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The endless search for a ‘better way’

In 2003, Mack Boring, then an 81-year-old distributor operating out of a 1950s complex, formed a strategic planning committee to help guide the company to smart, effective growth.

That committee of rotating members led to the company’s leveraging its relationship with Yanmar Marine for multiple tours of the engine manufacturer’s plant in Japan by a Mack Boring team. Yanmar was an early advocate of production efficiency and quality control. “We all learned a lot. It was a great investment,” says chief operating officer Patrick McGovern.

Another product of strategic planning was the creation of an efficiency program in 2006. Led by director of operations Jon Henkin, the program strives for lean, continuous improvement in operational efficiency. “We recognized where we are in the supply chain, as a distributor, that the model we’ve used for 50 years — there just has to be a better way,” Henkin says. “We aspire to do things the same way as bigger companies — or companies that do it right. When you see these companies operate, everything makes sense on the most efficient way to do the job.”

The primary motive to change was obvious to the team: Today’s customer does not want to pay for inefficiencies in a supply chain. “You have to add value, but you have to do it well,” Henkin says. “The name of the game in operations is to be able to do more while keeping your operational requirements at a constant level while eliminating waste.”

From their field trips to the Far East, the Mack Boring team learned about Yanmar’s kaizen program of “continuous improvement” and learned techniques for lean assembly and cellular assembly. They include improving efficiency when assembling an order of engines and setting up the shop to have the flexibility to build varying types of engines without disrupting the work flow.

As an example, Henkin says, the assembly operation at Mack Boring used to be like this: An order comes through and then they put in their order from the materials department and wait for that department to deliver those parts. Now the materials department knows what’s needed for the order when it comes in, and the parts are there for the assemblers when they need them. “The fundamentals are simple: Have the tools there, have the parts there, build it fast,” he says.

“We’ve seen reductions in assembly time of 50 to 65 percent,” Henkin says. “In one of our volume production cells it would take 2-1/2 shifts with 2-1/2 workers to build about 10 engines. Now we’re down to two guys in a little over one shift.”

Inefficiencies have been lessened throughout the operation, from creating a radio frequency scanning system so the contents of each box in the warehouse can immediately be identified and put away to boxes being arranged smartly on three decks of shelves for optimal picking. The materials department revamped the way it stores its volumes of products so the most used are easiest to get and fastest to pick. “We achieved a 50 percent reduction in our stock receipt and put-away time, and a 65 percent reduction in our parts moves from bin to bin. Additionally, lean assembly procedures reduced in-house product travel distance by 92 percent in our assembly operation,” Henkin says.

“Another benefit to improved efficiency is eliminating one of the things we used to go through when it wasn’t organized — chaos. There was a lot of chaos and stress for the workers to deal with all the variability,” he says. “Now we have this pipeline system and the ability to look further ahead than ever before, and we fulfill orders so much faster and more efficiently. And we don’t use much overtime anymore because we don’t need to.”

Every employee is challenged to continually look for and suggest better ways to go about their business. “I don’t want to see the same thing over and over. Yes, there are certain fundamentals that always hold, but there’s always a better way to do things,” he says. “We expect to evolve.”

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