Sussex IM has experienced steady growth propelled by manufacturing products for some of the country’s most recognizable companies and brands.
With its workforce expanding to more than 500 employees between two plants in the village of Sussex in Waukesha County, the custom injection molder and integrated manufacturer began examining ways to manage its flourishing operations.
“The business was built on a smaller structure and a smaller size and as we grew we got to a point where we needed to expand our teams of supervisors, managers and leaders on the floor to manage that expansion,” Sussex IM Vice President of Manufacturing Kyle Kopp explained.
Fortuitously, Kopp and a few Sussex IM colleagues attended a session at the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s Manufacturing Matters! conference that focused on Training Within Industry (TWI), which teaches essential skills to supervisors through a dynamic program of hands-on learning and practice.
“We were in the process of working on our organizational redesign,” Kopp said. “We went to the WMEP’s conference and sat through the TWI presentation. It married well with what we are trying to do. It was perfect timing. Our program was evolving, and we were defining it. We were trying to train all these new leaders of the company and it fell in line with what TWI had to offer.”
Training Within Industry is an essential element of lean manufacturing and continuous improvement programs. Developed in the 1940s to help drive the war effort, TWI helped rebuild Japan’s infrastructure after World War II and remains the cornerstone of successful modern-day Japanese companies. This program remains highly relevant for manufacturers around the world today.
Training Within Industry focuses on building supervisors’ skills to provide a base that allows them to raise the skill level of their employees. TWI offers four programs to build the skills of supervisors and employees:
- Job Relations – Develop employees for peak performance.
- Job Instructions – Teach proper ways to train employees to do the job correctly.
- Job Methods – Improve the way every job is done.
- Job Safety – Prevent accidents and promote environmental health and safety awareness.
The TWI program launched at Sussex IM in July 2018.
“There has been expansion here over the years and you get to a tipping point where you get too big for the staff you have supporting the operation,” Kopp said. “We went through Job Relations first, which was key. Anytime there is change in an organization you want to make sure you communicate and get people up to speed on what’s going on, so you don’t bring nervousness.”
Sussex IM then moved on to Job Instructions to create standardization and repeatability.
The final two programs, Job Methods and Job Safety, will be tackled this year.
“What we are trying to do is go through a module and then have time to work with that module on our production floor and in meetings so that we master that skill set before we move on to the next one,” Kopp said. “The cadence is not necessarily set in stone and we go based on the comfort level of the team. When we start to see the results we want, then we move onto the next phase.”
A main goal of going through the TWI program is having strong communication and support for the teams on the shop floor, Kopp said.
“We just really needed to focus on how we would bring people in and support their needs,” he said.
Sussex IM got its start in 1977 as Sussex Plastics Inc. after being founded by Lorand Spyers-Duran, a Hungarian immigrant.
Recent growth at Sussex IM is being driven, in part, by expanding business with existing customers, such as Nike, Gojo Industries, Neutrogena and a host of high-profile cosmetics brands, Sussex IM Production Scheduler Liz Malec said. Sussex IM also does work for Dow Chemical Co. and some Wisconsin manufacturers, including Wauwatosa-based Briggs & Stratton Corp., S.J. Johnson & Son Inc., which has its headquarters in Racine, and Hartford-based Broan-NuTone, “Strategically, we try to partner with industry leaders,” Kopp said.
Sussex IM also has been attracting new customers, all of which is keeping the company’s 68 molding machines humming.
“We are very diverse,” said Malec, a nine-year employee of Sussex IM who began her career at the company on the shop floor during college breaks before becoming an intern and then a full-time employee. “Some current customers are expanding their programs. Last year, for example, we launched four brand new dispensers for Gojo on top of their current ones.”
Products made by Sussex IM include: Nike mouth guards and blow-molded water bottles; Neutrogena face wipe tubs; Maybelline, Revlon and L’Oréal compacts; and Purell soap dispensers.
Jon Berg, Sussex IM’s director of marketing, noted that a single soap dispenser contains up to 16 individually molded plastic components, along with metal parts brought in from the outside.
“In managing that work flow we may have as many as six to eight people in a work cell environment,” Berg said. “It’s a real systematic sequence of events.”
The TWI program at Sussex IM is being directed by Jerry Thiltgen, the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s Manager of Operational Excellence.
“Jerry and I have good dialogue,” Kopp said. “He’s a sounding board and he has a good perspective. It’s been a positive relationship.”
Thiltgen said Sussex IM made considerable improvements in its operations after only a couple of months of practicing the TWI Job Relations program.
“It shows that results can come very quickly by working on treating employees professionally, honestly, fairly and with respect,” Thiltgen said.
Sussex IM’s management team is pleased with the results of the TWI program to this point, Kopp said.
“What we are seeing is a difference in the dialogue employees are using in meetings and in conversations,” he said. “You can tell the performance is different when they use the skill sets that they’ve learned. Not only are they going through the class and understanding the principles, they are using them day to day and we are seeing a change for the better in the form of improved communication, better team work and an increased focus on what matters.”
The benefits don’t stop there.
“Our leaders are able to see the bigger picture and dial in on some of the issues we may be having and address them quicker and help focus their teams on what they should be looking for,” Kopp said.
TWI also has helped establish a culture that boosts recruiting efforts in a tight labor market, he added.
Like many companies, Sussex IM is challenged by a shortage of experienced and trained leaders, either through retirements or growth, Thiltgen explained. “The TWI Job Relations program has helped the company bring existing and potential new leaders to a new level of competence and performance in filling that gap,” he said.
Kopp described the culture at Sussex IM as “family-focused,” something that’s been preserved as the company has grown.
“It’s not hard to maintain good values and treat people the way they want to be treated,” Kopp said. “I don’t think there’s a size that dictates that.”
Berg said the culture is a reflection of the leadership of Sussex IM president and Chief Executive Officer Keith Everson, who led a management group that bought the company back from British conglomerate Rexam in 2009 and expanded into new markets.
Along with other important benefits, the TWI program also is having a positive effect on Sussex IM’s bottom line.
“I don’t want to give direct numbers, but I can say, broad brush, that we are seeing reductions in scrap, labor variance and overhead,” Kopp said. “Every company tracks their performance and has Key Performance Indicators, so you can see the direct influence of a program like TWI.”
“You see people struggle to follow a certain principle and then they’ll do it their own way,” Kopp said. “But there’s a science to why it’s done a certain way. Jerry helps bring groups together and helps really illustrate why you have to do things a certain way to get the benefit. He makes sure that people aren’t just nodding their heads but that they fully understand why they are following a certain principle.”
Job Relations, for example, teaches a proven method of getting the facts, weighing options, making decisions and taking action, and then checking results.
“People often jump to conclusions,” Kopp said. “They are skipping the facts. What does that do? It potentially hurts the relationship with an employee and then performance is affected because that person doesn’t feel like they are being heard.”
Kopp had previous experience with Toyota Kata and Six Sigma but hadn’t heard of TWI before attending the WMEP’s conference session.
“Here you are taking something and breaking it down so that people can absorb it,” Kopp said. “It’s a great program and it’s a benefit to companies. We have been very happy with the program.”