Thursday, July 19, 2007

It Ain't Just Racin' Country Anymore!

Siler City, NC is in the middle of nowhere, unless you're a NASCAR reporter looking to interview some hard-core fans. Stuck in this hinterland between Winston-Salem and Raleigh-Durham is a Nationwide factory ran by Andrew Snuggs. According to the stories, this plant used to struggle quite a bit. Then, the facility was converted over to a Nationwide plant.

First, the factory was renovated. Then, Nationwide building practices were implemented. Now, all of the quality checks and common-sense practices that are hallmarks of Nationwide are faithfully executed by Andrew and his team. Siler City has become a positive example of how a modular assembly line should operate. Here are some highlights from what I observed:

  • Components (floor joists, trusses, etc.) are cut, notched, bored, etc. right next to where they will be used, and are only produced for specific orders (not for stock).

  • Interior walls are framed and the wall panels are installed on the same table by the same people. This eliminates the inventory (waste) that exists in the typical configuration of most of our plants, where the framing and panel installation are done on different tables by different people. This inventory takes up space, necessitates the double-handling of the framed walls, and increases the overall lead time for an interior wall.

  • Wall-builders and wall-setters are part of the same work group. If the wall-setters get behind, the wall-builders will help them catch up instead of overproducing walls (waste). This helps deal with the problem of cycle time imbalance that exists on our main assembly lines.

  • The homes are low to the ground, which makes them easier and safer to enter and exit. They are also flat and level, which is preferable to the cambered floors that we work on in many plants.

  • Shingles are installed in the roof build department, which is safer and more efficient that doing it after the roof is set.

  • The house is leveled, measured for squareness, and certified by the QC inspector before the exterior wall sheathing is installed. Also, sheathing is installed on the marriage lines to increase the rigidity of the home, which prevents drywall cracking.

  • Drywall is not mudded until the sheathing is installed, to prevent cracking.

  • Drywall finishing is done prior to installation of cabinets, appliances, etc. which makes the process more productive.

  • Windows and doors are not stocked, but ordered per house. The downside of this is the lead time from the supplier. The upside is reduced inventory levels, smaller space requirements, flexibility in ordering anything the customer wants, and less D&O risk.

  • After the home is structurally complete, it moves to a "finish-out" plant where cabinets, appliances, etc. are installed. This area is free of the noise, debris, and distractions that are necessarily present in the main plant. I would think that this environment is more conducive to the finishing work that has to be done to make a house aesthetically pleasing.
All that being said, I still wouldn't classify them as Lean. Some of the work flows looks like spaghetti, some areas of the plant are a little disorganized, and visual control isn't evident throughout. Fortunately, their culture and leadership is quite conducive to a successful implementation of Lean. They have already performed excellent introductory training for ALL associates, and are committed to continuously learning more. Lean homebuilding may not replace NASCAR as the object of obsession for this region, but I think we've got a shot at #2.

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