Manufacturing plant as classroom: Reinventing continuous learning

At East Hartford, CT-based Dur-A-Flex, they've taken Lean to a whole new level. Instituting it as a  continuous learning  and improvement process, the company has seen increases in yield and a great reduction of waste, all while empowering its employees along the way.


On a cold winter morning in East Hartford, CT, Dur-A-Flex ’s owner and CEO was nowhere in the building. Not on the plant floor, or in his office. Not on the phone or in a meeting. Instead, Bob Smith was where he felt he was most needed: plowing the driveway after a snowstorm.

For this self-proclaimed company “gatekeeper” %%MDASSML%% one who resists the title “boss” and will correct anyone who calls him that %%MDASSML%% plowing is just what needed to be done at the time. His role, said Smith, is “to keep the company open and financially healthy, and be responsible for all the staff to help them grow and prosper.”

Smith joined Dur-A-Flex, a manufacturer of seamless commercial and industrial flooring systems and polymer components, in 1976. At the time, the company had $275,000 in sales, and their small staff was focused on installation.

Today, Dur-A-Flex has transformed into a manufacturer, generating $33 million annually with its 94 co-owners. At Dur-A-Flex, no one on staff is an employee.

“I may own the company stock, but I don’t own the idea of Dur-A-Flex,” said Smith, which he inherited when he bought the company in 1986. “Everyone works for themselves, on behalf of an idea called Dur-A-Flex. And we are all conduits for the expression of that idea to make it grow.”

Breaking down the silos

At Dur-A-Flex, personal, professional and corporate enrichment go hand-in-hand. But things were not always this way. In 2004, the company had been experiencing rapid growth for more than 10 years, and its manufacturing systems were very departmentalized, with high inventory levels and three shifts. “We needed to make some big changes. There were lots of handoffs,” said Bill Greider, Dur-A-Flex’s Lean Champion. “We had islands of excellence but needed to work more seamlessly.”

The company established aggressive financial goals and committed to a series of improvements and upgrades to achieve them. It also established a relationship with CONNSTEP Inc ., an affiliate of the NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership for assistance throughout the process. CONNSTEP first provided liaison services with Dur-A-Flex to help it select and implement a new computer system. Greider participated in a CONNSTEP Continuous Improvement Lean Champion training program and was inspired to bring Lean in-house.

Working with CONNSTEP’s Business Development manager Dave Long to implement Lean, Smith and Greider guided Dur-A-Flex to become a learning organization. Team members are required to study the Lean philosophy and methodologies, and can choose to take twelve core courses in the company’s Dur-A-Flex University, an in-house education program that operates primarily during the lunch hour.

“We want every owner to learn not just about Lean, but about every aspect of our business %%MDASSML%% from chemistry to installation techniques, finance, IT and accounting,” said Greider. “As a result, our team members identify and solve problems, and flexibly move about as needed throughout the business, zigging and zagging and making their own decisions along the way.”

The results of this philosophy are both quantitative and qualitative. Through Lean, inventory was reduced by two-thirds, and sales increased by 30% without adding any staff. Perhaps even more significant is the company’s cultural shift.

“Once our focus turned to learning, everything changed,” said Greider. “Everyone works and learns together in class; divisional boundaries and cliques have disappeared; the walls have come down; and there is a great feeling of warmth and understanding and pride that has emerged.” The company anticipates keeping employment levels steady this year, even with the uncertainties of today’s economy.

For CONNSTEP’s specialists, these results are not typical. “We’ve implemented Lean in more than 100 companies,” said Long, “but Dur-A-Flex is different. Everyone takes ownership and is eager to work and get the job done. The atmosphere is amazing.”

CONNSTEP’s director of growth services Jack Crane concurs: “Dur-A-Flex has captured the essence of Lean by giving individuals the opportunity to take ownership and foresee and solve their own problems. When that happens, the multiplier effect is tremendous in terms of efficiencies, effectiveness, financials, sense of purpose, reduced stress. And this translates from manufacturing to all other parts of the company.

Changing the culture

“Long-term Lean success requires this kind of cultural change, to look not just at process but at the whole company. Less than half of companies today understand this, but at CONNSTEP we believe it’s the smartest implementation of Lean to gain long-term results.”

Beyond its core curriculum, Dur-A-Flex University offers electives, many taught by the co-owners themselves. Classes take place in subjects ranging from the art of movement (in which Smith himself is currently enrolled and, as he puts it, “struggling a bit”) to beer making. Nearly 75% of employees participate in classes.

Everyone at Dur-A-Flex enjoys sharing the company’s success and prosperity. “It’s the only way it works,” said Smith. Yet he also revels in the longer-term enrichment that learning and empowerment provides to each individual.

“Every person here is here for a reason,” said Smith. “Whether you’re here for a short time or a life time, you should learn as much as you can, so no place of work is just a job. I don’t want anyone to give their power away by simply working for a paycheck. Each person should want to come to work, feel empowered and valued and gain through personal enrichment. That’s the source of true prosperity.”

CONNSTEP is a resource for consulting and training solutions to the state’s manufacturing industry. CONNSTEP delivers a full range of services to improve manufacturing business, with a focus on measurable results and achieving economic impact for clients. For more information, visit .

CONNSTEP is an affiliate of the National Institute of Standards and Technology The Manufacturing Extension Partnership in Gaithersburg, MD. Information can be found at its Website: .

No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2013 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
The true cost of lubrication: Three keys to consider when evaluating oils; Plant Engineering Lubrication Guide; 11 ways to protect bearing assets; Is lubrication part of your KPIs?
Contract maintenance: 5 ways to keep things humming while keeping an eye on costs; Pneumatic systems; Energy monitoring; The sixth 'S' is safety
Transport your data: Supply chain information critical to operational excellence; High-voltage faults; Portable cooling; Safety automation isn't automatic
Case Study Database

Case Study Database

Get more exposure for your case study by uploading it to the Plant Engineering case study database, where end-users can identify relevant solutions and explore what the experts are doing to effectively implement a variety of technology and productivity related projects.

These case studies provide examples of how knowledgeable solution providers have used technology, processes and people to create effective and successful implementations in real-world situations. Case studies can be completed by filling out a simple online form where you can outline the project title, abstract, and full story in 1500 words or less; upload photos, videos and a logo.

Click here to visit the Case Study Database and upload your case study.

Maintaining low data center PUE; Using eco mode in UPS systems; Commissioning electrical and power systems; Exploring dc power distribution alternatives
Synchronizing industrial Ethernet networks; Selecting protocol conversion gateways; Integrating HMIs with PLCs and PACs
Why manufacturers need to see energy in a different light: Current approaches to energy management yield quick savings, but leave plant managers searching for ways of improving on those early gains.

Annual Salary Survey

Participate in the 2013 Salary Survey

In a year when manufacturing continued to lead the economic rebound, it makes sense that plant manager bonuses rebounded. Plant Engineering’s annual Salary Survey shows both wages and bonuses rose in 2012 after a retreat the year before.

Average salary across all job titles for plant floor management rose 3.5% to $95,446, and bonus compensation jumped to $15,162, a 4.2% increase from the 2010 level and double the 2011 total, which showed a sharp drop in bonus.

2012 Salary Survey Analysis

2012 Salary Survey Results

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.