Meeting the Challenges of a Pandemic World

By on February 2, 2021
Meeting the Challenges of a Pandemic World Essex Industries

Essex Industries’ Pivot to Virtual

One of the great strengths of American industry has been its ability to respond quickly to new challenges. During WWII, our automobile industry’s ability to transition from making cars to making bombers is just one very dramatic example of this ability. No one could have imagined prior to the war that Ford Motor Company’s transition to wartime production would have it turning out one B-24 bomber every hour.

The very good news for today is that the American ability to respond quickly to new challenges is very much alive and well.

This is Essex Industries’ story of how they successfully pivoted from live to Zoom-based training and coaching in support of a vital quick changeover process and the success this process achieved.

First, Essex Industries’ remarkable growth.

In 1947 in St. Louis, two brothers, Harold and Sidney Guller, founded a company in their father’s basement. In the last seventy-three years this company, Essex Industries, has grown to five facilities located in St. Louis and Huntington Beach, California, encompassing 250,000 square feet of manufacturing space and over 350 employees.

The Gullers entered the Aerospace and Defense market with their first product, an F-214 Radio Noise Filter. Since then, they have become a leader in platform controls, aircraft components, emergency breathing equipment, and liquid oxygen systems. With the wide variety of mechanical and electro-mechanical components/assemblies, they have led the way on programs including nearly every US fighter, trainer, bomber, cargo aircraft, and various ground combat vehicles currently in operation worldwide. They also have become a trusted partner in military rotary-wing modernization.

And what has driven this incredible growth? A laser like focus on continuous improvement. It was this focus on continuous improvement that led them to partner with the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College.

Second, their partnership with St. Louis Community College.

Seth Voelker, Continuous Improvement Manager at Essex, described what led Essex to contact St. Louis Community College. “I remembered George Friesen, a Lean Performance Consultant with the College, from work he did eight years previously with me for another company. Also, I did a web search for organizations who could provide training for our machinists and came to St. Louis Community College through this search.

Corey Waldman was new to his role as a Value Stream Analyst on Seth’s team when the decision was made to contract with St. Louis Community College to provide training for Essex Machinists. Describing his reaction to learning this, Corey said, “My initial expectations were that we were, reluctantly, going to train a group of employees who had just gotten much better by our own standards. I did not expect the training to be as successful as it ultimately was.

Seth continued, “I knew about George and his passion for continuous improvement and his knowledge of Lean. My hope and expectation were that, as an outsider, George would be a person they could trust. And it turned out really good. What George was discussing with them really sank in. One of our lead machinists, Earl Liverpool, who was quiet during much of the training really took hold of what George was discussing and emerged as a leader of the group in driving continuous improvement in the Quick Changeover process used by machinists. It became obvious that Earl appreciated the work George was doing in generating quality conversations and instilling more passion in the machinist group in upgrading their thought processes toward quality and organization.

Essex Industries - Meeting the Challenges of a Pandemic World

And then COVID-19 forced a quick pivot from on-site to Zoom-based remote training and coaching. The four training sessions that had been conducted on-site greatly facilitated this pivot to remote. It was also aided by the hours of video that had been shot of the Quick Changeover process prior to the emergence of COVID-19.

Commenting on the forced move to remote training, Seth added, “It was pretty clear that St. Louis Community College had a very well-organized process to put it together. It turned out better than we ever expected.

Improving the Quick Changeover Process involved moving as many steps as possible in the process from internal tasks to external while a part was being run. Parts needed during changeover had to be staged for quick access. Robust visual controls had to be used to ensure the smooth flow of work with as few pauses in the process as possible. Finally, a standardized work checklist had to be developed to ensure that the same process would be consistently used by machinists.

These improvements in the changeover process were made to achieve these goals:

  • Remove struggles as much as possible from the process.
  • Make the process as fail-safe as possible.

They were achieved.

Commenting on the training and coaching provided by the College, Corey added, “Now we have a core group of people who are good at setup. And the positive resolve and engagement among the machinist group was probably the biggest win.

Reflecting on the quantitative impact of the College’s training, Corey added, “We know the amount of time reduced on setup is very significant to the tune of at least 300 hours on an annual basis.

Seth observed that “Our machinists now see themselves as more than just operators. They see themselves as masters of their production processes with the ability to drive continuous improvement.

Essex Industries - Meeting the Challenges of a Pandemic World

Corey continued, “Because of the training St. Louis Community College provided for us, our team would definitely be ready to have them return to do more training. I know there’d be more engagement from the beginning.

Essex achieved a seamless pivot and made tremendous gains through their improvement efforts. While what they accomplished may not be as dramatic as what happened at Ford Motor Company during WWII, the spirit and ingenuity that made it happen are exactly the same.

The American worker has an unmatched ability to respond quickly and very effectively to new challenges. And this is very good news for 2021.

St. Louis Community College greatly valued this opportunity to serve Essex. It is well known that the College is committed to providing high quality educational services for its students. The College is equally committed to serving adults, many of whom are former students, who are working for companies in its region.

Our Corporate Services Group would greatly appreciate having the opportunity to let you know more about our ability to support remotely your drive to improve your work processes. Just call Eric Whitehead at 314-539-5022 and let’s talk.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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