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The View from 30 Feet

by Brittany Willes

Plastics Business

Business gurus often talk about the view from 30,000 feet – the big picture that provides a look at overall operations. Perhaps, however, the focus should be on the view from 30 feet – a close-up of specific processes and procedures that make an impact now. In this issue, Plastics Business takes a look at Ice Miller, Metro Plastics and Crescent Industries.

Casual Friday Includes Fewer Emails at Ice Miller

It's no secret that interpersonal communication has fallen by the wayside. Email has become one of the most preferred methods of communicating with customers and co-workers alike. And, why not? It's easy, it's quick and emails can be sent at any time of the day or night. Need to schedule a department meeting? Send an email. Need to send a customer a product/service quote? Send an email. Need to request a last-minute report or move a deadline? Send an email. There is no denying the convenience; however, strict reliance on email comes with a price, namely the loss of more personal and interactive communication. As a result, some companies now are implementing "No Email Fridays" in an effort to get people talking to each other live once more.

Ice Miller, LLP, first learned of No Email Fridays from one of its health system clients that had implemented the policy at its facility. According to H. Alan Rothenbuecher, a partner for Ice Miller's Cleveland, Ohio, office, "The General Counsel said the policy was well received at his hospital. It got people to talk to each other again, made them walk to each other's offices to talk, pick up the phone to talk live and otherwise just interact with each other outside of the e-communication world. People actually talked to each other for longer and interacted with each other as we should in our society. Everyone's people skills got better instead of regressing or becoming stagnant." After reviewing the benefits, Ice Miller decided to test No Email Fridays for certain of its own employees. After seeing many positive results, a year later the firm is discussing making the policy mandatory firm-wide.

Rothenbuecher and others in the firm love the new policy. "Some outliers always will send emails, but even those outliers send less than they did before," he explained. Emailing is a hard habit to break, even for a day. For the most part, however, people have come to embrace the change and Rothenbuecher reported that personal interaction has increased significantly. "With personal interaction has come increased business," he went on to say. "We, and our clients, are doing better through live interaction, understanding each other and actually talking through issues versus trying to interpret written sentences. The interaction of questions and answers on a live basis allows for greater understanding and promotes efficiency." Employees have experienced other benefits as well, such as getting more exercise as a result of needing to walk to another office to convey messages.

In addition to greater efficiency, Rothenbuecher sees the No Email Friday policy as a way of building stronger relationships with Ice Miller's clients. "When you call or visit a client in response to an email," stated Rothenbuecher, "you end up actually having a conversation. You catch up on business issues and what each of you has been doing. You continue to build rapport, which is important in any client relationship. You often hear 'While I have you on the phone...' or 'While you're here, I need to ask you about something else.' It saves costs to the client because you can react right away versus having numerous written exchanges via email. It allows for nothing to get lost in the translation."

While email and other forms of electronic communication always will have their place, live communication is making a resurgence and needs to continue to do so. Companies like Ice Miller are finding that policies like No Email Friday mean people spend less time writing out information and more time actually sharing information, while making more personal connections with co-workers and clients alike – something from which everyone can benefit.

"I wish everyone would do this," stated Rothenbuecher. "It's nice to talk to folks more, either in person or on the phone, rather than only through email."


Taking Tool Return Documentation to the Next Level at Metro Plastics Technologies

Growth is a cornerstone for any successful business. As companies expand and evolve, it's only natural that their customer bases do as well. Metro Plastics Technologies, Noblesville, Indiana, is no different. Established in 1975, Metro continuously refines its customer base, necessitating a way of keeping track of customer-owned machines and tools over time.

In the course of its growth as a provider of manufacturing solutions, Metro Plastics has developed a comprehensive system for documenting the return of customers' tools and equipment. "As the economy grows stronger, people are busier than ever," remarked Scott Adams, engineering manager for Metro Plastics. "The last thing anyone wants to do is spend hours, or even days, researching what happened to a tool from five or 10 years ago." In order to cut down on wasted time and resources, Metro began keeping detailed tool shipping records.

Metro first implemented its system of tool returns in 1998 and has deviated little from its original process. Once a tool has been selected for return, "We have a summary form that is filled out by the engineering department," Adams explained. "The form describes the reason for return, inventory levels, actions needed and customer contact information." Once completed by engineering, the form then is sent around the Metro office to the appropriate parties. The information is verified and added to as necessary before the form is signed off on by all internal parties. A final packet is put together and placed in the ECN (Engineering Change Notice) binder. The front of the ECN binder contains an information log to be filled out with details such as customer name, date, tool mold number, description of change and the ECN number. Finally, based on the ECN number, the packet is filed sequentially in the ECN binder. "Using this method, it takes no longer than 30 seconds to find a packet from five years ago," said Adams. "If a past customer calls asking about their asset, they simply can be placed on hold while their records are found. The issue is dealt with right then and there."

Individual record packets may contain a variety of documents. However, the most important documents Metro keeps are letters/emails from the customer showing approval to either ship or scrap the tool, as well as the details leading up to the decision. It also is important to keep a record of the individual responsible for giving the approval. As Adams pointed out, "people move from job to job, so 10 years down the road, most individuals have moved on. Combine this with the potential for poor record keeping on the part of the customer and you end up with a lot of confusion." Which explains why Metro currently keeps its tool shipment records for life, with some records dating back to 1998. At some point, older files likely will need to be disposed of; however, Metro has yet to determine when this will take place.

Interestingly, Metro does not include pictures of tools in the ECN packets. "In the nine years I have been with Metro, I have never encountered a situation where I wished I had a picture of a shipped tool," said Adams. Metro ensures all shipped tools are in good shape and ready to run, conducting repairs as necessary and preserving the tool either for transport or storage. According to Adams, "At this moment, keeping pictures on file is not necessary as pictures do not always justify the condition of the tool." While things may change in the future, currently Metro does not recommend picture documentation.

This makes sense considering the number of tools Metro operates for its customers. For smaller customers, Metro may be in charge of as few as five tools. For larger customers, Metro may be responsible for more than 50 tools. Including photos of each and every tool would require more resources and storage space than Metro feels is justifiable.

The number of tools per company can affect when a tool is slated for return. Adams stated, "For our larger customers that have 50+ tools, we will keep obsolete tools with no issue unless they direct us to dispose of or ship them back." For smaller customers with only a few tools, Metro will ask them for disposition of the asset at the time of it becoming obsolete. Doing so allows Metro to make room for additional tools coming in the door.

Overall, Metro and its customers have benefitted greatly from the documentation system. As Adams mentioned, Metro's customers are not always aware of when or even where a tool has been shipped. "Keep in mind that these tools shipped from Metro for a reason," said Adams. "More than likely, it was because that tool/machine didn't run very often. As a result, it might be several years down the road before the customer asks for more parts. By that point, the contact person is gone and the last record the customer has in their system was Metro Plastics. Customers always are grateful for our record keeping. Good records today mean greater efficiency tomorrow."


Getting On Board with Shift Changes at Crescent Industries

In the past few years, more businesses have begun transitioning away from the standard 24/5 operation schedule in favor of 24/7. Crescent Industries, New Freedom, Pennsylvania, made the transition in 2004 when the need for additional capacity moved the company to expand its hours of operation. At first, the company simply tried adding overtime shifts on the weekends. However, it proved difficult to persuade employees to work a longer week. According to Vice President Eric Paules, "We were paying 50 percent overtime premiums; however, we still were unable to get the productive hours we needed, and our workforce was getting weary of the long hours."

To improve efficiency and employee morale, Crescent decided to bring in outside assistance. "We worked with Shiftwork Solutions LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in shift work policy and change," Paules said. "They had the research and benchmarks to help us design and implement the change and introduce it to our employees." In the end, Shiftwork Solutions designed a blended eight and 12-hour schedule.

  • 1st Shift: 7 am-3 pm, Monday through Friday
  • 2nd Shift: 3 pm-11 pm, Monday through Friday
  • 3rd Shift: 11 pm-7 am, Sunday through Thursday
  • E Shift: 11 pm-11 am, Friday and Saturday
  • D Shift: 11 am-11 pm, Saturday and Sunday

Each weekend shifter also works one 12-hour shift during the week on a pre-defined day. "By having each weekend shifter work one day with the regular shifts, we maintain continuity and avoid the 'that's not how we do it on the weekend shift' scenario," said Paules. "They stay connected to the collective both professionally and socially." The one downside to this style of shift scheduling is that those who work in other areas of the business, outside of production, don't see the weekend shifters very often.

Naturally, having the employees on board with the changes to the work schedules was vital to its success. The last thing managers wanted was a repeat of previous changes, resulting in long, unproductive shifts. In order to gain employee approval, Crescent offered a high shift premium for weekend shifts, in addition to paying 40 hours for 36 hours worked. This helped compensate for the longer hours and missed weekend activities. Furthermore, weekend shifters had the advantage of saving gas by having fewer commutes. "Even with these premiums, it was a better cost scenario than the overtime premiums and employee burnout," asserted Paules.

Of course, there were other challenges presented by the shift changes. One such obstacle was the issue of holidays. Prior to the transition, Crescent offered 11 paid holidays. Holidays that fell on the weekend would be observed with Paid Time Off (PTO). However, such practice doesn't work equitably on a 24/7 schedule. The company's solution was to observe all holidays on the day the holiday actually occurs. Crescent offers nine paid holidays along with 16 hours of PTO, and each employee has the choice to use his or her PTO hours if/when he or she chooses to take an extra day. "A good example is Easter Sunday," said Paules. "Since it is not one of the paid holidays, we will be open, but many of our weekend shifters will choose to use their PTO to take that day off." Weekend holidays are tough, but according to Paules, the shift premium and extra four hours of pay weekly helps to "soften the blow."

While the transition to a 24/7 operation schedule may have been rocky at first, it since has hit its stride. Crescent did not want to force employees, many of whom had been there for decades, to work 12-hour shifts if they did not want to work those longer hours. The blended 8/12 schedule has worked out well as an alternative. "We also considered the values of our founders and owners, who desired to respect the Biblical principal of resting on the Sabbath," said Paules. "We incorporated a policy that no one can work for more than six days without a day of rest – something I think everyone can appreciate."