Are You Maximizing the Benefits of Plant Tours?

“Almost everyone who leads, works for, or interacts with a manufacturing company can benefit from seeing a factory firsthand,” wrote David M. Upton and Stephen E. Macadam in their article, “Why (and How) to Take a Plant Tour” for the Harvard Business Review. “Plant visits allow managers to review a supplier’s qualifications, to share best practices with a partner, or to benchmark performance and practices. Shop-floor operators can assess another plant’s operations and apply what they’ve learned to their own factories.”

It seems like many people agree with Upton and Macadam. An internet search for manufacturing plant tours pulls up announcements of plant tours on websites ranging from the host manufacturing companies to local chambers of commerce to national industry associations.

In the plastics industry, Manufacturers Association for Plastic Processors (MAPP), which according to its website is “the largest grassroots organization in the United States plastics industry,” offers plant tours several times each year to its members. And, according to the following video, its members find the plant tours very valuable.

Featured in the video was Robert Clothier, Human Resources Manager for Team 1 Plastics, a plastic injection molding company for the mobility industry, and a member of MAPP. In a recent interview, Clothier shared his plant tour experiences. He said that Team 1 Plastics has participated in several MAPP plant tours, including hosting one in 2015, and has always found them very valuable.

Upton and Macadam cautioned, “Even people who know that plant tours are valuable can find it difficult to put them to effective use.” They then offered several suggestions of ways to enhance learning, including “make sure the right people are on the tour,” and “to keep an open mind. Much of the learning that occurs on a plant tour is unexpected.”

They also advised that you should “visit plants in different industries and to resist the immediate temptation to visit only plants ‘like ours.’” Clothier said he, along with Craig Carrel, President of Team 1 Plastics, did just that when they toured Cardinal Manufacturing. Cardinal Manufacturing is, according to its website, “a company within a school, where students learn about manufacturing and gain firsthand experience” – something that Team 1 Plastics is trying to develop with a local area high school.

Clothier said that he and Carrel work together to decide which plant tours they believe would be valuable to Team 1 and which Team Members they think would benefit from the tours. The descriptions of the plant tours on the MAPP website help with them with their decision making because the descriptions often highlight the focus of the particular tour.

For example, the description of the MAPP Young Professionals Plant Tour to Thogus Products in June 2018 included the heading, “Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement.” The focus of the event, according to the description, was “on understanding and benchmarking best practices in continuous improvement and employee engagement.”

As a member of MAPP’s Young Professional Advisory Board, Clothier said that he plans to attend all of their plant tours no matter what the theme is. “It’s not as if the tour is completely focused on just that area. Part of the benefit of the plant tours is how they structure them. They always have some time for networking in small groups.”

Clothier then shared that Team 1 has taken its plant tours experiences to a new level of value by participating in plant tour exchanges with two different companies, Plastics Components, Inc. (PCI) and Viking Plastics. The plant tour exchanges consisted of a handful of Team Members from Team 1 Plastics visiting and touring each of the two injection molding companies’ facilities. In turn, a handful of employees from each of the two companies came to Albion, Michigan, and took a tour of Team 1 Plastics’ facility.

The plant tour exchanges were suggested by Laurie Harbour, President and CEO of Harbour Results, a consultant for Team 1 Plastics. Clothier said that Harbour provided a list of companies she believed would be a “good cross fit between the two companies based on particular areas at which each company excelled.”

Team 1 Plastics reviewed the list and, ultimately, Clothier coordinated the visits with the two companies. “Both Viking and PCI saw the benefit of having a customizable plant tour,” and the tour dates were set up. Team 1 visited PCI in December 2017, and Viking Plastics in March 2018. Viking’s visit to Team 1 also occurred in March 2018. PCI toured Team 1 in August 2018.

Clothier said that the plant tour exchanges were much more customized and tailored than a MAPP plant tour. They built the tour agendas based on who (job titles/functions) from the other companies was visiting.

The agendas also included breakout sessions for networking and discussion. He added that information sharing flowed much more freely than at a MAPP plant tour. “When you’re in a setting of 12 people versus 80, you can be a little bit more candid and laid back. I met one-on-one with Wendi Jay, the HR manager at PCI. We had some good conversation about things that work well for us and what each of our challenges are.”

He then gave an example of a challenge that Team 1 was experiencing with an HR tool that both companies utilize, Culture Index, an employment profile survey. Clothier said, “It was helpful just to understand how they use Culture Index versus how we were using it.” This information sharing led Clothier to change how he uses the tool so that it adapts to Team 1’s culture more effectively.

Probably the greatest benefit to any plant tour is the new ideas that you collect and bring back to your company. Clothier said that when he is on a plant tour, he often snaps pictures of things that capture his attention and spark an idea. “I once took a picture of a training board that was different than mine because I liked some things about theirs and thought that I could add them to mine.”

The Team Members who toured Viking Plastics reported that they were very impressed that the tour was employee led and felt that it was a positive influence on both the company’s employees as well as their visitors. This observation sparked an idea of how Team 1 could implement employee-led plant tours in its facility, and Clothier said that this idea is currently in process of being implemented at Team 1.

Based on the success of these two initial plant tour exchanges, Team 1 Plastics is hoping and anticipating for more in its future. In fact, Clothier said that Carrel and he have discussed having them at least once or twice a year.

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