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Features, Management, Perspective | March 1, 2015 | By:

Charles Webster uses lean techniques to continuously improve production and efficiency.

What we try to do better than other companies is give our customers more than they ask for, sooner than they expect it, in higher quality than they’re used to,” says Charles Webster, president and CEO of DOWCO® Inc., Manitowoc, Wis. “When we are able to do that, they win and we win.”

Webster began working at Dow Canvas Products (now Dowco) as a sewer when his father purchased the company in 1975. At that time it primarily manufactured custom awnings and tents. After a few years, the company began producing motorcycle covers, which soon led to replacing the custom work with mass production. Now Dowco designs and manufactures high-quality accessories for marine and power sports vehicles for OEM and aftermarkets. “We made the move to mass production in the early ’80s, when I became president,” Webster says. “I took a look at the companies we came across once in a while on a contract basis and saw that they had their own product line of motorcycle and snowmobile covers. I felt this was something we could do well and also make significant improvements on.”

Part of Webster’s strategy to give customers more than they ask for includes how the company manages logistics and delivery. In 1975 the company had one location and 14 employees. Now, Dowco has approximately 200 employees and, in addition to the main facility in Manitowoc, has sites in Lebanon, Mo.; Ft. Wayne, Ind.; Little Falls, Minn.; and a sourcing office in Shanghai, China. The Ft. Wayne and Little Falls sites are the most recent additions, having opened in 2010. “We located in those sites to be next to some of our major customers,” Webster says. “That enables us to help them with daily product deliveries. Essentially, we act as their logistics arm. We deliver products to them on the day they want it, loaded on the delivery carts sequenced to their production line—and we do it twice a day. The customers love it.”

New facilities,
new challenges

Opening a new site is an enormous challenge, and there are key factors to making a new location work for the company, Webster says. He advises having a business plan that maps out what should happen in each area—accounting, sales, operations. “Spell it out for minute one, day one, week one, month one and year one,” he says. “Also be sure to include key performance indicators (KPIs) that will tell you if you’re on track with the plan.

“You have to review the plan on a regular basis, and if something isn’t going according to plan—as indicated by your KPIs—you need to jump in and do an analysis of what you had planned to have happen, what is happening and what you need to do to get things back on track.”

Webster also points out the need for an integration plan, which basically outlines who reports to whom, and when, where and how those communications take place. “This is really important when you’re opening a new facility,” he says. “With a new place full of new people, things can easily get off course if there’s confusion about communication.”

What it means to be lean

One thing entrepreneurs like Webster know is that trying and succeeding also means, at times, failing. For Webster and his company, one failure in particular led the company down a new path that has significantly improved its bottom line. “About 10 years ago, one of our major OEM clients told us if we didn’t get caught up on our deliveries they were going to replace us,” Webster says. “We didn’t know how to do that, so I called the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP) and asked for help.”

MEPs, which are federally funded but administered at a state level, are designed to help small manufacturers improve and evolve in the areas of growth and innovation, continuous improvement, training, export assistance, supply chain management and profitable sustainability. The WMEP helped Webster implement lean manufacturing changes, which meant temporarily shutting down the line the company was behind on and setting some new goals and strategies. “We set a goal of doubling our production output, which made the people on the shop floor pretty nervous initially,” Webster says. “But because of the changes we made we were able to meet those new goals and work our way out of the hole.”

With the help of the MEP, Webster and his production team reconfigured the production cell and cross-trained the people within it. After experiencing such a dramatic production increase Webster applied the same strategies to all the production cells, which are dedicated either toward a customer or a product line. Cross-training everyone within the cell enables the crew to shift toward a bottleneck when it occurs to keep the line moving. Webster also added metrics boards with output targets so the crews know if they’re falling behind and need to make changes.

Webster has entirely embraced lean manufacturing within the company, and now requires all employees to contribute lean ideas for the areas in which they work. “Once we saw the value accrued to us through lean initiatives, we made it the life blood of our company processes,” he says.

The company tracks all significant improvement ideas submitted and empowers employees to own and implement their ideas. Front-line leaders review the suggestions daily and provide any assistance necessary toward accomplishing the improvement idea. In addition, each quarter the executive committee reviews progress of the continuous improvement program to ensure areas of focus are aligned with the overall goals and strategies of the business.

Process improvements are not only for the production line; the office takes part as well. In January, the office revamped the way it processes company credit card receipts as a result of a lean suggestion. “We have so many credit cards out there that it can be difficult to track all the receipts. People lose them or forget where they put them when it comes time to turn them in,” Webster says. “Now people take pictures of the receipts as soon as they get them and send them to the office. We were able to take about 60 percent of time out of that process by streamlining it. It was a simple idea, but it’s made a difference.”

Creating a company culture in which everyone contributes to strategies and practices, and expectations are clear, is what Webster says is behind the company’s success. From opening new facilities, creating new products, and shaving time off production and office processes, he says there is always room for improvement.

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