My Machine: First Day the Best Day?

Or is the first day the worst day for any piece of equipment?

I will never forget my first car. It was a red 1960 MGA with one smashed headlight, one missing fender and a gash in the passenger seat upholstery that looked like the Grand Canyon. It was the most beautiful car I’d ever seen. It had been sitting for a year – with the top down. The owner had drilled a hole in the floor to let the rainwater out. When I finally handed over my hard-earned grocery bagboy money to the owner, that MG had already been parked in my mental driveway.

1960 Red MGAMost people would say that the first day of a car is its best day. We like that new car smell paired with no miles, and no problems. For my MG, though, the best days happened after I got a hold of it and turned it into something better. I worked hard to bring the car back to the point where it could go faster, turned heads with its looks, and became so reliable I drove all the way through high school and college. It wasn’t a car anymore. It was a force of nature.

My beloved MG sprang to mind 20 years ago during a benchmarking trip to a Japanese manufacturing plant. This was our 35th plant tour in Japan, and we were desperate to learn new ways to achieve world-class manufacturing. The textile industry was under siege and if we didn’t change fast, we wouldn’t be around to compete anymore.

Our Japanese host had just asked our tour group, “What is the best day in the life of a car?” Almost unanimously, we answered, “The first day.” Simple question, simple answer. Instead, our learned hosts told us that this was the traditional “Western” view of our personal and corporate equipment. We expect things to deteriorate and then replace with a newer version. And this view wasn’t working anymore for us.

If fact, we were told that the first day is the worst day of any piece of equipment, including a car! How can that be? As our hosts went on to say that we should be focused on improving our equipment every day, my old trusty MG came to mind. It was that mindset shift that we needed to make about our current attitude toward manufacturing. Looking back on my 34 previous plant tours, I realized that this was the mindset at all levels of the organization. Taxi drivers wore white gloves and cleaned the vehicle with feather dusters between fares. Bus drivers used the time we were on tour to hand wash the buses. Inside these plants, we witnessed equipment 20 to 30 years old outperforming new equipment. In a Ricoh plant, the employees were so proud of their oldest machine, they painted the floor white and lit the machine to show it off and demonstrate that there were no leaks!

I’ve worked for 40 years with Milliken & Company, and not long ago, we faced a burning platform. Low cost, offshore competition posed a growing threat. All our domestic competitors decided to either go overseas or go out of business. While Milliken dedicates more to R&D than any company in the textile industry, we had to address its fundamental cost structure to survive.

A breakthrough approach was required for Milliken to achieve these results and for the organization to change its mindset to accept the concept that equipment could be continuously improved with the right processes, the right training and the right mindset. Milliken was able to achieve the result we saw in Japan. World-class manufacturing starts with changing the way we think.

Historically, Milliken was very competitive in its industry. Major cost and quality improvements were achieved through capital expenditures; improvement initiatives and management closely controlled and monitored all of them. Milliken was known for having the latest equipment. New equipment shows were attended often by hundreds of Milliken managers with the challenge of discovering the next breakthrough in manufacturing equipment and often buying out the capacity before the competition could purchase it. Our capital budget was always high, but we thought we needed it. Milliken did make improvements and was recognized internationally (Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award, European Quality Award, Fortune Best 100 Companies to Work For, etc.), but the company failed to sustain those improvements. To remain competitive, Milliken needed a better approach, and in the mid-1990s, we found it in Japan.

New CarThe concept of a holistic system to run operations was new. Engaging everyone at every level to become problem-solvers had never been done before at Milliken. Education of everyone was required to push to knowledge and decision-making to the lowest possible point in the organization. We were taught to think in terms of “perfection” and to measure ourselves to this new goal.

So, back to the question about the car. While simple, it is a powerful concept to build the foundation of any high performance system.

Here are five questions to think about.

1. Who Knows the Equipment the Best? As equipment becomes more and more sophisticated, it intimidates us. We believed only the manufacturer really understands how it works. A great sub-question is, who spends more time with the equipment? There is no question that the people that operate it and repair it each day really get to know the machines very well; even better than the manufacturer in most cases.

2. Who Should Know How Things Work? Historically, we have been taught to do our job only and for others to do their jobs only. This creates a “siloed” mentality where operators and technicians draw the line with, “I run, you fix.” What if operators understood more about how their equipment and could perform simple functions? At Milliken, we showcased machines with Plexiglas so associates could “see” how things worked.

3. Is Cleaning More Than Cleaning? Another simple question, but think about it. When you wash your car, are you just cleaning it? Not really. You are inspecting it for abnormalities. And if we can discover these opportunities with the knowledge to fix them, things just get better. If the air is low in my car’s tire, I check it and fill it to the standard PSI. What has just happened? Early wear or failure has been prevented.

4. Are the Simple Things That Powerful? Frankly, we did not think so. We were looking for the graduate school answers. The reality is when everyone understands how things work and how to work together to make improvements, things get better. Most people come to work each day expecting things to go wrong. These simple corrections prevent major future failures. And they can be significant. It also becomes a better place to work. There’s more teamwork, and it is a cleaner and safer workplace.

5. Can We Make It Better? As things get better, there is more time for improvements. On average, Milliken runs its equipment 25% faster than before. We are free to challenge the manufacturer’s paradigms. Most equipment today has modifications that came from the ideas of our associates that significantly improvement performance. Freeing people to think about new ways of doing things is very powerful and very rewarding.

Old CarIn summary, the first day of any machine is not the best day. That’s a big change in thinking. Sure, technology changes can leapfrog processes, but for the most part the life-cycle cost can be significantly extended, our CapEx budgets significantly reduced, our margins improved and morale taken to a new level. It all starts with a change in our thinking.

Think about it driving home.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn by Craig Long. Craig Long has spent his 40-year career with Milliken & Company in a variety of executive leadership roles. In 2007, Craig helped launch the Performance Solutions by Milliken business to assist other organizations with the same challenges that Milliken has overcome. Craig’s experience includes business management, quality, continuous improvement, corporate education, industrial engineering, product development, and complexity reduction. For the past two decades Craig has led successful MPS implementations within Milliken and with 350 client operations in 23 countries to date.