The impact guns used throughout his department at the Marysville, Ohio, plant to install bolts and parts to cars had been consistently leaking compressed air, making the guns less effective.
Baker thought about the problem for some time. One day, he chatted up a supplier over lunch. Was there a different type of quick-disconnect coupler the department could test, he asked. Yes, was the response.
Baker and co-worker John Duffy took the project, which they dubbed 'Cut Cost and Improve Loss,' from there, testing the new plastic coupler, recording measurements, studying costs and presenting their data to management.
The new couplers, which replaced metal couplers, worked well and were adopted last year.
The switch saved Honda $28,000 in compressed air costs the first year and improved safety and quality. They are used throughout Honda auto plants in Marysville and East Liberty, Ohio.
Baker and Duffy's project was one of many employee-led initiatives from Honda's Voluntary Involvement Program, which each year helps Honda save hundreds of thousands of dollars in manufacturing costs, while improving efficiency and creating a culture to root out and fix other problems.
The program, which began at Honda in 1986, is run by the automaker's organizational development department. The creation of problem solving and project implementation skills for workers is a major goal.
Because the program's focus is employee development, not cost savings, there is no precise savings total for projects, said Dawn Burris, assistant manager for the program. Estimated savings since 1986 is about $764,000.
* Saving more than $55,340 a year at the Marysville plant by eliminating down time and repair costs due to the malfunction of an instrument panel conveyor chain guard. A team of workers designed support brackets that bolstered the guard, reduced foreign objects from entering the drive chain, and kept the conveyor and the assembly line running smoothly.
* A 75 percent reduction in the number of missing door sheets on cars coming off of the assembly line at the East Liberty plant. Data collection during a four-month problem study period showed 669 missing door sheets and 36.5 minutes of downtime, totaling $31,025 in costs. A team of workers reduced the problem by identifying broken and worn out clips, which, when combined with air pressure from vents, were allowing the sheets to be blown off.
* An average savings of nearly $31,878 per month due to the invention of a weld repair technique at the Anna engine plant to stop the scrapping of V-6 engine castings due to defects.
A sizable force
Every year, about half of Honda of America Manufacturing's 13,000 workers participate.
Many, such as 10-year Honda veteran Mike Penny, a quality check production associate at Marysville, participate regularly, often on more than one project at a time.
Penny was part of the team that repaired the instrument panel conveyor chain guard. He is working on two new projects.
Searching for improvements has become second nature to Penny as he works on the assembly line.'There are always going to be problems,' he says, '(so) there always needs to be problem solving.'
Since the VIP program was implemented, 160,000 individual or small group suggestions have been implemented, and 1,600 teams have worked through scores of problems.
There are plenty of other problem-solvers such as Penny throughout Honda's plants.
'Once they get it in their blood,' Burris said, 'it is very hard to get it out.'
Less tangible benefits include developing flexible workers.
When Baker, for example, changed departments a few months ago, he credited his involvement in the program with helping him make a smoother transition.
'The skill and knowledge of problem solving has really made it easy to adapt and also bring in some new ideas back there. So it is really helping me with the move,' he said.
Because all projects share a common language and format, idea sharing between plants is commonplace.
For example, Tod Gray, a production associate for Honda's motorcycle plant in Marysville, last year helped adapt the housing of the weld wire used in his department from a 60-pound spool that workers had to change manually every four days to a 500-pound drum that is hoisted and rolled into place by a machine about once a month. The idea came from drums that were being used in one of Honda's auto plants.
Likewise, information from Baker and Duffy's coupler project has been passed along to plants in Mexico, Canada and Japan.
Costs and support
Primary costs for the program include those for program administration, overtime pay and awards.
At the corporate level, Burris, as assistant manager of the program, spends about 75 percent of her time on the project. She manages a coordinator that primarily works on the program, as well as a staff associate and a temporary worker who lend support.
Each Honda plant has a facilitator who spends about 50 percent of his or her time on the program, as well as department facilitators who devote 20 percent to 50 percent of their time on it. Workers also volunteer to perform tasks such as grading ideas.
Workers are generally allotted five overtime hours per month to work on projects. But if they require additional time, they may seek approval from their coordinator, Burris said. But many associates are able to consider projects and collect data as they work.
Honda also spends a fair amount of money on awards. At the lowest level, program participants may earn $7 and 10 program points per completed project; at the high end, a project may garner an associate $100 and 50 program points.
There also are awards for accrued points. During the program's lifetime, Honda has awarded 656 workers a silver award - $800 each - for accumulating 1,000 points. It has given away 168 new Civics for gold award participants that have accumulated 2,500 points. And it has given out a new Accord, two airline tickets to the worker's destination of choice, two vacation weeks to take the trip and four weeks base pay for those who have accumulated 5,000 points.
But Burris said the expenditures 'are not a bottom-line tracking point for us. We are really not in the business of even trying to pinpoint all of the costs involved in or the exact savings we get from the program.'
The benefits far outweigh its costs, she said.
'Long term, we are looking at the development of our associates, because on a daily basis, if they run across a problem, even (one) that they could not submit a suggestion for, they have the skills to be able to help solve that problem.
'So that is really how we retain our competitiveness. It's the fact that we have a lot of experts out there now.'