board a blue bus with blacked-out windows that would take us to the plant. We were to work 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week (we could work 7 days a week if we wanted to) and weren’t allowed to leave the plant property unless we had a personal emergency to attend to. Some of us, including me, had pre-shift supervisor meetings, that extended our days to 13 ½ hours. Needless to say, we all wanted the lockout to end quickly. We also wanted to make sure that no customers would feel the impact of reduced service levels due to the lockout, so we were committed to keeping the plant running, 24/7/365.

A Plan to Reduce Downtime

In my first weeks at the plant, I spent much of my time helping to solve downtime issues and coordinate efforts of workers who were unfamiliar with the equipment. It was apparent that the plant wasn’t left in the best of shape by the Armstrong union employees and they were using their experience to compensate for low performing equipment. We didn’t have the experience, so it was clear that something would have to be done to make the equipment more reliable.

I started to assess the factors impacting equipment performance and realized that many of the downtime issues could be solved with some basic line maintenance – conveyer guiding, leveling, and squaring. Lucky for me, this was and is an area of experience and expertise. On a Saturday in August, I was talking with the plant manager, and suggested that I could provide more value at the plant if I were to work with maintenance to solve some of the basic conveying issues I saw in my time at the plant. He was intrigued and asked me to show him what I meant. I took him on a tour of various parts of the line and pointed out the issues I was seeing. Then, I described my plan to solve those issues, one part of the line at a time. More intrigued, he called the maintenance manager and asked him to join us for a tour.

The maintenance manager met us at the line and took a tour with us. He was a bit skeptical, but after about 30 minutes, he was convinced that I might be on to something beneficial. He asked me what I needed to start the work. I told him I could work with a skilled mechanic to start making line improvements. He asked me when I would be ready to start. I was ready any time.

A Team on a Mission

On the following Monday morning, I was assigned a mechanic named Joe. Joe and I took a tour of the lines and I shared my vision of the work we could do to improve performance. He was enthusiastic. We decided we would tackle one line at a time and prioritized the first line to work on. We agreed that we would do work in 1 to 2-hour blocks and try to utilize downtime to get our work done. We also agreed that since the lines were running so poorly, we could make our own downtime blocks, as long as the crew and supervision was aware and agreed to our plan.

At first, no one wanted to give us any downtime to do the work, so we were frustrated and couldn’t plan well for the work. The only way we could make a real difference would be to convince one of the acting supervisors to take a chance and let us shut a line down in a planned way. I was persistent and convincing and finally had the approval of a line supervisor to try out our plan on his line.

Joe and I got to work, leveling, squaring, and improving the guiding on the first line. We worked one section at a time, and after about a week, the line was running noticeably better. After three weeks, we were setting production records and others were noticing. All of the sudden, Joe and I were getting more calls for help than we could manage. So, we asked for more mechanics to help. We started expanding our work and touching all of the lines in the plant. We also taught the techniques to others so that they could solve problems too.

From time to time, I would get calls on the radio from mechanics who wanted my advice and help and they would meet me and take me by maintenance cart to the site of the issue for review. Now we were making a huge difference in the plant performance and the problems of the past were being solved in a sustainable way. Some areas of the plant looked nothing like they had prior to the lockout, as much of the equipment had been stripped of the problems that kept it from running reliably. Although tiring, this work was also exhilarating, and made working long hours fun. We could see improvement happening every day.

The Lockout Ends, But Improvements Remain

In January 2012, the union agreed to contract terms and was scheduled to return in the middle of the month. I was asked to stay on for a while to show the changes we had made to the plant. Many of the lines looked markedly different and were unfamiliar to the union employees. I gave tours of the line and fielded questions from the employees. For the most part they were appreciative of the changes, as they could see how the improvements would help them do their job in a safer, less stressful way.

The union president asked me specifically why I made the changes the way I did. I told him that due to our lack of experience and skills, we had to make the lines easier to run or we would disappoint our customers. We really missed our experts and were extremely glad they were returning. He liked my answer and ended up doing more of this improvement work with my assistance in the following years.

I am very proud of the work I was able to complete for Marietta during the lockout. I was also extremely grateful the lockout ended when it did. I was ready to go back to riding in something other than a blue bus with blacked out windows.

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