GAF’s Cobra® Ridge Vent plant, located in the northern Atlanta suburb of Cumming, GA, is a bright, highly automated, state-of-the-art facility — the type one might associate more with the production of silicon wafers than roofing ventilation products. The company and the team that runs this facility take its environmental role seriously. This includes waste management, and after a three-year effort, the plant recently announced the achievement of Zero Manufacturing Waste ahead of schedule.
This GAF plant makes five different models of ridge vent for different applications and regions and has produced more than 20 million vents without a customer complaint, while practicing Lean Manufacturing techniques extensively. For those new to the concept of Lean Manufacturing (often referred to merely as “Lean”), this is a process and approach that convenes process improvement teams (sometimes called Kaizen teams) to make a continuous series of small improvements to an operation. When properly practiced, it can result in a highly efficient, flexible manufacturing operation that runs at very high yield rates.
Lean is built around the concept of “value streams”, which follow the process of value creation from beginning to end. As an example, the value stream could be the process of ordering polypropylene, all the way through to injection-molding a ridge vent and shipping it. Or it could be the process of tearing off and installing a roofing system. The concept can be applied equally in offices, job sites, or production floors — everything along the way that doesn’t add value to the customer should be considered and improved.
Most processes have some form of waste — unnecessary counting steps, waiting for tools and equipment, work in progress, product changeovers, or raw materials that don’t become part of the finished product. These are all targets for elimination by Lean techniques. What’s different about Lean is the focus on value streams as opposed to departments.
The Lean approach focuses on the whole process, rather than a single step. Anything that hangs up the flow of production needs to be modified, removed, or streamlined, and once you remove one obstruction, you keep heading downstream to find and remove the next — making that entire stream flow smoothly is your team’s responsibility, not another department’s.
By following these streams of value creation through the plant and process, and by asking those that actually run it to be involved in its development and improvement, the Lean approach can be very effective. And even though it sounds like a manufacturing-specific approach, Lean, at its core, is really about maximizing customer value via the elimination of waste in all its forms. It can be applied to any business.
Implementing Zero Waste
But Lean, however simple it may seem on paper, can be hard to implement — it takes a commitment to a culture change. And Lean isn’t about automation and machines and expensive software. It’s about the efficient flow of products through the plant (in fact, Lean often eliminates complex steps from the process, especially those involving counting and tracking inventory, or managing work in progress).
But here’s the kicker — achieving these results doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, for the initial roll-out, GAF’s Cobra plant manager, Breck Hudson, set a standard by not allowing any idea that would cost more than $20. In this scenario, most often it is the people who run the process who know how to improve it — and listening to them and collecting their ideas isn’t expensive. There were many useful suggestions; in fact, Hudson got an average of six from each employee in just the first year of the effort.
The Most Popular Improvement
To provide an idea of the kinds of improvements that generated the greatest results, an informal employee poll after the initial round of Lean exercises determined the most popular process improvement. It turned out to be the installation of a guide along the side of a conveyor belt, a relatively simple modification. Cost: less than $20. All it took was a little bit of welding time to install that guide, and the operators no longer have to keep a watchful eye on that conveyor to see if boxes of finished product hang up. It was the kind of thing that was easy to overlook if you weren’t working on that line every day, but it allowed the operators to focus on more important areas of the process.
However, even when applying the concepts of Lean Manufacturing, the road to Zero Waste is a meticulous, ongoing process. Everything that comes into the plant and doesn’t get made into a ridge vent must be managed, handled, or recycled in some way. As Hudson points out, these items, by definition, don’t create value for the customer (they’re buying a ridge vent, not the pallet a raw material arrived on). And indeed, one of the biggest culprits is raw material packaging, which is where much of the success in eliminating waste and improving efficiency has been generated — working with suppliers to improve or eliminate packaging.
Soon, success began to build on itself. People in the plant began to develop a “Lean eye”, constantly looking out for unneeded steps or wasted resources.
Hudson, as plant manager, acts as coordinator of the effort. He makes a point to recognize all suggestions that are generated, and ensures that an explanatory posting and pictorial is posted for each successful idea he receives. In addition to the current open issues and safety updates, an entire wall of the manufacturing floor has been dedicated to such postings — a celebration of the Zero Waste effort and the continuous series of small improvements it took to achieve.
A particularly interesting example of a significant step in the effort involves the nails that are supplied preloaded in the ridge vents, so the contractor always has a nail right in front of him. These nails were arriving in 50 pound boxes, generating a lot of cardboard that needed to be handled and recycled. To address this issue, the plant’s purchasing team worked with the nail supplier to change the packaging to reusable 1,500 pound boxes, and even required that those boxes ship with no lids and no stretch wrap (lids weren’t needed, and stretch wrap can be hard to handle and recycle). The effort ended up making the plant safer too, as lifting the 50 pound boxes of nails was a stress point for the operators, and had been a point of concern. By contrast, the large totes can be mechanically tilted and emptied, then broken down and returned to the supplier (and eventually recycled at the end of their useful life).
The quest to maximize and optimize a Lean Manufacturing operation is an ongoing process. At the time of this writing, Hudson was looking for a recycling solution for label backing (see photo above) — when you ship millions of boxes of product a year, there’s more label backing paper than you might think. How did he approach this challenge? He posted it on the employee message board, offering prizes (and of course recognition on the message board) for the top ideas, and it’s a probable bet that the winning solution will cost less than twenty bucks.
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