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Image: Jake Huskey leads an OpExChange tour discussion

South Carolina Manufacturing OpExChange Members Tour BW Flexible Systems

May 02, 2024

Last month marked the first OpExChange plant visit of Q2 2024, hosted by BW Flexible Systems in Duncan, South Carolina. The primary focus of the tour was to offer insights into their people-centric culture and their ongoing implementation of lean manufacturing principles through a tiered reporting system.

Thirty-two OpExChange representatives from twenty-three peer organizations across the state participated in the three-hour plant visit. While the attendees took away many insights into lean manufacturing practices, it was BW Flexible Systems' unique culture and leadership program that left the most profound impression.

Jake Huskey, the Operations Director of the Duncan site, extended a warm welcome to each visitor upon their arrival. Providing a succinct overview, he introduced BW Flexible Systems and its affiliation with the parent company, Barry-Wehmiller, led by CEO Bob Chapman.

BW Flexible Systems operates as one of several companies within the Barry-Wehmiller family, specializing in the construction of custom equipment for flexible packaging, including form, fill, and seal packaging solutions. At the Duncan plant, production includes both vertical, gravity-fed machines and horizontal, in-feed systems, employing approximately 220 dedicated individuals. Globally, Barry-Wehmiller has a workforce exceeding 12,000 team members across more than 120 sites, with an annual revenue surpassing $3 billion.

Crisis of Leadership

Jake provided insight into the development of the leadership program within the Barry-Wehmiller corporation. Bob Chapman has been the CEO and Chairman of this company for over 45 years, starting when he was only 30 years old. Jake shared a short video with Bob in which he conveyed that there is an urgent situation in our organizations which requires attention, not only to help our companies but also to help our societal situation. Bob explained that nearly 88% of the workforce goes home at the end of the workday believing that they work for a company that does not care about them. He stated that “We have a crisis in this country – a crisis of leadership … And many of the symptoms we are seeing in society – broken families, broken marriages, broken lives – are the result of us sending people home each day with the sense that they work for an organization that doesn't care about them.”

Image: Everybody Matters by Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia

In 2015, Bob co-authored a book called, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People like Family which became a Wall Street Journal best seller. This book details Bob's own journey and is a call-to-action for leaders and organizations in our country. Jake provided each of the visitors with their own copy to take back with them.

BW Leadership

Every attendee was also provided a handout of the BW vision statement, which begins, “We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.” It articulates a vision centered on valuing and empowering their people, in order to achieve business success by positively impacting the lives of all stakeholders.

They established their very own Barry-Wehmiller University, built upon the concept of “integrated” education, emphasizing activities, breakout groups, practice sessions, and continued learning beyond class time. Jake emphasized that these courses are open to all employees, not just those with “Leader” in their job titles.

Jake went on to say that their leadership team is also expected to coach and mentor others. He pointed out that he is officially a “Professor” within the University.

A salient point in their top-level care for their employees is job security. Barry-Wehmiller has never had a layoff. Sarah Beth Settle, Aftermarket Operations Leader, shared that she started her career at BW in 2007, just before the economic downturn. She was very worried about what might happen. BW stayed true to their commitment of no layoffs, easing her concern and building an even stronger sense of family for her.

Lean Manufacturing at BW Flexible Systems

The Duncan facility has been engaged in lean activities for about fifteen years. This is fitting as one of the foundational elements of the Toyota Production System is “Respect for People.”

Last year, the Duncan leadership team began reading the book, Creating a Lean Culture by David Mann. Over a span of sixteen weeks, they read one chapter per week, gathering for discussions during lunch sessions. They utilized this as a roadmap for establishing a visual tiered reporting system tailored to their operations.

The foundation of their implementation strategy is the tier one board, located within each work area, focusing on SQDCP (Safety, Quality, Delivery, Cost, People) metrics. Every morning, team leaders meet with their respective teams to assess performance across each category, assign actionable tasks, and escalate any challenges to the tier two boards located in the Mission Control Room (MCR).

The MCR serves as a dedicated room housing four tier two boards, a tier three board, and a board dedicated to continuous improvement initiatives. During the plant tour, Jake provided insight into the functionality of the tiered reporting system. Daily tier two meetings are facilitated by either the value stream or department leaders, with all information cascading up to the tier three board. As the operations director, Jake oversees the tier three meetings, ensuring alignment and driving strategic decisions.

Jake recognizes that their lean program, particularly their tiered reporting is developing. “It is far from perfect,” he told the group. “Please help us make it better!”

Plant Tour

During the tour, the production area stood out for its exceptional cleanliness, with clear demarcation between machine build zones and walkways delineated by yellow tape. Notably, BW has expanded upon the traditional 5S program by incorporating two additional “S's” – Safety and Satisfaction.

Jake highlighted that their facility is currently engaged in production of machines normally produced by a sister facility. This utilizes some surplus capacity effectively which helps both facilities. This endeavor reflects their commitment to continuous improvement, with intentions to formalize this process as part of a broader continuous improvement initiative between sites.

In the final assembly area, each machine has its own dedicated whiteboard, providing a visual representation of the build progress. These updates feed into the tier one boards, offering daily insights into production status. Depending on the complexity of the machine, completion ranges from 12 to 15 days.

Culture is Everything

As any OpExChange member company can confirm, a strong and engaged culture in an organization is foundational to the sustained success of any initiative or change being implemented. This is true whether it is implementing a lean manufacturing transformation, incorporating automation, changing an ERP system, or anything else that affects employees' lives.

Dustin Batchler, Global Supply Chain Leader, shared his experience when he first realized that this truly caring attitude was more than just talk. On his second week on the job in 2021, he found himself in a meeting with Bob Chapman and several other operational leaders. They were discussing a situation where they were approaching the end of the fiscal quarter and were behind on shipments. They were discussing options on how to resolve this. One of the suggestions was to run overtime on Saturdays. Bob sat back, listened, and the put this question to the group, “What is that going to do to our people?”

Dustin Batchler speaks during an OpExChange tour.
Dustin Batchler presents in the MCR during an OpExChange tour.
Photo Credit: SCMFG Staff, 2024.

They discussed and realized that if they worked their people for a month of Saturdays, that there would indeed be a short-term benefit to profit, but it really wasn't that much in the scheme of things. On the flip side, it could have a large detrimental impact on the lives of their workforce. In the past, Dustin reflected on his previous experiences with other companies known for their manufacturing expertise and lean practices. He had never encountered such genuine care for employees.

He added that it is hard for him to put it into words when describing this to others but “When you are here, you can feel it. The intentionality of developing people and the concept of people and performance in harmony. That perspective is everyday discussion. It is a very real thing.” This young man expressed that the notion of retiring from a company had never crossed his mind before. “Maybe it's a generational thing, but I absolutely can see myself retiring from here. That is how passionate I am. That is how much I love this company.”

During the collaboration session at the end of the tour, Gary Tompkins, President of The Kidder Group and Chairman of the OpExChange Board shared a key observation. He commented that that BW has hit on a valuable component of true employee engagement. By demonstrating to employees that they genuinely care for them, and value them as extended family, they widely open the doors to communication and their inherent desire to contribute. After all, if an employee loves their company, they will want to go to great lengths to make it successful.

Does Truly Caring for Employees Pay Off?

Many managers believe that it is great to have employees be happy and feel fulfilled, but they are concerned that this “touchy-feely” sentiment does not necessarily contribute to the bottom line. They are running a business, and their business needs to make money to survive. Why should they invest valuable time and resources into making people feel good about themselves? These same managers, when asked what their number one issue is, will often answer that it is finding and keeping good people.

Employee turnover rates at manufacturing companies are frequently very high. It is not uncommon for a plant to have an annual attrition rate of 30%. Some are reporting this as high as 100%. According to SHRM (Society of Human Resource Management), the cost of replacing an employee can be up to double that of their salary. This includes finding and recruiting the employee, on-boarding and training, and lost productivity while getting them up to speed.

Let's compare the costs associated to a company comprising 200 individuals experiencing an attrition rate of 5.5% and that of 30%. At a 5.5% attrition rate, approximately 11 employees would be replaced annually, while at 30%, it would be 60. Assuming a conservative cost estimate of 55% of their salary and an average salary of $60,000, the difference in turnover expenses amounts to roughly $1.67 million per year! This calculation doesn't even encompass the added value of having committed employees, who “love” their company, working with them.

We can Make a Difference

An attrition rate of less than 10% is generally considered to be “world-class.” In the past four years, the OpExChange has toured a handful of sites that can tout that. One of the common denominators seen at all these sites is a servant leadership model that genuinely demonstrates care for their employees.

In Simon Sinek's book, Leaders Eat Last, he explains how great leaders of successful organizations create “Circles of Safety” in which people work together to do remarkable things. He uses Barry-Wehmiller as an example of one of those organizations on how it can be done.

One of the things that Bob pointed out in his video is that this leadership shift is not complex. We can make a difference tomorrow. All we need to do is to use our hearts and our heads to move from a “Me-Centric” to a “We-Centric” culture. We will not only be improving our organizations, but we will also be changing this world for the better – if we understand both the great joy and the grave responsibility of leadership, beyond just the workplace.

About BW Flexible Systems

BW Flexible Systems is a global manufacturer of packaging systems that fill and bag thousands of food and non-food products. Our range of machinery options includes form-fill-seal, feeding, bag filling and sealing, pouch-making equipment, flow wrap, re-closable packaging solutions, palletizing, stretch-wrapping, paper & mailer insertion, collating, and more. The flexible packaging solutions we provide serve a wide range of food industries – bakery, confectionery snack foods, frozen foods, fresh produce, cheese, and many more. We also serve non-food industries, including pet food, personal care, pharmaceutical, agricultural, paper and mail sorting and collating, and industrial products.

As a member of the Barry-Wehmiller family of companies, BW Flexible Systems strives to be the kind of company that enables its associates to return home each day with a true sense of fulfillment—the kind of company that people enjoy working for, doing business with, investing in and having as part of their families and communities.

About OpExChange

The OpExChange, sponsored by the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, is a peer-to-peer network of manufacturers and distributors in South Carolina known for generating success for members through benchmarking and best practice sharing. Member companies host events and share practical examples of industrial automation, lean manufacturing improvements, and leadership development. It is an invaluable resource to South Carolina companies that provides access to others who are on similar improvement journeys. More information and upcoming plant visits are available on the OpExChange website, www.OpExChange.com.