A small area of 15 square kilometres between Waregem, Wielsbeke and Ingelmunster is sometimes referred to in jest as the Dallas of West Flanders. The comparison is not as strange as it may first appear because, in this instance, a number of thriving family-run businesses have built their success not on oil but flax.Two factories, traditionally competitors, now produce chipboard under the Unilin banner in this characteristic West Flanders landscape. Kurt, Unilin’s quality engineer, outlines recent changes in the company’s philosophy that have helped Unilin retain its position as a leading producer: “We used to think that if your overall is dirty at the end of the day, you have been working hard. But we now appreciate that working harder does not necessarily lead to increased profitability. Today, we also think in terms of working smarter and rather ask ourselves whether our efforts are genuinely contributing to profitability or improving the production process.” To take this step forward, Unilin called in Accezz for a joint improvement project.
The Unilin Way
Unilin was founded in the 1960s by about 40 flax farmers, but when flax became increasingly scarce, the company required a different raw material and turned to wood. Although known throughout the world for its Quick-Step laminate flooring and top professional cycling team, Unilin also produces roof elements in addition to insulation and furniture panels. All Unilin divisions (Flooring, Panels and Insula- tion) work according to a shared ethos: the Unilin way. This approach is underpinned by a corporate culture founded on four robust pillars – passion, entrepreneurship, excellence
and respect. These pillars provided a firm foundation for securing the recent improvements. “We were having to deal with many technical and organisational changes at the Oostrozebeke site. In collaboration with Accezz, however, we laid the groundwork for constructive shift handovers, daily stand-up meetings as well as a successful order and tidiness programme,” explains Kurt. He continues, “The positive results were achieved due to the practical approach adopted: employees indicated what was important to them when it came to the stand-ups and shift handovers. By working together, we succeeded in developing an entirely new way of doing things. Since implementing the changes, a mirror has been continuously held up to employees to ensure the new working methods gain traction. The Unilin way now also acts as a sounding board for sharing information. Today, the daily stand-up has become routine in many departments.”
All change is met with resistance
In addition to making organisational improvements, Unilin also launched an order and tidiness programme, which involved refashioning a number of elements of the 5S method the Unilin way. As a ‘lean’ concept, 5S refers to five Japanese words that define order and tidiness in broad terms. Kurt explains: “Everyone is familiar with the problem of ‘now where did I put it’. Valuable time is lost when a site is not neat and orderly. A tidy, well-organised workplace leads to proper oversight, orderliness and focus and – ultimately – an increase in productivity. Order and tidiness are key to safety, quality and productivity.” During the improvement project with Accezz, the company identified waste streams, set up shadowboards in all departments and carried out a major spring clean to remove all waste at the production sites. At the same time, an audit and securing system was established. Kurt adds, “As all change is usually met with resistance, the politics of change is crucial. We held weekly consultations with Accezz and were able to make adjustments where necessary. In some cases, we relied on the natural authority of our highly experienced plant manager, Henk, who was new to the Oostrozebeke production site.” Success proved to hinge partly on Henks’s valuable support.
Using all senses
With 32 years’ experience in the chipboard industry, Henk used all his well-developed senses to assess situations and knew exactly which knobs to tweak to improve the process. “Thanks to Accezz, we’ve laid a solid foundation for the order and tidiness programme. At first, I was sceptical, but seeing things through the eyes of outside observers forces you to think. Without Accezz’s input, we would certainly not be where we are now. The redesigning of the programme towards a more practical and pragmatic approach was essential in our collaboration with Accezz,” says Henk. Now that Accezz has left, Kurt and Henk, together with their managers, critically monitor progress during fortnightly meetings.
Each discussion must lead to a decision
Yves is the former press manager in Oostrozebeke and has since taken over from Henk at the Breestraat site. “Filling the shoes of an experienced manager like Henk was not easy,“ says Yves. “Every week, 300 lorries of waste wood arrive on site. That’s a huge volume. To be successful, you really have to enjoy this work. Of course, you could measure and try to control everything, but working with wood is not an exact science. Wood is an organic, living material and is complex. Together with Accezz, we developed a new management system that is still operational today. It is based on a series of daily stand-ups, followed by a production meeting. Each morning, I tour the factory. By 10:00 am, I’m up to speed with everything that has gone well and those things that haven’t gone so well, which we then discuss during the meeting,” says Yves enthusiastically. Yves continues: “After discussing the issues, our next course of action needs to be immediately clear. For things that have not gone too well, it’s always a case of one of three options: we were simply unlucky, so we pay no more attention to it; we need to take action to prevent it in the future; or we don’t yet know what caused it and will investigate it further. This three-stage approach makes our meetings a lot more efficient. At the end of a meeting, a targeted action is agreed upon for each item on the agenda.”
For Yves, 5S and safety are highly important. Walking through the factory, he tells us that the existing system in Breestraat will be further developed by visualising 5S activities on a whiteboard. “To avoid situations where only certain employees do the heavy work, we have introduced variety by incorporating activities into our six-shift system. Each team is assigned a colour-coded zone in the factory and a number of activities. The system allows an entire department to be cleaned in one week and checked for any material not tidied or stored in its place. When a new employee starts a shift in a department, he or she immediately knows where specific tasks have to be performed.” Unilin has come this far because it has been able to put into practice the necessary changes. Accezz provided ‘implemen- tation power’. Yves explains: “It is easy to see the added value that Accezz brought, not least in terms of implementation expertise and helping us to overcome employees’ aversion to change. We initially encountered a lot of resistance. People who have been here a long time are passionate about the company and believed they were already doing a fine job. Accezz provided us managers with breathing space and time to consider our approach. We definitely could not have succeeded without Accezz.”