CASE STUDY: The Honda way

Maintenance and plant services 'remove the distractions' at the company's minivan/SUV plant in Alabama

Paul V. Arnold, Noria Corporation

Honda's minivan and sport utility vehicle assembly plant in Lincoln, Ala., is reminiscent of a medical center.

That could be the result of the grounds. The beautifully designed and landscaped exterior - the green grass and colorful foliage, and covered circular drive - gives the impression that you're entering a professional office complex, not a 4,500-employee manufacturing plant.

It could be linked to the cleanliness. The site is impeccably tidy. During a recent tour covering approximately a quarter of the plant's 3.1 million square feet, the foreign object debris visible to outsiders on that day consisted of a single screw located on the floor just outside of a production area.

It might be from the general sense of order and organization. Like a surgeon's cart, there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place.

Perhaps it is the white uniforms and lab coats - the standard mode of dress for all Honda employees working in the plant.

Or maybe, it's the clipboards. Honda workers walking the floor and examining machinery and product take extensive notes and scribble down numbers to populate a myriad of data charts.

Superior operations. Proactive care and maintenance. A focus on functional flexibility, wellness and reliability.

Healthy manufacturing. This is the essence of Honda.


Drivetrain components are added to 3.5-liter V-6 engines at the Honda plant in Lincoln, Ala.

The Honda plant in Lincoln is deserving of high praise, thanks in no small part to its maintenance and reliability prowess.

Professionals from several internal and external organizations oversee these duties and ensure that the plant environment is productive and problem-free.

The main dissection is between production maintenance and plant services. Production maintenance is responsible for the health of the capital assets that are directly tied to producing automobiles and their V-6 engines. Plant services is responsible for ensuring the health and performance of all of the fixed assets that do not build a car or its components.

As plant services division manager Mark LaRue explains, "I'm responsible for new construction, existing buildings, utilities distribution, environmental and general services, which takes into account janitorial, uniforms, pool cars, security and maintaining areas such as the cafeteria, locker rooms and credit union."

Plant services consists of 12 Honda employees and approximately 70 contracted associates. BE&K Inc. comprises 45 of the 70 or so contract workers. Additional firms manage, among other things, water treatment facilities and grounds care.

"This was new for Honda," says LaRue. "This was the first site that outsourced its facilities maintenance. It's kind of the grand experiment. One of the things that we learned beforehand and also after the fact was that it's very important to keep pushing these different groups together and keep the emphasis on teamwork. Teamwork can't be a buzzword or catchphrase. We have to really, truly be partners. We are partners to the extent that BE&K is integral to our operations on monthly reporting. When we get into the budgeting cycle of the year, they are working to develop budgets."


Underbody wiring and tubing is added to Honda Pilot sport utility vehicles at the plant.

The combined department functions on an operate-and-maintain structure.

"The person who is splitting the air compressor is the same person who is operating the air compressor. We want these people to have that touch-feel to operations and not be disconnected," says LaRue.

As a result of this partnership, and the plant's uniform code, it's hard to tell the Honda plant services associates from the contractors.

That's all part of the master plan, says LaRue.

"In facilities, and in maintenance for this plant as a whole, we have a motto: 'We want to remove the distractions that take the focus away from building a car,'" he says. "Fundamentally, we are here to make cars. We make money by making cars. Facilities does not. In the scheme of things, you have people who make cars and people who don't. If you don't make cars, you are a support department. So, we take our support very seriously. We want to create a productive environment."

Production maintenance ensures that environment by pushing the envelope on uptime, reliability and overall equipment effectiveness. Preventive and predictive techniques are tantamount to delivering assets to production/operations workers that won't break down.

Plant services underscores the "environment" in productive environment.

"You must have reliable utilities. You must have a comfortable workspace. You must have clean, functional common areas," says LaRue. "If an (assembly line worker) comes into work and it's cold when he hits the line, he's going to be thinking about how cold it is as opposed to how he's doing his process to make a car. We think we have a direct connection to the vehicle."

It starts before that employee even enters the building.

"When the associates drive into work, we want them to feel like they are coming to a nice place to work," he says. "The landscaping - that's very deliberate. It's not for public image; it's primarily for our associates. They come in. It looks nice and it's clean. That really sets the tone for how we want to be making a vehicle. We remove the distractions."


Associates celebrate the 1 millionth Honda vehicle and V-6 engine built in Alabama.

Breakdowns of any sort can be a huge distraction. So, maintenance and plant services at this Honda site minimize the possibility - and, subsequently, the quantity and duration of failures - through various means. One method is the employment of a problem-analysis wheel. The wheel is set into motion following the response to an unforeseen failure event.

The first step, or spoke of the wheel, is Problem Analysis.

"We get into some pretty detailed problem analysis when we have a failure," says LaRue. "For instance, the chillers in Line 1 shut down simultaneously one day in July. Losing your air conditioning in July in Alabama is not fun. It also factors into the painting process because we supply water there at a certain temperature. If it goes up a few degrees, they can't keep the proper environment and have to shut down."

As part of this analysis, the next spoke in the wheel is Emergency Response.

"How was our emergency response? We had a failure, how long did it take?" says LaRue. "In this case, it took us two hours to restart these chillers in a manual mode."

In the analysis, it was determined that chiller operators had become dependent on the automatic restarts. Difficulties emerged when they were forced to bring the system up in manual mode. That led to additional response time.

The next two spokes are True Root Cause and PM Analysis.

"When you are analyzing complex problems, it takes a long time to get to the bottom," says LaRue. "People frequently think they have found the true root cause. They think that, and the problem reoccurs. In this particular case, the true root was ultimately a firmware problem with the PLC. It wasn't anything that we were doing."

Root cause findings can lead to the modification of preventive maintenance activities associated with the focus area. The analysis determines the need for alterations, and the group enacts the required revisions.

"In this case, we didn't need to make any PM changes," he says. "Had it have been a different type of problem, I think we would have made some."

The final spoke is Information Sharing.

"We share those findings, that information, throughout Honda," he says. "Within facilities, there is a global connection. I know the managers of all these plants. We discuss, talk, e-mail. We meet twice a year at different regions and different locations. When we have a problem, we think it is absolutely critical to share this information with the other sites. The bigger the issue, the more that you need to share.

"Problems cost you money. They are expensive. If you pay for that lesson in one location, you don't want to pay for it in other locations. You need to get the word out."

The Honda plant also works to avoid failures by using high- and low-tech tools, and tons of data.

The maintenance and plant services groups have plenty of predictive maintenance technologies at their disposal. They help pinpoint potential issues before they become larger-scale problems. But LaRue also promotes the use of subjective tools and techniques.

"You cannot replace the human senses of sight, sound and smell," he says. "So even though we have lots of monitoring and we have lots of readouts, we still have people make physical rounds of the equipment."

During a recent walk-around, an associate detected a questionable odor. It turned out to be ozone coming from a switch that was beginning to arc. Plant services was able to make the repair without impacting production.

In this subjective system, plant and asset cleanliness plays an important role.

"For us, cleanliness means the equipment is wiped down, there's no oil, there's nothing stacked in between pieces of equipment," he says. "When an associate goes on rounds, he or she can detect a change. If an oil leak starts, the problem is very visible and noticeable. We can get on it and make the repair."

In order to track the past, present and future health of the plant and all of its assets, the Alabama team leans heavily on data.

"Honda is very much a data-driven organization," says LaRue. "All of the presidents of Honda have been engineers. We are very much an engineering company. So consequently, when you get a bunch of engineers together, they naturally want to look at data."

Color-coded reports track everything from safety, environmental, quality, delivery, cost, training and even morale. In the color system, green signifies a standard "good" level, yellow denotes caution and red identifies an issue that needs to be addressed.

Deviations are caught quickly. Data is shared and compared with Honda locations around the world.

A well-known quote from company founder Soichiro Honda goes, "Superior products don't result from an attitude that allows disarray, untidiness and uncleanliness in the work environment."

With physician-like diagnosis skills and surgeon-like precision, the maintenance and plant services personnel at Honda's Lincoln, Ala., location target elements of disarray, untidiness and uncleanliness, and remove all of these distractions. The end result is a winning attitude and an environment that is productive and efficient, organized and reliable.

Healthy manufacturing. This is the essence of Honda.

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