When the cooking products market dropped during the recession, LaFayette, Ga.-based Roper Corp. was forced to put more than 20 percent of its work force, or 300 employees, on "lack of work" status.
Now, housing tax credits and growing economic stability have enabled the manufacturer to bring back the furloughed laborers, who will run new "insourcing" operations made possible by six years of implementing lean production methods and an estimated five to ten percent rebound in the market.
Roper, a wholly-owned subsidiary of General Electric, saw demand for cooking appliances drop by 35 percent in 2008 and 2009, due in part to the collapse of the housing market, where builders and homeowners often install new appliances just before or after a sale, according to Scott Ossewaarde, president of Roper.
"When the recession hit us full force, we had to right-size in January 2009," he said.
Despite foreign competition from LG and Samsung, and industry pressure to relocate operations to countries with cheaper labor like China or Mexico, Mr. Ossewaarde said that Roper is doing fine right where it is.
"We have a geographic advantage, because being located in middle-America gives us a transportation edge," he said. "We also work very hard on improving costs and quality every year."
GE's reliance on Roper for its cooking appliances has paid off. Mr. Ossewaarde said that GE-branded appliances manufactured by 1,300-employee Roper Corp. have been ranked consistently near the top by a "leading consumer magazine," a corporate euphemism for Consumer Reports.
"People pay attention to that, they want to buy quality and highly-rated products," he said.
But the biggest open secret at Roper is the constant company-wide push to save a second here and a step there through monthly lean-manufacturing studies. Using theories derived from the Toyota production system, engineers, plant workers and management meet every month to improve a specific section of the sprawling, 25-acre facility, Mr. Ossewaarde said.
"A lot of companies who have tried Lean have had limited success with it, but we have been successful in part because our work force is willing to make changes and willing to make sacrifices," he said. "For LaFayette to be a viable community, they know that Roper Corp. needs to be successful."
By arranging and rearranging the inner workings of the plant, company officials have created enough free space to bring new operations formerly conducted by outside contractors into the plant.
"Insourcing sub-assemblies and products allowed us to bring back everybody who wanted to come back," Mr. Ossewaarde said.
For instance, rather than long, traditional assembly lines, operations for some higher-end products have been reconfigured into more compact cells, freeing up the traditional lines to turn out more product. Meanwhile, workers in space-saving cells can concentrate on fabricating more complicated assemblies, according to Scott Reese, organizational development leader.
* Established in 1973
* Currently structured as a wholly owned subsidiary of General Electric
* 1,325 employees
* Largest non-governmental employer in Walker County
* The plant covers 1.1 million square feet or roughly 25 acres
* Situated on a 62-acre campus
* Roper produces 16 unique platforms for three brands of cooking products, including GE, Profile, and Monogram
* Six years into efficiency-oriented lean commitment
Source: Roper Corp
"I can sum up what we've been up to: building the most dependable ranges money can buy," Mr. Reese said.
Since executives are asking more of employees, employees are also being empowered to make decisions and take credit for them, Mr. Reese said.
Employees are given the responsibility to keep the plant safe, and stop the production line rather than pass a defect on, through the Quality Star system.
On a walk through the plant last week with members of the press, employee Jo Anne Wiley stopped both Mr. Reese and Mr. Ossewaarde, and politely asked them to move to a safer location.
"Folks are taking care of themselves, they work better, and it sends the message that we value our employees as people," Mr. Reese said of the company's decision to give workers more leeway in handling situations.
However, Roper isn't totally back yet.
"We track new home starts, and a healthy housing industry is around 1.5 million per year," Mr. Ossewaarde said. "The current rate for the past 18 months is 600,000, and the rate of foreclosures has actually gone up in 2010."
Moving forward, a flexible work force and lean production methods will become more central, he added.
"Our commitment to lean and the flexibility and expertise of our work force has allowed us to weather this downturn better than we would have, had we not been in the middle of our lean journey when it hit," he said.
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