Case Study Newsletter, November 9, 2011

Safety: Foundation for Continuous Improvement

World-class companies have adopted a safety-first approach that puts a healthy workforce at the top of all corporate objectives. Milliken & Company is one such firm; the 150-year-old multinational textile and chemical company has been on a continuous-improvement journey, with a particular focus on safety, for decades. In the 1990s, Milliken executives visited manufacturers in Japan - as did many North American executives - seeking to uncover the secrets to Japan's rapid industrial success. Craig Long, executive director of Milliken Performance Solutions (MPS), the performance improvement division of Milliken & Company, was among those executives, walking through dozens of plants and observing best practices.

"It was like going to graduate school," Long says. "We thought we were doing these things, and they said, 'Not at this level of detail.'" After multiple trips and seeing many industries - some 120 Milliken managers visited plants - there was a consensus within Milliken that the company could implement what they had observed. But these executives also realized that any improvement approach would also have to "fit" Milliken and its particular culture.

Long and 12 other managers were charged with turning their observations from Japan - such as concepts from the Toyota Production System and Lean Manufacturing - into "Milliken." The process took longer than anticipated but eventually evolved into the unique Milliken Performance System, a measurable, daily management system under which all Milliken manufacturing locations operate to this day. "This became the way we did work, our common language, our common process," says Long.

The Milliken Performance System is structured on a foundation of safety with eight pillars supporting how Milliken works. The safety foundation, though, wasn't initially obvious. The company had already focused for 10 years on improving safety as it strived to become a high-performance company. That safety emphasis increased, however, in the early 1990s when CEO Roger Milliken challenged management to "stop hurting people in my company." Safety became the first item on board meeting agendas, with the CEO setting the tone as an unofficial "chief safety officer." Milliken, the company, had a safety objective, but it had not yet realized how to reach it.

During the Japan tours, Long and fellow executives would discuss the extraordinary metrics they'd seen - equipment reliability, quality, productivity - and how they could hit those figures in their plants. "During these trips to Japan, they would always start with safety - green footprints to walk in, safety metrics on the wall - in every plant," Long recalls. "We finally said, 'We're not here to learn about safety.' Their response was, 'You don't understand. We have to start with safety to earn the trust of our people.' That was a big 'Aha!' moment. The best way to engage the workforce is to start with safety."

Milliken changed management's role from trying to make the workplace safer to instead providing resources and coaching to associates, who could actually make the workplace safer. The role of hourly associates changed from being told what to do to taking full ownership of safety. "It's more of a mindset change. Very few people have moved into the mindset of continuous improvement for safety - an improvement mindset rather than a compliance mindset," says Long.

Since the visits to Japan and implementation of the Milliken Performance System, Milliken has captured numerous industry awards (Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, European Quality Award, British Quality Award, Canadian Quality Award, Japan Institute of Plant Maintenance TPM Excellence Award, America's Safest Company, Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For, World's Most Ethical Companies) by turning safety and employee engagement into exemplary corporate performances. Although the company has yet to hit its primary objective of zero injuries, it's continuously moved toward that goal:

Safety is, first and foremost, about the health of employees at Milliken and at other companies. But there's a strong correlation between a safe workforce and one that's able to perform at a world-class level. Simply put, better plants have better safety records. And U.S. world-class plants typically practice (engaged workforces) and perform (reliability, capability, productivity) like world-class plants well beyond their safety metrics:

Developing Safer Workplaces

In many businesses and industrial environments, the prospect of zero injuries seems impossible: monumental pieces of equipment, highly complex and automated machinery, and/or lightning-fast processes all challenge safety-conscious management. Milliken has faced the same challenges and developed solutions that are transferable and customizable to a range of industries, environments and workforce cultures.

"We challenge companies to do what we did. See it, but make it fit your culture," says Long. Milliken Performance Solutions helps organizations become safer and more competitive, but it's not a traditional consulting firm. Instead of consultants and theory, MPS invites executives, managers, and work teams to Milliken sites to see firsthand what stellar safety is all about, and then MPS "practitioners" help companies customize those systems to their companies and cultures.