by Teresa Schell, Plastics Components, Inc.
Successful business strategies equate to successful customer relationships. As demands increase for OEM buyers and/or procurement managers, a company’s ability to successfully launch new products or manage a tool transfer has become one of the most important criteria for success. This activity requires two aspects: the actual product development process and even more important, the high-level skill set of maintaining the necessary degree of communication throughout the program launch to support long-term success. The program launch is the strategic mindset supported by solid company processes.
Five years ago, Plastic Components, Inc. (PCI) hosted its first Customer Advisory Council in order to create a formal process for customer-centric communication. For PCI (a custom injection molder in Germantown, WI), the creation of the Customer Advisory Council was the most effective method to accomplish this goal. Key customer issues were identified and addressed in a constructive environment for exchange. One of the most significant disclosures from the meeting was the necessity of an organized manager to supervise and control the customer’s new tool or tool transfer program. This request led to the development of a newly created position: program launch coordinator (PLC).
The council served as the thought leaders, helping to improve the company’s partnership with its customers. Once the strategic role of a program launch coordinator was defined, customers felt a sense of comfort and reprieve because the day-to-day hand-holding of their program was being managed successfully through emailed weekly progress reports tracking the progression of their part from release to production. Every PCI customer has a program launch coordinator assigned specifically to their account.
The program launch coordinator not only is responsible for the management of the launch but also the whole lifecycle of the program beyond the actual takeoff. The job focus begins with customer introductions and meetings in order to gain an understanding of customer expectations and part requirements. Followed by monitoring the APQP procedures concerning the development of the job, the PLC communicates with both the customer and internal team members as the job progresses and checkpoints are completed. This procedure integrates people, data, processes and business systems to support the program backbone.
Responsibilities of a program launch coordinator include the following:
- Accountable for program schedule and quality of all program timelines.
- Leads high-level discussions for program planning and schedule development with customers.
- Reviews/approves project plans for conformance to program strategy and schedule.
- Acts as the communications conduit to customers and internal team, conducting periodic briefings/status updates.
- Escalates decisions to operations manager where necessary.
Gene Mussel has been the program launch coordinator for PCI since 2005. He identifies the most critical component of his job responsibility as the coordination of events from the arrival of transfer molds or new tool molds to synchronizing information regarding sampling, layouts and PPAP submittals to final production. Honoring the customer’s timelines to be certain that promised milestones are kept during the 8- to12-week mold build is a successful start to the customer/molder relationship. The PLC’s role of managing urgent jobs successfully allows the sales team to focus on sales functions and the engineering team to focus on engineering functions. Prior to the creation of the PLC, this task was performed by the sales and engineering departments. Often times, mold programs would fall short of timelines simply because accountability would get shifted to the next urgent job. Without the PLC role, there is no point person to assign layouts, schedule samples, set packaging requirements and shipping expectations (especially proper label necessities) in order to set the precedence for future implementations with a customer.
The greatest challenge for the PLC is strategizing the timing of company resources: the tool room, engineering and quality personnel. Effective communication with the customer will keep dates from becoming arbitrary because many customers will claim they need parts now. A solid, realistic commitment keeps the program moving with positive results. Since the inception of the PLC, Mussel admits that his role has required a more proactive approach to managing schedules due to increased business for the company. What once was an effortless procedure to plan sampling dates now requires two weeks or more, making Mussel’s function a significant inclusive process to a successful program launch.
The major steps involved in developing and managing the program coordination are shown in the program launch progress report on the adjacent page. This process is generic in nature and is based upon specific processes for Plastic Components, Inc.
The first step in the schedule management process is to review the detailed requirements and partition them by project teams: tool room, sales, engineering, operations and quality. Each project team can identify each deliverable with the assigned start and finish date. At the same time, the PLC can identify each of the primary timeline milestones. At a minimum, these include the major decision checkpoints for the program and other significant milestones such as release dates and qualified start and end dates.
The milestones following a mold build include Tool Room preps mold for sample, sample, shipment of samples, layout, PPAP submission and shipment of first order.
The mapping process results in a projected timeline based upon the detailed requirements of the customer. To protect the plan, the PLC implements the APQP process which is specific to the Plastic Components, Inc. business model. These stages, monitored by the PLC, include the following:
- Initial Project Review:
- Commercial Launch by Sales Team
- Risk Assessment
- Project LaunchProject Engineering
- Internal APQP Review
- Preparations for Production:
- Project Approval
Once the program satisfies project approval status, the PLC focus now shifts from planning the program efforts to participating in, observing and analyzing the work being done to assure customer satisfaction.
Since the program launch coordinator report serves as the nucleus of the program itself, it becomes the foundation on which resources and allocations are based and timeline success is measured. Plastic Components, Inc. endorses the role of program launch coordinators in sales collateral and presentations as an essential planning and communication tool. The level of ease offered to customers by appointing internal personnel, specific to their account, to manage the day-to-day timeline has proven to be a necessity. This necessity is purposely designed to deliver the right output at the right time, ultimately improving the performance of the company and customer/molder relationship.