A Standard Even Tighter than Six Sigma

Feb. 15, 2012
When it comes to customer disappointments, the only number low enough for Swagelok is zero.

Best-in-class organizations not only embrace proactive network and tactical transportation design, but they also take that notion beyond the traditional practice of treating it as a one-time problem-solving or annual event. They maximize risk mitigation effectiveness by enabling it as an ongoing, continuous process and by designating network design as an established, staffed function within their organizations.

By definition, Six Sigma is a pretty tight level of quality, but for Swagelok, Six Sigma isn’t quite good enough. At Swagelok, a manufacturer of tube fittings, valves, regulators, hoses and other products used in fluid system solutions, the threshold is zero, as in Zero Customer Disappointments (ZCD), a key metric the company uses to measure the performance of its lean supply chain program.

“ZCD was first articulated about six or seven years ago, when we started focusing on customer disappointments,” explains Michael Neff, vice president, operations, at Swagelok’s main plant in Solon, Ohio. “We realized that we wanted to get to zero, not just Six Sigma, but zero.”

“If the customer is disappointed, that’s bad, no matter where in the process the disappointment happened,” adds Jay Nordholt, director of the Fitting Services Group. “The product itself might be perfect, but if something else went wrong—even if it’s an installation or MRO problem—it’s still a disappointment. The only number that’s ‘good enough’ is zero.”

Swagelok’s products are often used in high-risk environments, such as oil and gas production, chemical processing and even in nuclear submarines, so their tubes and fittings have to work all the time, every time, with no margin for error or customer disappointments. “It’s a life-or-death issue for some of our customers, so it’s important that all of our associates understand how the customers are using our products,” Neff says. That process starts with communication.

“From Day One, everybody who works at Swagelok learns and knows that focus on customers is important,” says James Francis, vice president, human resources. What’s more, the company heavily emphasizes its six core values, beginning with customer focus but also including quality, integrity, respect, continuous improvement and innovation.

Swagelok’s safety initiatives reflect all of the company’s core values, and associates are rewarded for proactively responding to safety issues. As part of the company’s continuous improvement culture, supervisors regularly lead their teams through CEDAC (Cause and Effect Diagram with the Addition of Cards) meetings. “CEDAC puts responsibility on the associates to identify problems and come up with solutions,” Neff explains.

These kaizen-like events encourage associate problem-solving on the shop floor. One such event led to the design of an electric hoist that removed the burden of an operator bending and lifting metal filters several times a day. This solution ended up as Swagelok’s entry in the international 2011 Ergo Cup competition for ergonomic innovations.

In fact, safety is part of what Swagelok refers to as its “manufacturing cadence”—four operational drivers that every associate is accountable to: safety, quality, service, cost. These drivers can be seen throughout the plant in visual displays, and are reinforced verbally in daily CEDAC meetings, monthly shop talks and quarterly business reviews.

Swagelok has 14 manufacturing plants in northeast Ohio, and associates are trained so that they can work in any of the plants. Each plant has the same metrics and adheres to the same core values. Thanks to the company’s investment in cross-training, Swagelok is able to flex its labor force as needed, which enables it to maintain a no-layoff philosophy.

Swagelok is one of the 10 IndustryWeek Best Plants winners that will be recognized at the IW Best Plants Conference, April 23-25, 2012, in Indianapolis, Ind. Go to for more information.

About the Author

Dave Blanchard | Senior Director of Content

During his career Dave Blanchard has led the editorial management of many of Endeavor Business Media's best-known brands, including IndustryWeek, EHS Today, Material Handling & Logistics, Logistics Today, Supply Chain Technology News, and Business Finance. He also serves as senior content director of the annual Safety Leadership Conference. With over 30 years of B2B media experience, Dave literally wrote the book on supply chain management, Supply Chain Management Best Practices (John Wiley & Sons, 2021), which has been translated into several languages and is currently in its third edition. He is a frequent speaker and moderator at major trade shows and conferences, and has won numerous awards for writing and editing. He is a voting member of the jury of the Logistics Hall of Fame, and is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

Latest from Facilities Management