Batesville Casket: Case closed

There is no denying maintenance's role in securing flow, reliability and lean success at award-winning Batesville Casket plant

Paul V. Arnold, Noria Corporation

A good plant maintenance department, in some respects, is like a good professional football referee.

"If we do our jobs right, nobody knows that we even exist." So says George Doll, the maintenance manager at Batesville Casket Company's assembly plant in Batesville, Ind.

In that quote, "nobody" is truly somebody. For Batesville, it is the customer - a family who has ordered the final resting place for a loved one. The customer expects the Batesville casket, which has been manufactured and personalized specifically for the departed, to arrive at the funeral home on time and defect free. That is a challenging task considering the order was placed the previously day.

You don't buy a casket "off the rack" - not in this age when Americans cherish individuality and seek memorialization. People want to be remembered for who they were and what they stood for. Seventy-five percent of all Batesville products are personalized based on a list of standard and non-standard customer requests (exterior color, exterior etchings, handles, interior color, fabrics, embroidery, etc.). A family can honor granddad, a graduate and supporter of the University of Texas, by ordering a casket with a burnt orange-colored metal exterior, the school logo etched into silver corner panels and "Hook 'em, Horns" embroidered into the fabric on the interior lid. It will be created on a single production line (where every casket is different than the one in front of it and the one behind it) and delivered in 24 hours.

Assembly superintendent Joe Dwenger believes in the power of maintenance.

"Customers expect more out of us," says plant manager Todd Dennis. "As the demands increase, that increases the pressure on our systems."

Not meeting expectations means the pressure got the best of plant systems. Equipment failed. Downtime led to late delivery. Equipment performed improperly or out of specifications. That led to a quality problem. If caught on the plant floor, a quality issue means rework and perhaps late delivery. A problem caught at the funeral home means customer dissatisfaction. When you fail, the customer knows who you are - maybe not by name, but surely by function. Just ask the football ref who faces catcalls and iceballs after blowing a ruling on a decisive play.

"If you don't fulfill your responsibilities," says company lean sensei Mike Wroblewski, "you are digging a deep hole for yourself."

At this Batesville facility, which houses nearly 1,000 primary production assets, Doll's department of multi-craft professionals keeps the pressure in check. Uptime on the 300,000-square-foot plant floor is exceptionally high. As a result, quality and first-pass yield are high. Lost cycles and returns are very low.

"Did the customer get what he or she wanted at the end of the day?" says maintenance superintendent Butch Flaspohler. "That is the final judgment."

The Batesville maintenance organization is transparent to the customer. They have no clue who George Doll, Butch Flaspohler or any of the 32 other department associates is, and that's good. However, co-workers in the plant and the 123-year-old corporation are aware of the team's contributions to system reliability, product flow, daily continuous improvement, lean operations and a glowing reputation within industry. And, that's good.

Maintenance and reliability excellence was a factor in the site winning an IndustryWeek Best Plants award in 2006 and a regional title in the Association for Manufacturing Excellence's 2007 competition for top-performing plants.

Achievement was, and still is, a major undertaking.


Mike Wroblewski (left), Batesville Casket Company's lean sensei, pores over some production data with an operator on the stamping line.

Batesville is the No. 1 casket maker in America ($659 million in sales in 2006), and it's been on top for a long, long time. The company pins its success to an environment built on continuous improvement.

"Change has been a part of Batesville's culture for 123 years. It's in our DNA," says Dennis. "We have this burning desire to make things better."

Whether it relates to equipment, processes, products or logistics, the company can't stop tinkering.

"We'll look at something and say, 'Overall, it's working well. But what isn't working well?' We'll peel back the onion and look at the non-value-added components," says Dennis. "Many companies would say, 'That's working well. Why break it?' We don't approach it that way. We really want to get better every year. It takes that kind of attitude. Sometimes it is painful, but it is what makes us special."

The reason is simple: You can be proactive and see the opportunities that reside in change, or be reactive and be forced into change as the result of internal or external pressures. It's a matter of control. Control the plant assets, or they will control you.

Change and continuous improvement are formalized in the company's lean manufacturing and reliability enhancement initiatives. Woven together nearly two decades ago, the bonds grow stronger every year.

"Lean and reliability go hand in hand," says Doll. "To be lean, you have to run your production line in a flowing nature. If you have unplanned downtime or breakdowns, it interrupts the flow. That then affects your quality, productivity, everything. You really need to control your breakdown frequency and the amount of time that you are forced to go into a down or standby mode. You could say productivity continuity is the most important part of a good lean organization."

That isn't just maintenance's stance.

"You can't have lean without reliability," says Dennis. "If we don't have a reliable system, your attention turns to fixing equipment and processes. You're fighting to become stable. Lean is really built on stability."


Plant manager Todd Dennis says, "Change has been a part of Batesville's culture for 123 years. It's in our DNA."


The facility in Indiana manufactures bronze, copper, stainless steel and steel caskets.
Photos by Bill Krider, Krider Photography

Other gauges of reliability excellence and lean enablement are:

Uptime: Critical areas of the plant's production process boast 99 percent uptime. In less-critical areas, the figure is 96 percent.

Lost cycles: Takt time is the heartbeat of the assembly line. On a normal day, the line advances every 56.5 seconds. Missing 56.5 seconds of production time means a cycle has been lost. The product is behind schedule.

"Losing 56 seconds of production is considered a catastrophic failure here," says assembly superintendent Joe Dwenger. "At most plants, 85 percent efficiency is fine. Here, it's 100 percent. There is no daily allowance for not making 100 percent. We hold maintenance to that very firmly. They respond well to it."

The plant's lost cycle percentage rate is less than 1 percent.

The mix of proactive/reactive work: Proactive work comprises 75 percent of the total work load in mission-critical areas. In not-as-critical areas, the mix is 50/50.

"Most of the reactive work is done on smaller, throwaway items," says reliability engineer Steve Noel. "You can throw a lot of money at a $50 gearbox and still not know when it's going to quit. We don't pay as much attention to small stuff that can be handled with a quick change."

Reactive work formerly constituted 75 percent of all maintenance activities.

Quality: "Quality prevents us from having good flow. I have as many quality-related lost cycles as I do any equipment downtime. I don't want to pass any bad product through the plant," says Dennis.

What's the quality-maintenance link?

"If you have constant interruptions with breakdowns or malfunctioning equipment, it either damages the product or interrupts the flow enough that the operators don't perform their job in a standard work setting," says Doll. "If you interrupt flow, you will interrupt quality."

The Batesville maintenance organization uses a variety of strategies - call them lean, reliability or just plain smart - to measure up and make things better on a daily basis.

Perhaps its most effective method is unleashing the brainpower of its team members. Hourly and salary associates are encouraged to think:

critically to determine fact-based answers to plant-floor issues; and,

creatively to develop innovative solutions to plant-floor needs.

Individuals and small groups use five-why analysis sheets and root cause analysis (RCA) principles to get to the root of a problem.

"We had used fishbone diagrams, but we found the five-why approach to be a little more efficient for us," says Flaspohler. "When you are done with the exercise, you have a much more factual answer."

The finish system went down, causing a loss of 70 cycles. What happened? Use the five-why analysis to figure it out.

Why did the equipment fail? The circuit board burned out.

Why did the circuit board burn out? It overheated.

Why did it overheat? It wasn't getting enough air.

Why was it not getting enough air? The filter wasn't changed.

Why was the filter not changed? There was no preventive maintenance schedule to do so.

"When we arrive at a cause, we perform a root cause analysis on it and create a permanent fix so it doesn't happen again," says Doll. "We want to focus on fixing the system, not just removing a symptom."

Team members say the five-why approach must be employed whenever an issue leads to a loss of five or more cycles. Reliability engineer Noel heads up the investigation, as Doll says, "if there is even a hint that this will be a repeated breakdown."

Maintenance leaders apply critical thinking to dissect the plant landscape and determine the best ways to use its limited resources (manpower, time, attention, technology and budget).

"Our focus needs to be on what is most important," says Doll.

The plant performed a formal criticality analysis to determine the most important and costly equipment and processes.

"We know what equipment has to function, what has to be maintained, in order to keep product flowing," says Doll. "That is measured by physical and financial impact."

Cost plays a mighty role in the degrees of severity. Lost cycles are very costly from the paint transfer point through the end of the assembly process. Here, maintenance takes a hit as high as $125 per lost cycle. Fifteen dollars, however, is the price tag for a lost cycle in the fabrication department. The facts and figures - the interplay of cost and asset performance - dictate the maintenance battle plan.

"I have a spreadsheet listing each piece of equipment and the amount of cycles that it has cost me during the month, along with the related dollar figures," says Doll. "You can pick out if there is a particular piece of equipment that is causing a problem. You can then direct reliability work on it."

It also helps to determine whether the asset is best served through proactive means (preventive maintenance and/or predictive maintenance, and to what degree) or reactive means (run it to failure).

Tied to that, maintenance has also performed criticality analyses for manpower. You only have so many man-hours in a day. How are you going to use them? The process established parameters and led to a better understanding of value-added work vs. non-value-added work.

"If you have people running around looking at individual rollers on a conveyor, you are going to eat up your manpower," says Doll. "Contrast that with having a team working to improve how the product goes across that conveyor or eliminate potential quality issues along that conveyor. You get more return from your dollar investment. You can improve quality and product flow."

By-products of this work have been improved planning and scheduling, and reduced overtime.

Another analysis, this one targeting preventive maintenance (PM), affected manpower and asset care strategy. The department had prided itself as a "heavy supplier" of PM activities. Formal studies determined that many pieces of equipment were receiving too much attention through PMs. Instead of performing a task every six weeks, facts might point to a 12-week schedule as more appropriate.

"Are you lean when you are doing all of that extra work? I don't think so," says Doll. "I think for PMs today, we run as good as or better than we did before. The previous way was bogging us down."

Maintenance associates also use creativity to conjure up a better way. On a daily basis, operations employees ask Doll's team to engineer neat solutions to quality, productivity, safety and ergonomic issues.

This isn't about installing a pull chain for a light or fan (a frequent former request).

Smaller components are inserted into the casket in the wrong direction. Maintenance designs a "go/no-go gauge" (a poke-yoke device) that makes it virtually impossible to place the part incorrectly.

It is difficult to see if "dust" from cotton fabric is building up inside a machine. Maintenance creates a Plexiglas window to ensure visibility and recognition when buildup occurs.

A machine has a substantial harmonic issue. Maintenance makes an innovative support system to stop the vibration.

Casket lids pop up at a final assembly station. Maintenance rigs up a "sand bag on a pulley" to keep the lids down.

An operator must reach down to grab parts. Maintenance builds a fillable bench that puts product at the right height.

The goal is a low-cost, lasting solution, not a pricey, stainless steel monument.

Tool makers, CAD technicians and members of the site's Engineering Services Group are some of the valuable resources to maintenance technicians in these and other instances.

"The challenge is to make things simple," says Dennis. "It's ideas and complex ingenuity that allow you to achieve simplicity. Manufacturers are forced to be creative. It comes with the business."

Creative solutions and those that are the result of hard-core critical thinking are documented in a Daily Improvement Target Countermeasure Analysis sheet. A DITCA provides a "before and after" explanation of an improvement project. It outlines the problem, symptoms, root causes and countermeasures, and lists all of the associates who played a role in the fix.

"The people fill out their own forms, take their own pictures and document all of their own savings," says electrical engineer John Busek. "Every Friday, we have a meeting where people who completed a DITCA that week present their case study. They are recognized for their work."

Improvements can be small or grand.

Batesville, a company with strong sustainability goals, has benefited from projects that have fixed compressed air leaks, conserved water and reduced electrical consumption. Busek has directed a switch in plant lighting from mercury lamps to high-tech fluorescent bulbs. This will improve lighting and save a bundle of money.

Other saves are more dramatic. The Batesville maintenance organization answers the call when needed. Its quick-response, pit-crew mentality goes great lengths to restore flow and ensure customer satisfaction.

As stated earlier, production and quality incidents (pressures temporarily beat the system) mean downtime and lost cycles. Every minute down is a loss. Lean has decreased buffer inventory levels to a point where a five-minute failure creates significant backlash. This has the potential to negatively impact the customer. What are you going to do?

"Take care of the problems as quick as they come. Do not let them linger," lean sensei Wroblewski answers in a philosophical tone.

The result is orchestrated in a way that would make a NASCAR crew chief proud. Assembly superintendent Dwenger calls it "simply amazing."

"The minute something goes down, I have three to five maintenance people converge on the spot and begin the process," says Doll. "They quickly examine the problem. If they can't solve it, additional layers of support are brought in. People are on site, on radios, on computers. We have a central troubleshooting desk that provides expert advice. The process moves quickly until they reach a solution. When you are a member of this crew, you are not an island, you are a team."

Operators are active participants in the process, taking on investigative, technical and logistical roles to get the machine back up and running.

"The key to reliability isn't just that the processes are capable," says Dennis. "It is also that when something gets out of adjustment, how do we react?"


The pit crew drill is impressive, but not used nearly as much today as five or more years ago. Predictive maintenance (PdM) technologies, applied in conjunction with or as the result of a criticality, five-why and/or root cause analysis, have the department in more of a proactive mode.

Similar to the other ways in which it approaches reliability excellence, Doll's team employs PdM as a tool to make fact-based decisions.

"We know exactly what the machine is doing," says Busek. "Instead of going out and replacing several components and hoping that you hit the right one, we are able to narrow it down to the faulty or questionable component."

Noel oversees the PdM program, which includes infrared thermography, vibration analysis, laser alignment and oil analysis. "You can't be lean without this stuff," he says.

Maintenance associates use the tools on the first shift (7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) and second shift (4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.) while the machines are running in order to identify equipment and components that are veering from optimal performance.

Subsequent corrections and replacements are done when product isn't running - either during a 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. maintenance gap or the 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. third shift. Larger PMs and system changes are also done during that graveyard shift.

Proactive maintenance isn't just about PMs and high-tech gadgets. It's also the manner in which you solve your workforce issues. The Batesville plant has a large percentage of workers with 25 or more years of experience. The maintenance crew has its share of senior workers. A wave of retirements began a few years back, leaving the plant with a challenge: How do you sustain the gains when your key workers leave?

Doll, a 40-year Batesville employee, got proactive. Eight years ago, he began hiring young workers to learn the ropes from the old veterans.

"We start them out with a lower grade, but they progress into a full maintenance man position," he says. "It takes three to five years from the time that we hire a new person to the time that we feel confident in him, that he can add to the team. Time and experience, plus a large amount of training, lead to safety, book-based know-ledge and hands-on knowledge."

Doll says 30 percent of his team is in that "young, up-and-coming" category.

"There has to be a buildup of know-ledge and experience and skills. It can't happen overnight," he says. "If you don't start until your people are walking out the door, you will never get out of that hole."

To accompany the spate of hirings, the department has implemented standardized work. Work orders now include standard safety instructions for a given task. PMs will outline items such as proper lubricant types and amounts; greasing specifications; and correct belt types and sizes.

"We have digital pictures with arrows pointing, for instance, to where the grease zerks are," says Noel. "Some of that stuff can be hard to find, especially if you are a less experienced technician."

Doll thinks highly of his maintenance department and the work that crew members do to eliminate system pressures and enable unhindered production of a very special product. They remain a quiet, unknown entity outside of manufacturing industry circles, and that's good. As a team, this "nobody" is truly something.

"In terms of delivering reliability to the plant and to the company, I think we are an 8 to a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10," he says. "I would like to think that we are a 10, but we have some opportunities."

Ah, continuous improvement. That must be the DNA kicking in.

"We still have downtime. We can still cut out some of the reactive work. We can do more training," he says. "We are not there yet."

Plans for the near future include the following:

make greater use of design for maintainability and reliability principles when purchasing new equipment;

enhance existing efforts to standardize parts and reduce inventory in the tool crib;

reduce the "deadly waste" of waiting by making critical systems more robust; Doll states, "250 production workers waiting because the line is down - that is a terrible amount of waste"

continue to hire people who will make a difference to the plant and the company; says Dennis, "We want to hire people who are problem-solvers"

Achievements will be a major undertaking, and they will be accomplished through personal accountability.

That goes for managers.

"The simplest and best way is to lead by example," says Wroblewski. "If you don't have actions behind your words, then they are going to be hollow. People aren't going to follow and they aren't going to listen to you. Leading by example is truly the best way that any leader can help show that this is the path that we want to take."

And, it goes for every associate.

"We always have something in front of us that we haven't yet achieved. It keeps pushing us forward," says Dennis. "None of us are paid for past performance. It is dependent on what each of us does today."

The plant gained sizable ground in 2007, the year after winning a major North American award. The same should hold true in 2008, the year after capturing another big honor.

"We have been recognized by industry. That puts responsibility and pressure on us," says Wroblewski. "We must strive and do all we can to live up to these accolades."

A final resting place? Hardly.

"Our goals don't allow us to rest," says Dennis.

The push to continuously improve can be painful, but it is what makes Batesville Casket Company so special.

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