They came from big plants and small ones, gargantuans to garages, from auto companies and firms that made everything from compressors to carbon, textiles to toilet seats and everything in between. They were manufacturing mutts, hybrids, odd fellows, non-conventional thinkers.

"When we started in 2002, we were the kids from down in the Sticks who (industry foes) believed didn't know how to build engines," says plant manager Chuck Sibley.

Six years later, they are among the motor manufacturing sector's best stories and toughest competitors, depending on what side of the corporate fence you dwell. The 360 men and women of Navistar Diesel of Alabama LLC, a Huntsville-based subsidiary of horsepower heavyweight Navistar Corporation, build elite-class engines (V6 and V8 mass-movers for commercial and consumer trucks). Best-built engines have come from the manner in which these mold-busters built their plant work structure.

"Navistar didn't bring people here from its other plants to start this up. Almost everybody came from outside of the company," says Sibley, who signed on from Gabriel Ride Control Products. "It was decided that we would put together a workforce from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences and form the best possible culture that we could."

No templates. No paradigms. No rules.

"I wanted one time in my career where I didn't have to break the paradigms and traditions of the past 10 or 20 years," he says. "We started this plant from scratch in the manner that we thought it would run the best and be the most reliable and the most flexible and the most efficient. We were given tremendous amounts of autonomy to do what we felt was right."

Today, an innovative business team structure drives the 650,000-square-foot Navistar Diesel facility. It's an approach to operations, maintenance and engineering that feels more community based and "small plant" than that found at most Fortune 500 manufacturers. Focus and function are housed inside three main plant-floor teams overseeing the Assembly, Machining and Manufacturing Services value chains.

Blended roles and blended best practices have elicited success at the business team and overall plant levels. Heavy-duty teamwork enables heavy-duty machines.

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Assistant plant manager Mike Regula (center) gets feedback from assembly workers.

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Scott Seals is the facilities resource leader for the Manufacturing Services business team.
Photos by Dennis Keim

WHERE'S MAINTENANCE?
If you are looking for the maintenance manager at the Navistar plant in Huntsville, you won't find him (or her). The position doesn't exist. The maintenance department? There isn't one, per se. Forty-two people are employed as full-time maintenance workers. More than 200 others perform similar duties on a regular basis. This is not your traditional setup.

"The other Navistar plants have centralized maintenance and the normal department titles and roles," says Sibley. "We didn't go that route."

Maintenance is a component and function of each plant-floor business team. Each team has multi-skilled hourly technicians, a planner/scheduler and engineers. They are located in the work area, stationed alongside their operations brethren who share in the responsibilities that improve reliability, eliminate downtime and (most importantly) get engine orders out the door.

"The object is to provide every human resource that a team needs in order to succeed. By doing that, there aren't reasons for not succeeding," says assistant plant manager Mike Regula, a former employee of Cummins Inc. "There's too much finger-pointing that goes on when you operate in a silo based on function. In that world, life becomes a series of how you explain failures, not how you obtain successes. You have it all; now figure it out. In the business team structure, they either totally succeed together or totally fail together."

The resources are there. The Assembly business team includes more than 175 operators, 11 maintenance technicians, one maintenance planner and six manufacturing engineers. Machining includes 46 operators, 16 technicians, seven engineers and a planner. Manufacturing Services includes a facilities segment with six techs, a planner and four engineers. In each team, members report to a resource leader who oversees a segment of the value chain. Each team has a business team leader that manages the performance and outcome of a unit.

Resource leaders, business team leaders and planners handle many of the tasks of a traditional maintenance manager, be it big-picture thinking, policy and philosophy development, project planning, capital investment, technology procurement and deployment, staffing and training issues, and budgeting (each business team has its own separate maintenance budget).

"I used to be the maintenance manager of a plant that makes toilet seats. I had everything related to maintenance," says Scott Seals, who today is the resource leader for the facilities segment of the Manufacturing Services business unit. "I prefer this setup. There's much less pressure on everyone because the responsibilities for this plant are divided up."

Resource leaders and planners take the business team leader's maintenance (and production) vision and drive the resources in their area to achieve results.

"I have all of the resources I need at my fingertips. Therefore, it's very easy to align everybody in the business team toward our goals," says Machining business team leader Lance Fulks. "The last plant I worked at (Copeland Compressors) was set up with a manager of production, a manager of maintenance, a manager of manufacturing engineering, and there were some conflicting goals. What was important in one area may have been counterproductive in another area. Here, that is eliminated because those departments are consolidated into one business team. Everyone is on the same page."

Sibley says it takes a special person to be a BTL. He believes the leader must excel at people management, project management, business management and, in effect, maintenance management.

"You are running the maintenance group along with your team," he says. "You must understand the technical side of the business and everything that influences reliability from a mechanical perspective."

BTLs lead the way, but the plant's open, empowerment-heavy culture allows freedom to find methods that achieve the vision. It goes back to the employees' roots. Diverse personal experiences allow the plant and its teams to implement some of the best ideas in industry.

"Reliability of the equipment and how we monitor it and how we check for it has been basically the same as everything else here - it's the blended best practices from everywhere that we've been," says Regula. "How did you do it at your plant? What worked there? What didn't? What was a waste of time? What did you measure? How did you measure it, and why?"

One technician may have come from a 80-person plant that developed an innovative way to increase the life of its pumps (or bearings or gearboxes). Another may have seen superior practices for lubrication (or electrical safety or belt repairs) at a 700-employee site. Yet another may have created a neat way to ensure shaft alignment at his former five-man shop. Communication brings these best practices to light.

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Ricky Helms is a manufacturing engineer who handles facilities planning and scheduling.

COME TOGETHER
The Navistar plant has seen numerous benefits by physically locating maintenance resources inside of an assembly line or group of machining cells.

One is a closer technician-operator relationship than you find at plants with a dichotomous, "we/they" structure.

"There is more communication here," says Assembly business team technician Jimmy Jones, another ex-Copeland Compressors worker. "That leads to more trust and understanding. We look out for one another."

Sibley tightens the bonds by bringing co-workers together outside the plant. The plant has a city league softball team (28 players are on the roster), bass fishing tournaments and golf scrambles.

Communication leads to less downtime.

"You hear about issues before they lead to problems," says Jones. "If I was located at the other end of the plant, the operator may not bring it up. That perceived 'little' noise may be something important and we missed an opportunity to address it. But because I'm right here, they bring things to my attention and I can check it out."

Other benefits include quicker response time than you'd find at a traditional large plant, and a deeper level of ownership and knowledge from the maintenance group.

"These are my babies," says Jones about the equipment in his area. "I know these machines like the back of my hand."

All of this contributes to minimal downtime. Most plant areas have uptime figures exceeding 90 percent. When a breakdown does occur, the impact is, more often than not, minimal.

"We're pretty fast," says Sibley. "It's really, really major for us if we lose 20 minutes on a problem. It's the quick response and reaction that sets us apart."

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Machining business team leader Lance Fulks checks over an engine with operator Heath Dorning.

HANDS-ON OPERATIONS
The unique method of maintenance doesn't stop with the technicians. Operators play a sizable role in machine performance and reliability. This goes way beyond the traditional Total Productive Maintenance tasks of operators cleaning equipment and reading gauges.

At the Navistar facility in Huntsville, operators can take on any maintenance job that they have the time and skills to do. That job list includes preventive, predictive, proactive and reactive maintenance.

In the Machining business team, planner Chris Glasscock (a former Wolverine Tubing Company worker) prints out a list of work orders each day from the plant's Avantis.PRO computerized maintenance management software system. He hands them out to the resource leaders, who then deliver them to technicians and operators.

In between running two machines on the line, operators perform daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and/or semi-annual PM jobs. They grease and lubricate, fill hydraulic systems, change tooling, remove metal chips and do many additional preventive tasks.

Work orders are completed, given to a technician for sign-off and returned to Glasscock for closing in the CMMS.

Similarly, in Assembly, operators do predictive work such as executing audit checks on the torque consistency of DC tools, performing tests for leak and pressure decay, and using ultrasonic tools to confirm the integrity of bolts, multi-spindles and critical joints.

"The person doing the work has the responsibility of tracking the data and looking at what the data is telling us," says Regula. "We want to identify an anomaly before it becomes an issue."

If an equipment breakdown occurs, the operator does not holler for a technician and then go on break. If the operator's skill set, experience and classroom training allow, he or she may personally handle a more minor fix and get the equipment back up and running.

In general, as Sibley says, "There are no rules that say who can't do this." However, there are some defined boundaries. Operators can't open electrical panels, fiddle with automation equipment or work on the mission-critical IQA (integrated quality assurance) machines.

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The Navistar plant in Huntsville, Ala., builds approximately 480 engines per day.

"Complex machines and devices are maintenance's specialty," says Regula. "If something is wrong with that machine, the operator will quickly get a maintenance person to come help solve that issue. It doesn't mean that the operator is excluded from the problem-solving process, because he or she is an important part of the process. That is above what we expect standard assembly operators to have knowledge on."

If the operator isn't taking the lead role on a breakdown, he or she plays the part of a surgical room nurse.

"You take your direction from the maintenance folks," says Regula. "It's 'hold this in place', 'grab that part from the cart' or 'help me with this or that.'"

Operators also work to make maintenance more proactive within their team by:

  • systematically tracking downtime to identify trends;

  • performing Pareto analyses to identify the biggest and most harmful sources of downtime;

  • using an eight-step methodology to identify root causes of problems;

  • working with maintenance personnel on "reverse FMEA" projects.

In the case of a reverse failure modes and effects analysis, operators are asked to list every way possible to screw up a station, machine, etc. "Operators know everything that can go wrong," says Sibley.

Process steps and product solutions (error-proofing devices, software) are put in place to eliminate the chance of a failure. The activity improves quality, reliability and productivity, but can also positively impact things such as safety and ergonomics.

THE APPRENTICE
Huntsville is the only Navistar site that allows its operators such maintenance responsibilities.

"We try to use the operator for everything possible. Whatever we can use them for, we will," says Sibley. "That's one of the reasons why we have 36 maintenance people instead of 150. We have never gone the contract route for maintenance. That's because we always felt like the ownership of that was important."

What do Huntsville technicians think of all this?

"The maintenance guys here have done operations work before, so they have seen both sides of the fence," says Regula. "They were actually the first operators on the line. They can run all of the machines. When we started, we thought that was very important. We wanted them to know the pain that the operator goes through. They know how to think like an operator and know what's good and what's bad."

It also goes back to the plant's roots.

"Many of us came from small companies where you wore many hats," says Sibley. "It wasn't new to us to set up a plant where everybody is going to wear many hats."

Adds Seals, "There is one goal - to get the engine out the back door. Whatever it takes to make that happen, that's what you have to do."

Indeed, it's a blurry line between operations and maintenance. Perhaps nothing is a better example of that than the plant's maintenance apprentice program. Apprentice candidates take an exacting written test. Those with the highest scores then go to any of three local technical colleges and work to obtain a two-year degree in maintenance technology. Graduates then must work 8,000 hours at the plant as a maintenance apprentice before earning the right to be a full-fledged, certified technician.

The apprentices traditionally have been operators within the Assembly or Machining business team. Heath Benson is one example. After coming to Navistar from a carbon fiber plant, he worked two years as an operator and then two years as a group leader (one rung below a resource leader). He earned his two-year degree from Calhoun Technical College and has spent the last 3.5 years as an apprentice. He will reach the 8,000-hour mark later this year.

"It was a logical step for me," he says. "Operators here do a lot for themselves. They diagnose problems. They can tell what's going with their machines. I wanted to work in maintenance because I was interested in the hands-on work. By becoming a technician at this plant, I will be able to apply everything that I've learned."

FLEXIBILITY PAYS OFF
Flexibility from a staffing, workload and career perspective is critical for the plant's long-term success.

The automotive business is cyclical in volume. Components manufacturers need to be able to take their organizations up and down, depending on the order volume. A flexible workforce helps factories avoid being overstaffed or understaffed. You can move around with the volume and the demands of the business.

"Considering the number of plants that we support, we are very flexible," says Sibley. "We have to change schedules constantly, almost daily. We don't freeze our line schedules at all. The big difference between us and most plants is that we run a wide array of product (4.5-, 6.0- and 6.4-liter engines, 94 different models). We might start the morning with engines for the Navistar bus plant and the next one is different after that. We don't care. We can mix it up. We constantly change up to support what the customer needs. We can react very quickly."

Other measures of plant success brought about by the business team structure are:

Hours per unit: "This shows just how effective we are," says Fulks. "If we have the labor but the equipment is not running, that number gets larger. So, the metric is closely tied to operations and maintenance. We are looking to minimize that number."

Huntsville leads Navistar's three U.S. engine plants in hours per unit.

On-time delivery: The plant has missed two orders in the past six years. That spans more than 650,000 engines.

Parts per million defective: The site is taking aim at the 200 PPM quality figure achieved by a Nissan engine plant in Alabama and is looking further down the road to a goal of 100 PPM.

Uptime: This metric has steadily increased over the past few years. Today, the factory exceeds 90 percent. For "facilities essentials", what plant leaders categorize as electricity, compressed air, coolant systems, waste management systems, and the fuel and lubrication systems, uptime exceeds 99 percent.

Proactive vs. reactive maintenance: Proactive maintenance work comprises 80 percent of the overall workload. Of that total, 80 percent can be defined as preventive maintenance work and 20 percent as predictive work.

Lost-time accidents: The plant recently surpassed 1.5 million hours without an lost-time injury or illness.

Absenteeism: Its daily rate of 1.5 percent is less than half the industry average.

Employee turnover: This figure is less than 1 percent.

"When Toyota came to Alabama and started engine production in 2003, we worried about losing employees to them," says Sibley. "However, we haven't lost anyone to Toyota. In fact, we've got people from Toyota. I think people enjoy the culture that we've put in place here."

So much so that when the plant took out a classified ad for 56 new jobs in 2007, it received more than 1,500 applications.

BUSINESS TEAMS, PART 2
Navistar Diesel of Alabama has truly taken a non-conventional approach to maintenance, operations and engineering. Its business team structure has proved beneficial to Navistar Corporation and an equalizer in the competitive global motor manufacturing industry. Sibling Navistar plants have explored adopting some of the concepts related to operator involvement in maintenance. One plant, though, will be fully following the blueprint.

Navistar Diesel of Alabama is putting the finishing touches on a second plant, located less than a mile away. The 300,000-square-foot factory, which is slated to begin production in late July, will make 11- and 13-liter engines for tractor-trailers. At full volume, it will employ 175 highly flexible employees.

"We'll run it as an extension of this plant," says Sibley. "Our intention is to have the same DNA that's in this plant over in the new plant."

Maintenance workers and engineers are ensuring a foundation of success by utilizing design for manufacturing and design for maintenance and reliability principles for all new equipment purchased and installed at the site. Technicians also have played principal roles in the run-off of each piece of equipment.

"We want to learn from all of our past experiences in order to help us make the best decisions now and in the future," says maintenance planner Glasscock.

Blended roles. Blended best practices. Navistar is using these within its business teams to achieve heavy-duty performance.

That's something special no matter what size plant or what side of the fence you come from.