Sweet Innovation

Domino Sugar Plant

Stu FitzGibbon is about to mark twenty-five years at Domino Sugars in Baltimore. As refinery manager, he’s seen automation accelerate over the decades and continue to this day. But while some see technology and global economic forces pushing American manufacturing into the past, FitzGibbon is busy encouraging innovation by empowering people in every part of the plant.

Sitting right across from the Inner Harbor tourist hub, the huge Domino Sugars sign and the plant’s smokestacks symbolize Baltimore’s industrial history. And Stu says the transition to knowledge-based work is just as relevant in manufacturing as it is in tourism, high-tech healthcare, or service industries. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what manufacturing is like today,” he says.

IT can turn factories into places where computing power and human creativity join to achieve a level of innovation that wouldn’t have been possible with either one alone.

What automation removed from the process left Domino with analytical jobs that require computer literacy. Above all, those analysts need practical know-how and keen critical thinking to solve new problems. As automation changed the nature of many production jobs, Domino established a higher pay grade with the plant union.

“Employees are going from task-doers to users of information who make decisions on what to do,” Stu points out. “There’s a very big difference.”

FitzGibbon has a background in software engineering and management, but he isn’t the type to lean too heavily on algorithms or c-suite decision matrixes. “The logic behind how a manufacturing plant works can only come from the people who understand the process,” he says.

“If we use technology to inform the upper leadership team of what’s going right and what’s going wrong and think that’s going to drive improvement, that’s absolutely wrong,” Stu adds. “We have to make technology a tool to the person at that site doing the work. I want technology used so that the machine or forklift operator–or me–is empowered to do a better job. We learned that the hard way here.”

One of Domino’s first large automation projects involved its giant centrifuges. Audible alarms and lights that once alerted technicians to mechanical problems were replaced by computer-based alarms. But the computer alerts were four floors away from the machines, so workers were no longer aware of issues right in front of them. Stu and his team learned and shifted, moving the computers down to the technicians.

They didn’t just solve the alarm issue—the new computer setup enables those same floor workers and technicians to see trends and attend to the machines that most need it, instead of blindly following a maintenance schedule.

Stu tells another story, of a blue-collar worker who had been begging his foreman to bring his laptop from home, with little success. The worker had detected a problem with sensors and gathered data to prove his point—he just couldn’t crunch it at the plant. It turned out that he was right, and the sensors were wrong. Data analysis wasn’t in his job description, but that blue-collar worker’s observations added huge value to the troubleshooting process.

The Type of Stuff You Don’t Read in Textbooks

“This is the type of stuff you don’t read in textbooks,” Stu says. Of course, education plays a huge role in the future of Domino and American manufacturing. Domino has worked with the Community College of Baltimore County to hone a curriculum that suits what manufacturers need right now, with classes offered on a schedule that works for industrial workers.

There’s literacy and mathematical literacy, and then there’s the emotional and intellectual maturity of working in a manufacturing environment. Domino benefits from what FitzGibbon calls a “tribal allegiance” to making the site successful. Some families have worked there for generations, and friends share wisdom that helps them do their jobs better.

Domino holds regular State of the Refinery meetings, including one at midnight the night before Stu and I met. Those meetings often turn into dynamic conversations about how to innovate solutions.

Stu has worked hard to make goal alignment a pivotal part of the innovation process, and that shows up at the meetings. “If I ask, ‘Why are we here, as a company?’ today, they say, ‘We’re here to make money–that’s what companies do.’ If I had asked them six years ago, they’d say ‘We’re here to make five-pound bags.’”

Having demonstrated that the plant team can bring down unit man-hours, slash energy costs, and cut out unnecessary steps through innovation, workers feel empowered to keep improving processes. They know that when the plant produces sugar more cheaply, more orders come in for them to fill. Still, FitzGibbon has just scratched the surface when it comes to what’s possible at the plant and what personal success means for him.

If innovation becomes a day-in, day-out cultural attribute at the plant, instead of being the exception, Stu says, “I’ll consider myself a success for that.”

Originally published in SmartCEO magazine, February 2013

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