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Nichols Grads Bring Vision to Gentex Optics' North American Management Team
“Has the transformation of this facility been written up as a case study?” queried Dr. Libba Moore, associate dean of business at Nichols College, on Oct. 14th.
Moore’s question was directed to Production Manager Peter Lynch and Human Resource Manager Shannon Spitz during an overview of Gentex Optic, Inc.’s operations just prior to a tour of the manufacturing floor.
Gentex’s Dudley location serves as the primary source for polycarbonate lenses sold by suppliers throughout the world. Its operations weren’t always a benchmark for success. In fact, a decade ago, turnover for the four shifts ran as high as 22 percent and there were plenty of problems with quality and production. “Today, this plant is a benchmark of achievement,” said Spitz. “There’s a sense of pride everybody has in the facility and this makes our production robust and competitive.”
The entourage from Nichols included Management Program Chair Art Duhaime and eleven undergraduate business students active in the Human Resource/Management Club. Members listened intently to the two experienced and passionate managers talk about the astonishing turnaround, with Spitz (B.A. ‘99, M.B.A. ’02) and Lynch (B.S.B.A. ’02) acknowledging that they both graduated from Nichols College and married Nichols grads! “It was ideal to have two hardworking and articulate alumni share their experience with our undergraduates!” remarked Moore.
According to Spitz, starting in 2007 Gentex took a comprehensive look at its Dudley facility to determine how it could improve operations and best leverage its resources. This diagnostic period resulted in the implementation of a Production Management System which provided tools for changing the very culture of work. Gentex started to slowly transition from a top-down management style to one supporting work teams. This was followed in 2009 with supervisor training in dynamic facilitation which helped transition the job role to one of coach and mentor.
“Now, turnover is less than 1 percent and we have reached a major milestone in workforce stability,” notes Spitz. “Our teams work collaboratively in a culture which supports creative problem solving. Within our industry, this transformation has been exceptional.”
Production Manager Lynch, who cut his management teeth working on tough assembly line issues in the troubled Midwest auto industry, said: “I can remember driving past Gentex Optics as a Nichols student and not knowing what the company did. Then, a couple of years ago, an Indiana recruiter called me about a production position at Gentex. He asked me if I knew where Dudley was,” laughed Lynch, who was shocked to find that this gem of a plant was in his backyard all along.
“With the increased demand for quality eyewear that is durable and lightweight,” said Lynch, “our two core products of semi-finished clear and polarized subscription lenses are increasing in sales by 20 percent a year.”
In Dudley, 18 million lenses are made using 43 injection molding machines in four shifts that work 24/7 (except for one week shutdown for re-tooling in the summer). It takes three processes to mold, coat, and ink/package product for shipping to 100 labs in 85 shipments a month. Senior Human Resource major Katie Maciejewski said of her tour experience: “I was able to get a detailed look at what the day is like for a worker on the production floor and for the amount of product produced. Iit’s hard to believe it takes place just minutes from the College.”
Unique is the Dudley facility’s integration of quality and environmental systems which have earned much-coveted industry certifications, making Gentex one of the most progressive production facilities for the Paris-based, parent-company Essilor International, S.A., a worldwide leader in the ophthalmic industry with close to 33,000 employees.
“You can’t just cut and paste a work culture,” says Spitz. “You have to build it yourself. We hire for team players.” Team members on the Gentex production floor run reports, look at metrics and jot down results, with team supervisors acting as coaches. Teams meet for 10-15 minutes at the end of every shift, every day.
And Spitz and Lynch, who work hand-in-hand…every day, agree that the best ideas come from the people who run the manufacturing process. “It took a lot of hard work to be ‘best in class"', says Spitz, “and we still have some work to do, but we are on the right path.” She states that in 2010, she is focused on empowerment, helping workers understand their responsibilities for enhanced decision making.
Engaged employees develop high-level professional pride in their job and performance, and Dudley workers have clearly found their rightful place in the fabric of Gentex. “It was fortuitous to see that U.S. production is a long way from Frederick Taylor’s theories that workers are cogs in the assembly line wheel,” comments Moore. “'Made with Pride' in Dudley, Mass., has a whole new meaning for our students.”