Tom Schilling could be called a quality improvement entrepreneur.
Schilling, the 51-year-old president of Framatome Connectors Interlock Inc.'s North American operations, is an accountant by training. But he has spent the past 20 years studying human behavior.
He figures out what makes people tick, how they respond to changes in their environment and, most important, how changes in behavior can increase manufacturing productivity.
When Schilling was hired as president of FCI North America in 1997, he confronted a major head-ache.
An American company FCI had just purchased - Interlock Inc. - was in deep trouble. Quality was wretched, inventories were bloated and deliveries to customers were chronically late. The small, family-owned firm was in such bad shape that the former Chrysler Corp. had ranked it as one of its 10 worst suppliers.
Two years into Schilling's quality crusade, sales are up, overhead is down and factory morale has improved dramatically.
Schilling's key to improving productivity is a process he calls team network. He says he borrowed concepts from a variety of lean-manufacturing philosophies, including the Toyota Production System.
The team network strategy teaches communication skills that allow employees to eliminate production bottlenecks as soon as they are identified.
'In any company, 25 percent to 55 percent of the cost of sales is rework, error and scrap, which means it is unnecessary,' Schilling said. 'The team network is set up to capture that potential.'
Framatome Connectors International was launched in 1989, when the French nuclear power company Framatome began buying automotive and electronic suppliers.
In 1996, after Framatome Connectors International bought the American supplier Interlock Inc., North American sales approached $90 million.
But Interlock was a problem for its corporate parent. The Interlock factory in Westland, Mich., routinely had $5 million worth of
inventory stacked up in its warehouse, yet it was missing customer deliveries. Defects numbered about 2,000 parts per million.
'They were in big trouble,' Schilling said. 'Their customers were really upset.'
Under Schilling's stewardship, FCI North America's 1998 sales rose 13 percent over the previous year to $104 million.
As the company's plants became more efficient, Schilling was able to cut back on costly overtime. To keep up with demand, some of the plants had been operating seven days a week. Now, five-day weeks are the norm.
Defects per million have been slashed by nearly 70 percent at the Westland plant.
The team network plan calls for teams organized at all levels of the company to meet every day for about 15 minutes.
Team members are empowered to propose ideas up the management chain. Schilling, who heads the executive team, often is told of bottlenecks on the plant floor within a day or two after they are identified by plant workers. Workers who are most familiar with the manufacturing process often generate ideas for fixing the bottleneck.
Productivity is measured daily, and the data are used to help identify progress.
The company carefully is phasing in its team network concept. The first step, Schilling said, is convincing people of the need for frequent communication and then training them to do so. This lets top management know about bottlenecks right away. The first phase is nearly complete.
The second phase is setting goals for improvement. The goals will be different at each plant and for each team level, Schilling said.
Annette Herrera is an assembly supervisor at the FCI Westland plant.
One of the parts made on her shift is a ground bus, a connector that attaches to a wiring harness and bolts onto a vehicle's body.
The factory makes three variations of this component.
Earlier this year, Herrera's team noticed that the machine assembling the bus did not distinguish among the three variations.
As a result, the factory was shipping boxes full of mixed parts. The customers were refusing the parts, and workers spent hundreds of hours of overtime sorting the pieces by hand.
Engineers at the plant said they could install an electronic eye on the machine, but it would cost thousands of dollars and might not work all the time.
Unsatisfied, Herrera went to the management team level.
'You don't take no for an answer,' Herrera said of the team network approach. 'If it takes getting Tom Schilling involved, that's what we'll do.'
Ultimately, engineers at the plant developed a poka yoke - a Japanese expression translating roughly as 'to build without thinking.'
Now, a small pneumatic gauge grips each bus as it moves around the assembly platform. Buses that do not match the programmed job run are discarded. No customer defects on this product have been reported since mid-March.
The team network concept, also known as a quality circle, is not a new idea, said Sandy Munro, a manufacturing consultant in Troy, Mich. But the key to making it work is strong leadership.
'That's what really counts,' Munro said. 'These are all good ideas, but actually implementing them is another thing.'
For Schilling, implementing the concepts is a passion. After joining FCI in 1997, he personally conducted training sessions, first getting his staff up to speed, then helping to spread the team network message to the factories.
The whole idea is fixing problem areas by sharing information and focusing on priorities, he said.
'You can never get better unless you fix the bottleneck. Why would you put your resources into something else?' Schilling said. 'You're working on something that you shouldn't be working on.'
Michael Woodyard is an Automotive News staff reporter based in Detroit