In Search of Continuous Improvement

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 09.09.05

Ink companies and suppliers alike are utilizing Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, Total Quality Management and other process improvement systems to improve all aspects of their business.

Running a customer-centered, efficient business is essential in industry. Companies that are wasting precious time and resources while not providing consistent quality to their customers are in danger of losing their edge.

In particular, major international companies face challenges due primarily to their size. To be competitive, they have to run as efficient and quality-oriented a business as possible.

In recent years, a variety of management process systems have become popular. Six Sigma, named after the definition of achieving almost perfect quality in six standard deviations from the target, is the best-known of these systems. Motorola, General Electric, Ford, IBM, AlliedSignal, R.R. Donnelley and Sons and countless other major corporations point to successes resulting from implementing Six Sigma. Lean Manufacturing, Total Quality Management (TQM), ISO and other programs are also designed to improve business operations.

A few of the largest printing ink companies have taken notice of these successes, and are developing their own individual programs. Sun Chemical, Flint Ink, INX International Ink Company and Micro Inks have Six Sigma programs in place. Wikoff Color is utilizing Lean principles, and Color Converting Industries has created its own successful synthesis of TQM and Dr. Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints.

Selecting Six Sigma
Creating programs that emphasize quality are nothing new to the ink companies that are adopting Six Sigma. Sun Chemical had its Presidential Quality Initiative, Flint Ink its Quality Journey and INX International its INX Quality System.

What is new is the decision to use Six Sigma as the next step in improving processes, and with it, reducing waste and improving customer service.

“Six Sigma has the tools and techniques needed to further improve and optimize our processes,” said Jeffrey Gilbert, director of process improvement, publication division, Flint Ink North America. “It’s a natural evolution of Flint Ink’s Quality Journey, which began in 1988. With traditional quality improvement efforts, it may be 12 to 14 months before an organization sees results. With Six Sigma projects, it typically takes just four to six months, with quick wins coming even sooner.”

“Six Sigma is a proven technique for eliminating waste, improving quality and increasing customer satisfaction,” said Dr. David C. Hill, senior vice president, business improvement and chief technology officer at Sun Chemical. “The choice of Six Sigma was easy because it can be applied to everything we do in business, not just on the manufacturing side, but in administrative areas as well. These areas can have a major impact on customer satisfaction, from how we handle customers’ orders, through remittance, billing and even how phone calls are taken.

“The precursor to Six Sigma at Sun was our Presidential Quality Initiative, whose three main goals were to improve our measurement systems; reduce variation in our products and manufacturing processes; and enhance people development and training,” Dr. Hill said. “Six Sigma is taking these earlier efforts to another level, providing ‘power tools’ and a roadmap to exceed our previous gains.

“Six Sigma is a team-based, disciplined process for solving process issues, both operational and transactional,” Dr. Hill added. “Six Sigma is the culture of continuous improvement. It is the culture of Sun Chemical. So it is at the heart of our business. It enables us to gain insights to how our processes work and how to improve them. Six Sigma accomplishes all the former Presidential Quality Initiative objectives, but on an accelerated time schedule.”

“INX International has a strong foundation of quality systems, dating back to 1991,” said Rick Clendenning, INX International Ink Company’s president. “The INX Quality System is based on process improvement and Six Sigma methodology gives us the opportunity to take our existing quality system to a new level. With current practices and the new tools we will learn using the Six Sigma approach, we will continue driving improvements through our entire organization.”

While Color Converting Industries (CCI) is not utilizing Six Sigma specifically, its own program is similar in many respects.

“Employing management philosophies similar to Six Sigma has been critical to CCI’s healthy growth over the past several years,” said Shannon Barry Sheehy, director of business development at CCI.

Customer satisfaction is an important driver for Six Sigma and other process systems.

“The Six Sigma approach focuses on customer satisfaction as a key driver in the selection of projects,” said Janet Beasley, vice president, quality systems at INX International Ink Company. “INX International is committed to continued growth and realizes that continued growth comes from satisfied, loyal customers.”

“Sun also is working with customers to demonstrate the value add of Six Sigma with respect to our products and services, and to help our customers realize savings as well,” Dr. Hill said.

“Six Sigma is used to ensure we are maintaining the highest level of value, both for our customers and internally,” said Mr. Gilbert. “It is a process that helps insure consistently produced ink that always meets our customers’ requirements. It also provides the tools that can help Flint Ink solve customer’s problems. Finally, it supports a culture of disciplined process execution and data usage for decision-making.”

Moving Along in Six Sigma
Of the printing ink companies that are presently utilizing Six Sigma, Sun Chemical and Flint Ink are furthest along in the process.

“In 2002, all Sun Chemical executives were trained in Six Sigma,” Dr. Hill said. “We also trained almost 200 champions, 75 Black Belts and 100 Green Belts, all of whom are engaged in projects focused on waste, quality and customer satisfaction. We plan on doubling the number of Black and Green Belts trained in 2003. Sun has embarked on Phase 2, called Design for Six Sigma (DfSS), which emphasizes improving product commercialization.”

“Flint Ink began its Six Sigma implementation in August 2001 in the company’s publication division,” Mr. Gilbert said. “In October 2001, the division’s entire management group attended Six Sigma champion training. By the end of 2001, the publication division had created the structure necessary to utilize Six Sigma effectively, and an initial group of key personnel was identified to receive Green Belt and Black Belt training. As of November 2002, nearly 20 percent of publication division employees have received Six Sigma training. Five individuals are recognized Six Sigma Black Belts, while another five are recognized Six Sigma Green Belts. Currently, there are 22 Six Sigma projects underway in the division.”

INX International has recently started its process, with an eye toward having a program installed in-house.

“INX International has made the considerable strides in Six Sigma-like activities without having certified Black Belts in house,” said Ms. Beasley. “We will be developing an in-house program, and are currently interviewing Black Belt candidates and looking at getting some of our own quality systems people officially certified.

“We intend to start our official Six Sigma training and activities, by division,” Ms. Beasley added. “Within two years we expect to have all divisions involved in formal Six Sigma activities with multiple employees certified as Black Belts and Green Belts.”

CCI’s Unique Approach to Process Improvement is Paying Dividends
While Six Sigma has received numerous headlines and companies report successes utilizing it, there are more than a few other approaches to management processes. While Color Converting Industries (CCI) is considering using Six Sigma, the company is already well versed in process improvement.

“Though CCI is only currently exploring the merits of an official Six Sigma program internally, it does and has for many years strongly embraced the concept of continuous process improvement,” said Shannon Barry Sheehy, director of business development at Color Converting Industries. “Some internally jest that CCI actually stands for ‘Commitment to Continuous Improvement.’”

Specifically, CCI’s leaders have been influenced by Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s and Dr. Eli Goldratt’s influential works on management.

“CCI has long been a proponent of Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s Principles of Management, including TQM, and for the past five years, CCI has also adopted Dr. Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints,” said Ms. Sheehy. “The marriage of these two concepts and their subsequent execution certainly began with very strong commitment from CCI’s top management to implant these concepts integrally into the fabric of CCI’s culture. When used in combination, continuous process improvement and the Theory of Constraints provide both the process improvement aspect as well as the ROI component that are both prevalent in Six Sigma programs. In short, the management philosophies that CCI has been employing for five or more years are surprisingly similar to the Six Sigma programs that seem to be taking hold more recently.”

Because of CCI’s long-standing emphasis on process improvement, it has become an essential part of the company’s culture.

“CCI is in the ‘mature/implemented’ stage of integrating these philosophies,” said Ms. Sheehy. “These concepts have been in place for a relatively long period of time as compared to most Six Sigma programs, and they have essentially become part of CCI’s culture and day-to-day jargon/communication. And, rather than training all employees across the board, we have selectively trained strategic departments and personnel so as to maximize the return on these efforts, particularly in the TQM domain in more recent years.”

As an example of its successes, Ms. Sheehy noted that the company has achieved the following:
12 percent sales growth for five years beginning in 2001. Ms. Sheehy said that CCI enjoyed 10-plus historical years of 15 percent to 20 percent growth.
1 percent increase in income for five years beginning in 2001. Ms. Sheehy said CCI has overachieved this goal for 2001 and 2002.
Greater productivity from laboratory and technical resources. “CCI currently services $100 million in annual gross sales with the same number of technical personnel that it did at $44 million in annual gross sales,” Ms. Sheehy said. “Meanwhile, these same technical resources have developed more than 20 new commercially successful ink lines over the past two years.”
Reduced waste and variation in manufacturing. “CCI’s flagship plant currently produces at approximately 0.15 percent waste as compared to industry averages of 3.5 percent while product variation has likewise been substantially reduced,” said Ms. Sheehy.
Ms. Sheehy said that CCI has also been able to implement an array of initiatives, including:
20 percent improvement in plant Cpk (process capability) annually.
10 percent annual reduction in OSHA recordable injury rates as compared to the five-year average.
Continued commitment to ensuring that CCI’s product portfolio, while limited to liquid inks for packaging only, provides a very broad offering within that niche.
Monthly publication of financial results as compared to targets for all employees via CCI’s intranet.
Company-wide employee bonuses paid annually as a percentage of salaries.

Setting Goals
With a system such as Six Sigma, it sometimes seems like there are few limits when setting goals.

“We set ambitious goals in terms of productivity, cost efficiency and customer satisfaction,” Dr. Hill said. “You have to establish basic measures, such as efficiency vs. rework, how many times we have to go back to do something right, and cycle time – how long it takes to accept an order and get it into the system.

“Sun has set aggressive goals to improve our processes,” Dr. Hill said. “The first goal is to eliminate the cost of poor quality by eliminating defects. Another goal is to improve our products and services to delight our customers. Six Sigma will help us to meet these goals, and to remain the leading global supplier of printing ink solutions by eliminating waste, improving product quality and increasing customer satisfaction.”

“The philosophy of Six Sigma at Flint Ink is action, not charts and statistics,” Mr. Gilbert said. “Six Sigma is used strategically to reduce variation on key processes. It is used tactically on chronic complex problems, and it is used to create a culture where decisions are based on data analyzed by appropriate statistical methods.

“In 2002, the goals for Six Sigma were to implement the necessary training and infrastructure and to complete at least one Six Sigma project at each publication division branch,” Mr. Gilbert said. “In 2003 the goals for Six Sigma are to expand the program into other divisions of Flint Ink North America. We also expect to build an ROI that can support additional research and product development.”

Wikoff Color Utilizes Lean Principles to Improve Business
Six Sigma is not the only approach to take when searching for continuous improvement. Another system that has drawn attention is Lean Manufacturing. Lean principles focus on eliminating waste in all facets of a company, from production to finances to customer relations. It can be achieved in many ways, including reducing inventory and overproduction, providing more efficient floor plans to avoid waste of motion and time, improving machine schedules to avoid waiting and eliminating defective products by building quality into the process.

“In this economy you cannot rely on an increase in sales alone to sustain your business,” said Jennifer Snider, director of continual improvement at Wikoff Color Corporation. “Lean principles provide a common sense approach to problem solving and continual improvement efforts. Customer satisfaction and continuous improvement has been part of our philosophy for many years, so Lean was a natural progression for Wikoff.

“Wikoff is using a policy deployment process to establish corporate and down-line goals that ultimately reach the employees involved in the value-added activities of our business,” Ms. Snider said. “Our ultimate goal is to eliminate waste and non-value-added activities in all aspects of our business.”

Ms. Snider said that Wikoff’s employees have taken to Lean principles.

“The most amazing aspect of implementing lean principles has been the increased employee involvement in the improvement process,” Ms. Snider said. “As employee owners, we have additional incentives for making Wikoff successful. Lean tools have helped our employees take an even more active role in achieving our established goals.”
Ms. Snider said that Wikoff Color has done well with its Lean approach.

“We have been able to significantly reduce our inventory levels while still meeting our customer demand,” said Ms. Snider. “Additionally, we have experienced a shortening of lead times for some of our product lines.”

There is still more to come for Wikoff Color.

“Although we have already gleaned some of the ‘low hanging fruit,’ we consider ourselves to be at the beginning of our journey and understand the opportunity in front of us for realizing gains in several areas,” Ms. Snider said.

Project Benefits
Whether it is Six Sigma, Lean or other systems, companies that have programs in place are reporting benefits in areas ranging from cycle times to inventory. Some of these projects have been utilized to directly help customers.

Wes Lucas, chairman, president and CEO of Sun Chemical, said that Six Sigma has significantly increased the quality and performance of its products, particularly when it comes to enabling Sun Chemical’s people and customers to work together to solve problems.

“We have had several big successes with our Six Sigma projects,” Mr. Lucas said. “We have seen a substantial increase of the focus on data and facts to drive decisions. Our people are using this data to show the benefits of our products and services to our customers, and Six Sigma allows our people in the front lines to make decisions. This increased quality has enabled us to sell based on value of our products instead of price. Higher value in our products is good for us, for our customers, and for our customers’ customers. Even though ink represents only a few percent of our customers’ total cost, it drives a significant percent of their total value to their final customer.”

INX International and Flint Ink have also had success working on projects with customers.

“Using the quality fundamentals already in place and specifically, TPM tools, we have had successful projects,” said Mr. Clendenning. “One of our divisions joined forces with a major customer to standardize inks at multiple sites. This venture resulted in a big savings for our customer and more consistency for their customers, while creating efficiencies in our own processes.”

“From a customer standpoint, Flint Ink has recently teamed with a press crew to use the Six Sigma process in order to identify press settings that reduced the customer’s run waste,” Mr. Gilbert said.

Projects that focus on manufacturing often turn up benefits.

“In one division, a key manufacturing process was reduced from 14 hours to eight hours, resulting in improved cycle times,” Mr. Clendenning said. “Another project resulted in more than $100,000 savings in electrical costs, and there are two more manufacturing projects currently in process centered around a manufacturing stage or step in one of our major manufacturing facilities that will help us drive waste out while enhancing the end product.”

“The benefits have included quality improvements and cost avoidance initiatives,” Dr. Hill said. “Sun Chemical has identified key areas with high waste which are the focus of several Six Sigma teams. Sun has used Six Sigma to improve product quality in publication gravure and sheetfed inks. Finally, we have improved our asset utilization and realized significant savings in just our first year with Six Sigma.”

“By its nature, Six Sigma is a long-term program with results generally becoming apparent as multiple applications of the process begin to have exponential effects,” Mr. Gilbert said. “Measurable benefits are likely to be in terms of reduced operating expenses, reduced inspection time, reduced adds per batch, improved throughput, increased process flexibility and improved measurement precision. Initially, these efficiencies will help offset recent downturns in pricing and revenues and, further, provide some room for investment in new technology.”

Bringing Suppliers On Board
In order to ensure that their own quality remains consistent, ink companies will be looking to their key suppliers to deliver consistent raw materials. That may mean that implementing Six Sigma and other quality programs will be essential for vendors.

“Raw material consistency has a great impact on the quality of Flint Ink products,” Mr. Gilbert said. “The more consistent the raw material, the more consistent our inks. Improving raw material consistency not only improves product quality but also reduces costs for both the supplier and Flint Ink. It is a win-win situation. Flint Ink has assessed and quantified the impact of raw materials on our ink, and in 2003 will be initiating joint Six Sigma efforts with the appropriate suppliers.” “Sun plans to work closely with our key suppliers in 2003 to implement Six Sigma, thereby ensuring the consistency and quality of their inputs to our manufacturing process,” Dr. Hill said.

“INX International Ink Co. has systems in place to evaluate supplier performance,” Ms. Beasley said. “Since we manufacture many of our own intermediate materials used in our finished inks, our Six Sigma activities will be directed toward our major manufacturing sites and our strategic customers. We will also be helping our key suppliers with their own Quality Program and any Six Sigma activities they wish to work on together.”

Suppliers are Finding Benefits from Six Sigma and Other Approaches
The larger ink manufacturers are not the only companies implement Six Sigma and management process improvement programs. Suppliers are finding that it is good business practice to have Six Sigma and other programs in place as well.

Eastman Chemical Company and its subsidiary, Eastman Resins, have been involved in Total Quality Management and are now utilizing Six Sigma.

“Eastman Chemical just graduated our first wave of Black Belts, and we expect our projects from this wave will be completed in the first quarter of 2003,” said Azam Khan, a Black Belt working on a project at Pleasant Prairie, WI. “Our goal is to have our second wave of Black Belts begin in February.”

“Six Sigma is a corporate initiative of Eastman Chemical, which views it as the next logical step in our Total Quality Management journey,” said Roy Flores, site manager at Eastman Resins’ Pleasant Prairie, WI headquarters. “We see it as a very disciplined method to gain the results that we seek in manufacturing and our supply chain management. It gives us the a consistent way to select the right projects and the right people.”

Mr. Flores is among the substantial number of Eastman Chemical executives who have been trained as Six Sigma Champions. Champions help identify potential projects, clear roadblocks and ensure the necessary resources to the team. So far, the company’s first wave of projects has led to new approaches.

“We already have had benefits from our Six Sigma projects,” Mr. Flores said. “We have identified and are in the process of implementing improved methods for measuring yield stress and viscosity, and tack, which will give us tighter control of our raw materials and final products.”

“We look at each potential project based on how it impacts our customers or our internal needs, and weigh the projects accordingly,” Mr. Khan said. “It’s a great system if it is used correctly for project selection. Right now, we are mainly focusing on manufacturing projects, although we are also doing work on transactional improvements.”

As is the case with the ink companies, management has to be fully committed for the program to work.

“Eastman has done a very good job of getting people to buy into the program at the top levels,” Mr. Khan said. “If you don’t have the executive leadership driving the program and demanding results, it won’t work.”

With an eye toward becoming more efficient, Magruder Color Company has begun its own Six Sigma work.

“We have a consulting company with a master Black Belt working on cycle time and chemistry improvements for us, and in February, at least two of our people will be attending a Black Belt course and I’ll attend a Champion course,” said Evan Weissglass, vice president for Magruder Color.

Mr. Weissglass said that he believes the commitment to Six Sigma makes a major difference compared to other systems.

“Six Sigma is a tool to improve manufacturing, technical and marketing processes,” Mr. Weissglass said. “We had used CQI (Continuous Quality Improvement) for 10 years and we charted everything, but we did not make the gains we had expected. The difference with Six Sigma is the level of commitment, as you have a highly trained person dedicated full-time to solving specific goals with a measured result. Each project will be fully supported by top management.”

For Carroll Scientific, creating a synthesis of quality programs has proved to be a successful approach.

“At Carroll Scientific, we have a strong quality program,” said Dr. Nasry Rizk, director of marketing and business development. “It is not Six Sigma and it is not TQM. It is patterned after both, however. We understand the scope and the components of both programs. What we did was, we pulled from both programs what was suitable for our business model.

“In essence, our main mission is to use statistical techniques to continuously reduce variation in every process, in every department, not just manufacturing,” Dr. Rizk said. “To further support our endeavor, we will have a certified Green Belt in place by mid-2003.”

For printing ink companies, the emphasis on quality, efficiency and customer service has become an absolute necessity today. In order to deliver on these goals, the major ink companies are looking within at their own processes.

By utilizing the tools found in Six Sigma, Lean, TQM and other processes, these ink companies are hoping to save on cost, reduce waste and inefficiency, improve consistency and illustrate to their customers the value of the inks the ink companies are supplying.

If these goals can be achieved, the level of commitment and resources that are being utilized will indeed be time and money well spent.

Are Six Sigma and Other Programs for Everyone?
Everyone agrees that Six Sigma, Lean and other quality programs require significant resources and personnel to achieve their objectives. That may be fine for larger companies that have hundreds and even thousands of employees, but for smaller companies with fewer than 200 people, having full-time people committed to these programs is more difficult. Such is the case with Gans Ink and Supply.

“We’re too big not to be cognizant of the value and importance of these programs, but in reality, are too small to be in a position to commit major time and resources to their formalized implementation,” said Jeff Koppelman, Gans Ink and Supply’s president. “We do have a written quality assurance plan that conforms, in principle, to the documentation requirements prescribed by ISO 9002, but have yet to pull the trigger on certification.”

That does not mean that Gans Ink and Supply and other small companies are not committed to quality.

“I maintain that we, or any other company, can produce the industry's highest quality product on a consistent basis by using common-sense practices and procedures, that, by their sheer existence, create an environment of quality-consciousness,” Mr. Koppelman said. “Six Sigma, Lean, ISO, TQM, SPC, the Deming method and all those flavors-of-the-month in-between are extremely beneficial to the infrastructional strength of a company. However, none of them are successful if their components aren’t strictly adhered to, nor are they the panacea to a company’s ills. If they were, why would so many companies be shifting gears so often?”