What manufacturing company doesn’t want to be operationally excellent?

Many companies employ programs and techniques such as ISO 9000, Six Sigma, and operational equipment effectiveness (OEE) metrics to reach the promised land of operational excellence, but these programs often require something else.

At the Dickson, TN, plant of Dal-Tile, which is the largest manufacturer of ceramic tile in the U.S., that something else is a culture that emulates the principles of servant leadership, a concept coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader”, an essay he published in 1970. Servant leaders share power, put the needs of other first, and help people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Earlier this month, about 50 members of the Manufacturing Leadership Council (MLC) had the opportunity to see first hand how the combination of the servant leadership philosophy and traditional operational excellence programs join forces at Dal-Tile’s two-year old, 990,000-square foot Dickson plant to achieve operational excellence. Council members toured the plant’s press, kiln, and logistics operations and then engaged in a 90-minute question-and-answer session with Dal-Tile plant management on the Dickson plant’s operational approach.

Dal-Tile is a division of Mohawk Industries, Inc., the world’s largest flooring company. Based in Calhoun, GA, Mohawk had 2017 revenues of $9.4 billion, employed more than 38,000 people, and operated manufacturing facilities in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Europe, India, Malaysia, Mexico, and Russia. Mohawk makes carpets, rugs, ceramic tile, laminates, wood and stone products, and vinyl flooring. Its brands include American Olean, Daltile, Durkan, Feltex, Godfrey Hirst, IVC, Karastan, Marazzi, Mohawk, Pergo, Quick-Step, and Unilin.

The company estimates that it has about two percent of the 135 billion square foot ceramic tile market. One of its key growth strategies has been acquisitions. During the past five years, Mohawk has acquired 13 companies, including four in 2017. In the U.S., Mohawk bought a talc mine to support its ceramic manufacturing operations. And earlier this month, Mohawk announced plans to acquire Eliane, one of the largest ceramic tile manufacturers in Brazil, for about $250 million.

Established in 1947, Dal-Tile has 10 manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and Mexico and employs 8,500 people.

At the Dickson plant, the operational approach is summed up by the motto “We Make the BEST Tile”. BEST stands for: Better the community in which we live, Exceed customer expectations, Stand together as one, and Today beats yesterday. On the plant floor, there are three process excellence pillars – safety; quality, supported by ISO 9001; and productivity, supported by lean Six Sigma techniques. But the key to these disciplines is the leadership philosophy.

“The culture in Dickson is that of a very close group that works together and for each other,” said a plant official. “Team members often refer to each other as brother or sister. They spend many hours in the plant and embrace their colleagues and strive to work for the person next to them. In addition, approachability from top to bottom is essential in creating a seamless communications channel. ‘No secrets’ is a way of characterizing the plant team.”

During the plant tour, MLC members witnessed the many steps required to make a ceramic tile, including material preparation, tile press, the journey through the kiln, rectifying and polishing, sorting, and, finally, packaging. The plant has four giant tile presses made by Sacmi, an equipment maker based in Imola, Italy, that was founded in 1919. The plant also has three kiln lines, also made by Sacmi. The one observed by MLC members is 155 meters in length; it takes 47 minutes for a tile to travel through the kiln. The Dickson plant, with about 500 SKUs, makes 80 million square feet of tile per year and operates on a 24/7 rotating work schedule.

Cameras inspect tiles as they move through the process and data is captured using OSIsoft’s PI System data collection tool. On the back end, the company runs SAP’s ERP system on-premise, recently completed implementation of SAP’s maintenance application, and will be moving to SAP’s S/4HANA platform next year.

Although plant officials said they are still “working out the kinks on what data to collect”, data is currently used to make timely decisions on the line. Defect data is used for team member training purposes and to help streamline the correction process. The goal, said the plant official, is to “ultimately understand which pieces of equipment are en route to potentially failing so that proper personnel can act proactively to make sure that whatever problem is set to arise can be fixed prior to a failure.”

During downtimes, team members are given continuous improvement training, which can lead to pay increases and recognition. “It is financially beneficial for the leadership and for team members to be cross training in different areas of the business,” the plant official said. “Using a training matrix, team members get mutually trained throughout different areas so that they can actively take part in different parts of the manufacturing process.”

Looking ahead to the next five years, Dal-Tile’s plant management team voiced several objectives they would like to be accomplished. Two officials mentioned that they would like to see the plant use data coming from operations more effectively, particularly in quality management. Another official said that Dal-Tile should become even more “open-minded” about how it manages operations than it is today. And a third said that the plant should become the “employer of choice” in the Dickson area, with children of current team members becoming future team members at the plant.

“Operational excellence is a by-product of this,” the official said.