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.

By Bonnie Del Conte, CONNSTEP Inc. March 1, 2009

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” — one who resists the title “boss” and will correct anyone who calls him that — 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 — 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: .