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Doing More With Less: How UW’s Lean Operations Transformed Nercon

UW-Madison's Jeff Oelke at Nercon.
UW-Madison program director Jeff Oelke at Nercon’s headquarters. (Photo by David Tenenbaum, UW Communications)

The biggest lesson Dan Bickel learned while enrolled in lean operations management courses at UW-Madison was how to do more with less.

“At any given time, we might have 40 jobs going through the production floor,” Bickel said. “Timing is very important for our business and making delivery dates.”

Bickel recently completed UW-Madison’s Lean Operations Management Certificate, designed to help manufacturing professionals understand operations strategies and gain supporting tools to improve company, division and value-stream performance. Bickel is the Vice President of Operations at Nercon, a family-owned business that produces conveyor systems for the food, beverage and personal products industries.

Headquartered in Neenah, Wis., with manufacturing operations in Oconto, Wis., Nercon has roughly 100 employees and profits $30 million in annual sales.

Many of their jobs are also inspected by customers, further driving the need for efficiency, Bickel said. “They run their product down our conveyors. They test it before they accept it.”

The Lean Operations Management Certificate focuses on strategies like Lean, Six Sigma and Theory of Constraints, which Nercon saw benefits from immediately.

“[From the first course,] We learned that we had a lot of obsolete inventory and stock,” he said. “Our value stream flow wasn’t very efficient. We had a lot of obstacles…and we could use a lot of improvement.”

Nercon now only manufactures to demand instead of holding inventory. “We’ve cut down on stock parts, labor and the chance of becoming obsolete.”

Bickel attended courses with Nercon’s owner.

“The top management should take the courses with the people who go to the program,” Bickel said. “The top management has to buy in. It’s very difficult to get the owner to buy in if he doesn’t believe in it. You need to invite the owner to take the courses as well. That’s the best way to do it.”

One course, “Increasing Productivity Through 5S and Visual Management,” was especially helpful for Bickel. The 5S’s (sort, set-in-order, shine, standardize and sustain) are the foundation for continuous improvement strategy.

The course got Nercon “off and running as far as organizing our shop and doing a more consistent, even flow. We got rid of all the obsolete inventory—we understood there was no value to [it]. That was the most meaningful—running small batches is better than running larger batches.”

Bickel said the ultimate goal is to do more with fewer resources at Nercon. “We need to do more with less personnel or at least more with current personnel. There’s a lot of tools you can get in these courses that will allow companies to do more with less. That’s something we all have to look forward to.”

One example of continuous improvements Nercon made were assembly stations.

“We’ve continually modified them since we started the class. We’re currently going through another stage of improving them to an even higher level. We’re starting to drive stock parts to certain stations. Instead of having everything on every station, we’re trying to drive the parts to the station where they are needed. More 3D designing and identifying all the components needed for that particular job.”

The courses also helped Nercon transform its shop floor layout–and even after that they’re ready to improve it again.

“We’re at a stage where we think we can make an even better workflow. We’re improving on the improvements we’ve made both in workflow, assembly stations, data transfer and 3D drawings for people to assemble and for engineers to visualize what they’re designing.”

The stations also set the stage for another transition. “One of the biggest things I see as a deficit in today’s world is people have a harder time visualize what they’re making without the 3D model. We’re moving toward 3D.”

Nercon has progressed significantly since Bickel’s continuing education at UW-Madison. He advised students to start out by taking one course and then following up with more after several weeks or a month. This way, students can absorb the information they learned and apply it on the job to make improvements. And, most importantly, students need to remember the context in which they’re taking the course. For this reason, Bickel plans to retake the entire series within the next year.

“Take the course, improve the facility. Take it again and now you’re starting at a different level so your focus in class will be a little different,” he said. “We started out at a relatively low level and got ourselves to the high level. You’re going to inch ahead and improve what you currently have, but not [everything].”

Nercon is not only committed to streamlining its operations, it’s also committed to attracting a new generation of workers. Nercon is very active with local schools, including offering internships and working with the Manufacturing Alliance. At the time of the interview, Bickel said he’d spent the night before filming a math video that would be shown to K-12 classrooms to illustrate how math is used on the job.

“We’re trying to get the word out that there are good, high-paying manufacturing jobs,” he said. “It becomes harder to find employees. Every manufacturer in the state is struggling with that.”

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