KEARNEY — Since it opened in 1969, Eaton’s engine valve and gear factory in Kearney has been viewed as a model operation, thanks in large part to the work ethic and productivity of its rural Nebraska workforce.

However, in 2015 the team at Eaton-Kearney was confronted with a serious challenge. Kearney wasn’t measuring up to expectations, and that had to change.

Plant Manager Landon Lueshen said the commitment of team members at all levels was necessary to transform Kearney from a low performer back into one of its company’s best factories.

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Here is how Eaton-Kearney accomplished its turnaround:

Q: What were Kearney’s High Five measurements in 2015?

L: Our High 5 metrics are Safety, Quality, Productivity, On-Time Delivery and Inventory. In 2015 we had an injury rate above 4. Quality costs were twice our goal. Productivity was at 89 percent, with a goal of 100 percent. On-Time Delivery to our customers was at 84 percent. And, Inventory was at 18 days, with a goal of 25 days. We were only winning on one of the top 5 metrics.

Q: Why did the low measurements make Kearney a troubled plant?

L: At Eaton Corp. safety is the highest priority, and when we had many workers getting injured we were not aligned to the safety culture of the company. On top of that, our quality, productivity and on-time delivery metrics were in very poor shape, meaning we were not achieving the expectations of the company or our customers.

Q: How was the plant’s staff informed that changes were necessary?

L: In 2015 a group of senior leaders visited the Eaton-Kearney plant and met with the leadership team. They made it clear that the Kearney plant was going the wrong direction and some big changes were needed. They challenged this team to improve and to do so quickly so Eaton-Kearney could become a more efficient valve manufacturing plant.

Q: Talk about some of the key strategies that changed attitudes and helped bring about the necessary improvements.

L: The interesting part about the strategies was they were almost entirely focused on our people — the most important part of our business — and less focus was on new processes, new equipment, etc. We realized we had gotten away from what was most important, taking care of our people and our community. We focused on more training on safety for our coworkers, improving communications and teamwork, employee recognition and supporting our community. We simplified what we were doing and divided the plant into eight mini-teams called Focus Factories to narrow the scope of each team member and gave each team three goals: safety, quality and productivity.

Q: What are Kearney’s High Five measurements today?

L: Today, we have an injury rate of less than 1, which is a 400-percent improvement. Quality is favorable to goal. Productivity is over 100 percent. On-Time Delivery to our customers is at 99 percent. And, the only metric we are behind goal on is Inventory. We made a complete reversal where we were and are now hitting four out of the five top metrics.

Q: What are the next steps to sustain and improve upon those measurements?

L: The biggest part of sustaining the success is to keep the engagement in our culture moving forward positively. We must continue the focus on a safe environment, team work, good communication, recognizing our people, and we must stay very active in the community. All levels of the Eaton-Kearney plant must be engaged in their Focus Factories and work together to improve.

Q: Talk about Focus Factories and how they contribute to a cohesive, engaged team.

L: The Focus Factories separated our 500 Eaton employees into eight individual teams. The individual teams had their three goals of safety, quality and productivity. If that team hits their goals they are rewarded for doing so, regardless of how the plant did overall. This concept helped to break down barriers between our workforce and limited the scope everyone was working on to help stay focused. It also made it more understandable on how each Focus Factory can contribute to the plant by only targeting achieving the top three metrics: safety, quality and productivity.

Q: How close is Kearney to achieving “world class” in its metrics?

L: The Kearney plant has two of the five metrics needed to be considered world class. We are slowly getting closer and will need to continue the engagement around safety, quality and inventory to get us to world class.

Q: List the plant’s top 10 customers and what parts Kearney supplies them.

L: The top customers of the Kearney plant are GM, Ford, FCA, Cummins, John Deere and Harley-Davidson. We supply these customers with intake and exhaust engine valves that are assembled into many of their vehicles on the road today. In total we supply close to 80 million engine valves and 7 million gears to our customers annually.

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