It's become a buzzword, but employees really are the most important resource at Nicolet Plastics Inc.
Nicolet relies on its 80 employees to take leadership roles in scheduling production and assigning machines, using order information and preventative maintenance data from an IQMS system. The company drives decision making down to the factory floor.
Plastics News named Nicolet as the winner of one of its PN Excellence Award for employee relations.
Nicolet's plant in tiny Mountain, Wis., about 200 miles north of Milwaukee, is a model of efficiency — and employee empowerment. For example, in part of the plant with smaller-tonnage presses, a conveyor takes 15 minutes' worth of parts, in bins, down to a quality and packaging area. There, employees evaluate parts and log the details into IQMS.
Most molding plants need, for every shift, a mold setter, materials handler, process technicians and supervisors. Nicolet has refined a process to define talents that are required, ignoring job titles and other employee categories. Instead, Nicolet staffs based on the skills needed to run the production floor — with a heavy emphasis on cross-functional employees.
Employees frequently check a scheduling board on the shop floor, where movable, dry-erase tiles update what jobs are molding on which machine. Workers get a dispatch list that is updated three times a day.
If you want to do short runs, you can't get bogged down in bureaucracy.
Nicolet, owned by its president and CEO, Bob Macintosh, has followed its own path, with a dose of creative flair. Nicolet transitioned from a traditional custom injection molder, chasing long-running jobs, to one adept at handling complexity and low- to moderate-run work — that remained in the United States, instead of going overseas. Macintosh is an enthusiastic advocate of a time-based model for manufacturing, which focuses in greatly reducing — or eliminating — the time wasted on work-in-progress, shuttling partially finished parts around and carrying a large inventory.
Employees make suggestions on a tip board. Once again, the emphasis is on saving time — last year, those ideas saved Nicolet 700 hours. Time is money!
Nicolet has developed its own innovative method of worker training and financial rewards for learning new skills. Employees follow a skills matrix of courses on areas such as quality, material handling, blueprint reading, setting up robots, exchanging barrels and mold changes. Some of the skills have prerequisites that require passing earlier courses. Testing determines the level of competency has been reached.
As employees learn new skills and can handle more-complex issues, they earn “apples” (think of Bob Macintosh's name). For every 10 apples earned, the employee gets an additional 50 cents an hour — with the potential to earn up to $9 an hour beyond the entry-level rate.
And so an employee who was previously defined as an “operator” also might be able to hook up water lines or clean out a hopper. Why not?
Building a cross-trained workforce took time, and Macintosh is the first to admit the process is still evolving. But Nicolet shows it can be done, that employees can embrace a plan that is clearly explained and consistent.