By Rich Rovito, Industry Reporter, WMEP

Neenah Paper’s three-year Lean Six Sigma journey has bolstered business at multiple facilities within the company.

“We’ve always looked for the best opportunities to turn into cost savings but we weren’t capitalizing on them as much as we could,” said Mike Willett, continuous improvement manager at the company’s Neenah location. “We didn’t have the necessary tools or processes. We knew we needed formal training.”

That’s when Neenah Paper turned to the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

The Neenah facility is a converting operation for paper used in business settings, including letterhead, business cards, premium packaging, labels and high-end printing. The Neenah plant also produces premium bright-colored and cotton content paper that is sold at retail outlets.

The team comprised to initially lead the lean journey consisted of four salaried and 12 hourly employees.

“The hourly employees are running the equipment or moving product and they know best where waste occurs. They understand why our operations need to run more efficiently and want to help make improvements,” Willett said.

Having hourly employees on the team offers other major benefits, especially when it comes to the data-driven improvement cycle focused on the attributes of Defining, Measuring, Analyzing, Improving and Controlling (DMAIC). The cycle is used to improve and optimize businesses processes and designs.

“When it comes to implementing and maintaining action plans, hourly employees are engaged because they’ve helped throughout the DMAIC process,” Willett said.

The Neenah operation acquired added business two years ago and increased employment substantially following the deal, so it used 2013 to get the new workers trained.

As part of its continuous improvement efforts, Neenah Paper worked with the WMEP on a 5S project for its new equipment.

This year, with the new business integrated into its operations, Neenah Paper took part in green belt Lean Six Sigma training. The Lean Six Sigma process has helped Neenah Paper identify best approaches for its facilities that involve complex cost-savings projects.

Partnering with the WMEP has “given us the tools and provided us with a consultant to guide us through the process,” Willett said.

“The company’s biggest challenge is a shrinking market,” said Gaurav Gandhi, senior manufacturing specialist for the WMEP.

Through its work with the WMEP, Neenah Paper has embarked on a Lean Six Sigma project that has included seven training sessions over the past three years.

“We’ve helped Neenah Paper set up a culture of Six Sigma,” Gandhi said. “It extends across the breadth and hierarchy of the organization.”

Through the training, Neenah Paper has experienced incremental improvements in its business.

Lean Six Sigma provides a fact-based and data-driven way to solve problems and make improvements, both on the factory floor and in the office, Gandhi said.

The key is making improvements that can be sustained, he said.

“A lot of companies train their management on Six Sigma and expect everyone else to join in,” Gandhi said. “Neenah Paper involved operators from the factory floor directly in the improvement process. Those employees want to be part of the solution. It is working very well for the company.”

Neenah Paper has broken through departmental barriers with the training, Gandhi said.

“Through best practices, they are learning from each other,” he said.

Lean Six Sigma has had a direct impact on Neenah Paper’s bottom line through process improvements that are transformed into direct cost savings.

“Neenah Paper understands that this was a cultural transformation,” Gandhi said. “The reason for the company’s success is that there is total management commitment and it is empowering its employees.”

Neenah Paper has four manufacturing and converting plants in Wisconsin.

At Neenah Paper’s Whiting mill, near Stevens Point, the company makes such products as wine labels and a line of bright-colored paper sold under the AstroBright name. The WMEP has led green belt and yellow belt Lean Six Sigma training for salaried employees at the Whiting plant.

The Lean Six Sigma training has helped employees at the plant “speak the same language” when it comes to working toward improving the company’s operations, said Scott Juedes, continuous improvement manager at the Whiting facility.

Lean Six Sigma has helped Neenah Paper reduce waste, improve efficiency and drive out costs at the plant. The initiatives are subjected to analysis by the finance team to ensure that they will meet Neenah Paper’s goals.

Employees from Neenah Paper’s plants in Appleton also have taken part in the training along with those in Whiting and Neenah.

The Whiting plant features large paper-making equipment. Through Lean Six Sigma, Neenah Paper has focused on speed optimization for the equipment, a quality initiative aimed at reducing customer complaints and improved paper machine grade change performance, Juedes said.

The investment in the training already has been covered through cost-savings generated by the Lean Six Sigma projects, he added. In most cases, the savings have ranged between $50,000 and $100,000 for each initiative.

“The projects have more than paid for the training,” Juedes said.