Total Process Reliability The ‘Columbia Way’

EP Editorial Staff | March 2, 2010


The use of Lean and TPM are helping drive sustainable reliability in the face of strong foreign competition and a recession.

It’s 10:00 a.m., Tuesday, December 8, 2009, in Old Fort, NC. Jeff Wakefield, plant manager of Columbia Forest Products (CFP), calls the morning “War Meeting” to order. He starts with a recent hardwood press issue: “We’re looking for solutions,” he says to Continuous Improvement manager Brian Sprouse and the other department heads. “Press faults are over a percent back; let’s problem-solve.”
Wakefield opens the high-level problem-solving forum, adding support and facilitating when necessary. He keeps the meeting on track by referencing key plant metrics—safety, quality, productivity, delivery and cost—displayed in charts, graphs and metrics on a University of North Carolina Tarheel blue wall.




Headquartered in Greensboro, NC, employee-owned Columbia Forest Products (CFP) employs over 2000 people in 12 plants. The company is North America’s largest manufacturer of decorative hardwood, plywood and veneer products. Its decorative veneers and plywood panels are used to make cabinets, furniture, fixtures and millwork for homes and commercial settings around the globe.

Relationships appear strong. Conversation is open, comfortable, but, most importantly, concise. Determined to get the job done, Gluing/Pressing supervisor Charlie Kelly immediately takes ownership and brainstorms issues with the group. He gains agreement that root cause analysis (called “C4”) is necessary. “Tell us what you need,” Wakefield says encouragingly.

Separate meetings are then held to manage the details. The result: Press faults drop below target; 12 best practices around the reject are developed; operations owns all solutions. This style and combination of leadership, teamwork and solution-finding are commonplace at CFP.

The War Meeting wraps up at 10:37 a.m. The lights are turned off, the projector is turned on and the morning maintenance meeting begins. Scott Gouge, Maintenance Planning lead, reviews the weekly schedule. At 10:59 a.m., the maintenance meeting ends and the War Room empties.

What is very clear from this scenario is that CFP is serious about efficiency, effectiveness, teamwork, quality and productivity. This case study focuses on the lean- and reliability-related improvements that this employee-owned company has made, reasons for success and some of the challenges along the way.

CFP’s Old Fort facility began a lean manufacturing journey in 2005. The objectives were to improve production and maintenance workflow and drive out non-value-added costs. That need for change is best described by Gouge: “Prior to lean, we were a fire-fighting system.”

Yet, despite three successful years of lean maintenance and achieving significant process-efficiency improvements and cost reductions, continued equipment failures were keeping the site from meeting its production targets. To reduce failures and improve uptime, CFP realized lean process improvements were only one step in its journey; it also needed to confront the reliability frontier. The organization was familiar with the concept of Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), but needed to ensure that this tool was the right one to counter poor equipment reliability. Rather than try to get where it wanted to go by itself, CFP chose to work with Marshall Institute (see below).


Fig. 1. Views of the CFP de-barker before implementation of BEC principles and methodologies

Today, less than two years into the reliability piece of their improvement journey, CFP notes considerable advances in key reliability improvement areas. There has been a 50% reduction in post-purchase product inquiries. PM completion has improved 52%. Overall rejects have improved by 71%. Production per man-hour has increased by 17%. The site now kits 40-50% of its jobs (up from 0%). Operators and maintenance personnel work in partnership and feel true ownership over their equipment and process. Shop-floor wrench time has increased, and the plant is running more efficiently. CFP has achieved real culture change.

Factors for success
CFP’s key objectives include reducing downtime, improving response time, PM compliance, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and work order completion, and developing better OEE measures and solving problems to predict maintenance equipment failures and behaviors. In addition, the company wanted to gain improvements in other key performance measures such as maintenance labor and supplier costs. It further planned to improve storeroom efficiency and revamp the entire PM system.

Wakefield and Sprouse admit that if they had not implemented TPM and begun focusing on reliability improvement, they would have had more stoppages in process flow and more downtime—not to mention less ownership by personnel in seeing that the process runs as effectively as possible.


The de-barker “after” implementation

Assessing, structuring, training
After acknowledging that TPM was the right tool, CFP’s maintenance systems and practices were assessed for strengths, weaknesses and improvement areas. Wakefield, Sprouse and plant superintendent Randy Marsh, along with hourly and salaried maintenance and production staff, met to create their vision, mission and expectations, thus shaping how TPM fit into the overall company strategy and philosophy.

Following the assessment, a TPM Steering Committee was formed. This cross-functional team is responsible for driving TPM—the success of which relies heavily on their ability to lead and stay the course.

The initial assessment highlighted the need to restructure the planner role, build operator involvement and improve maintenance systems. In response, CFP designated one leader in charge of all planners to ensure that all maintenance work flows through the planners. (Before this was done, maintenance work orders didn’t necessarily go to the planner.) A kitting room was then created to support the restructured planning department, and work began on the storeroom concerns. To build operator involvement and relations with maintenance, the site conducted 12 week- long Basic Equipment Care (BEC) workshops to highlight the benefits of a closer maintenance/operations relationship and the improvements that can be achieved through front-line equipment care.

Putting a spotlight on equipment performance and reliability quick wins, the BEC workshops helped build shop-floor ownership of the equipment and support for TPM. These educational activities were explained as an essential part of maintenance excellence. This open communication was essential in highlighting the importance of everyone’s purpose and support.

Cross-functional BEC teams thoroughly cleaned each piece of equipment in order to identify defects and opportunities for reliability improvement. The teams then created work orders for the defects (something that currently affects uptime) and for the opportunities (repairs that help with equipment efficiency). For example, on the de-barker, an enormous piece of equipment that strips bark from the tree (Fig. 1), a 12% production improvement was realized with BEC alone—which, in turn, dramatically lowered maintenance costs.

In addition to the BEC training, CFP invested in specific training for planning and scheduling. Scott Gouge attended one of these seminars with his manager, Brian Sprouse. “It was nice to not only have Brian’s support, but also for him to hear, from the experts, how long it takes to build a quality planning and scheduling effort,” Gouge says of this opportunity.

Standard operating procedures and On-The-Job-Training (OJT) are also used. Operator Linda Phillips led the gluing department’s training. “We dedicate six to eight weeks to OJT,” she reports. After the training, everyone is expected to do the job according to the standard. (The next step in CFP’s training plan is to begin a quality training approach called Training Within Industry [TWI].)

Living the ‘Columbia Way’
What drives and sustains CFP’s lean and reliability initiatives? It’s the “Columbia Way” philosophy. Built on a lean background and company-wide in scope, this improvement philosophy is a way of life at the company. It permeates structure, communications, relationships, processes and problem-solving.

“It’s our passion and thought process of what work should be; it is our connection between the customer, employees and the community at large, and provides our vision and discipline,” says Wakefield. “We eat, breathe and sleep the Columbia Way. It’s not a gimmick, it’s the principle we live by and the way we do business.” A simple walk through the plant proves him out.

Employees are fully engaged, satisfied and take pride in their work. The shop floor is thoroughly maintained and “clean enough to eat off of.” Equipment, processes and flow effectively produce product on time, safely, efficiently, at a lower cost and to the utmost quality. The site also has seen a 50% reduction in OSHA incidents over the last year, earning it awards like the Department of Labor’s 2008 Outstanding Work in Accident Prevention, for the 19th consecutive year.

Leadership. . .
CFP is living the philosophy, starting with sponsorship from its leaders. That type of support is key to any reliability effort.
As Wakefield puts it, “without it [leadership support], your effort becomes a ‘program-of-the-month.’ Our leaders commit to not only leading change, but being servants to it.” If leadership isn’t living the philosophy, they can be challenged about it. At one BEC event, for example, employees questioned the reason for cleaning the equipment and work area. Leadership responded by helping them understand the importance of cleaning. In the end, 120 defects were identified. The success of the workshop and subsequent reliability improvements spoke for themselves. Those inquiring employees are now BEC advocates.

Communication. . .
At CFP, communication is upfront, open and two-way. Leadership communicates clearly with employees about the emphasis on equipment reliability and how employee involvement is essential to its success. In return, company leaders expect employees to communicate with them about problems and successes. Given the fact that the company is employee-owned, employees receive quarterly profit and loss statements so they can see the results of their efforts.

Resistance is expected and encouraged, as it facilitates open communication and sometimes leads to better solutions. According to Wakefield, no one is wearing rose-colored glasses. “We hope employees feel encouraged to express what they believe and free to challenge decisions made,” he adds.

Problem-solving. . .
Standardization has been a priority in CFP problem solving. The organization established a “C4” (i.e. countermeasure, confirm, concern and control) problem-solving process that is implemented when 15 minutes or more of downtime is documented. Problem-solving meetings are scheduled separately from the daily War Room and maintenance meetings for the key people required to find a solution. Meetings move quickly and smoothly; participants know the purpose of each meeting and provide the right amount of input to meet those objectives.

Rewards. . .
CFP has outcome rewards and a gain-share plan whereby if employees hit targets around key metrics, they receive a percentage back in pay. Other rewards, such as award dinners and time off with pay, Linda Phillips notes, “show that they [CFP] care.”


Fig. 2. Plant manager Jeff Wakefield leads a meeting in CFP’s Carolina War Room.

A war-room mentality
CFP is data-driven. Decisions are based on reliable data and the most appropriate metrics are followed to ensure that efforts are helping to achieve strategic goals. The hub of the improvement structure is what CFP calls its “War Room” (Fig. 2), a command post that displays company metrics, progress and action items around five critical areas: safety, quality, productivity, delivery and cost.

The “War Room” name came about during a time of difficult domestic market conditions due to the recession and heavy foreign competition. As Jeff Wakefield recalls, “We felt like we were in a war, and the name had the appropriate tone for our intent.” In fact, Wakefield, the continuous improvement coordinator and the plant superintendent all work from the War Room. Each morning, they hold meetings with maintenance and production to ensure communication is clear, jobs are understood and discrepancies are dealt with. Staffers circulate in and out all day long, updating key metrics for their respective departments.

In Wakefield’s opinion, the benefits of the War Room are obvious. “It aligns all departments and ensures we have the same principled approach and are adhering to it.” Gouge agrees. “Departments get to know each other better,” he says, “and interaction between maintenance and production has increased. The two come together to problem-solve and work together.” (Interestingly, the concept has taken off in other parts of the plant, as maintenance, production and sales have created their own War Rooms displaying key metrics.)

Challenges along the way
CFP readily acknowledges that the lean and reliability journey has not always been easy. The biggest challenge? “Communicating to employees ‘why and what’s in it for me,'” says Brian Sprouse. The company feels that it was “a little slow” in conveying the message about the importance of maintenance excellence to employees, and how this was another stage in their journey of continuous improvement. Wakefield believes his organization “would be even further along if we had established the Columbia Way philosophy sooner.”

Strengthening the relationship between maintenance and production is another area CFP believes it should have focused on sooner. As a result, leadership feels as if the company is “playing catch up”
with production and maintenance.

Committed to continuous improvement
Although CFP is still in the process of reaching targets, it has seen significant behavior and reliability changes. It points to Marshall Institute’s support as a key to that success—by helping accelerate the CFP learning curve and making planning and implementation more concise. Today, all levels of the organization are aware that reaching the desired destination in this reliability journey is expected to take five years. CFP, though, is committed to continuous improvement, and believes that the journey is never-ending. The company knows that it still has improvement opportunities ahead, but when it looks at where it was a year ago, it sees great gain.

CFP is realistic about goals. That’s because of its previous experience with lean improvements—and with prioritizing and implementing the right strategy to achieve those goals. Says Wakefield, “First in, first out … we pace change to know it’s sustainable.” In other words, the company bases what it does on what makes sense for CFP’s culture and strategic goals, laying a deep foundation and achieving critical mass in the process.

As for the tough economy, CFP is more than just surviving by staying focused on these principles. “If we didn’t implement TPM we’d be struggling to survive,” notes Wakefield. Major successes have been achieved, and major changes for sustained improvement have been made, including culture change, maintenance-system improvements, stronger inter-department relationships and leadership commitment. Still, Columbia Forest Products realizes these are milestones on a much longer journey. It remains firmly committed to continuous improvement—and has all the factors in place for continued success. Watch this space! MT

Reliability Starts Here: Desiring The BestCFP’s reliability journey began in January 2008, when Continuous Improvement coordinator Brian Sprouse attended a Marshall Institute training seminar to learn more about TPM practices and benefits. He immediately realized the impact of big wastes and the need for an entire maintenance-system approach to reliability. He also realized that it was vital to find a results-oriented partner with which to travel through the reliability frontier. Although CFP interviewed many companies, it felt the typical approaches were short-term, and did not align with CFP’s long-term vision. Plant manager Wakefield sums up his organization’s decision as follows: “We selected Marshall Institute because of their total system and data-driven approach. They use lean principles, which we are familiar with, and emphasize long-term maintenance excellence.” This approach matched CFP’s vision, philosophy and represented the type of cultural change the company desired.

Greg Folts is president and Rinnette Lowder is instructional designer of Marshall Institute, an asset management company providing maintenance and reliability consulting and training services to industry. Telephone: (919) 834-3722; e-mail: (EDITOR’S NOTE: This case study will be presented at MARTS 2010, on Wed., April 28. For details, visit




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