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Continuous Improvement: General Cable’s Quest for Quality

July 1, 2011
General Cable takes a creative approach to better understand what causes defects.

Imagine a gyroscope the size of a midsize sedan spinning and whirling, winding together dozens of wires into a single cable, rolling it off the line into a cable running into infinity. Some of these cables are for data communication, others for control panels and industrial equipment, or for high-end military applications.

Each year, over half a billion feet of wire and cable are manufactured at General Cable’s Franklin, Mass., facility, in over 2,000 different varieties. Despite that volume and range of product, less than 1% of the wire and cable produced turns out to be defective.

“One of the things that’s helped drive the improvement has been understanding what’s critical to quality and what’s critical to the process and how those two elements interrelate,” says quality manager Rob Johnson, quality manager of the plant, which recently was named one of IndustryWeek’s Best Plants.

Since 2005, Franklin General Cable’s work order delivery has improved from 66% to 97%, while product quality, as measured using defects per million units, has improved from 15,700 to 6,959. Out of an estimated 50 million feet of cable produced in the month of August 2010, only 150 feet were scrapped.

Three years ago, in an effort to better understand the key causes that undermine quality and cause defects, Franklin General Cable instituted Pareto analysis tools, which take a more creative approach in studying complex problems. The Pareto reports were then distilled into more concentrated control charts and placed in highly visible areas at each workstation. The charts give operators step-by-step instructions for key issues to be aware of.

“They’re like CliffsNotes,” says Jim Clark, plant manager at Franklin General Cable. “They allow our operators to better understand the issues we’re seeing and what they can do when these issues crop up.”

Issues of quality are a focal point for every manufacturer. But at Franklin General Cable, dips in quality have acute financial ramifications, as materials represent 77% of the plant’s costs. “Material is like gold for us,” says Clark.

For all the specialized military cables produced in Franklin, nearly a third of its total production goes toward data communication. And they aren’t alone in this. There are more than a dozen manufacturers in North America that make data communication cables, along with a looming presence out of the Far East that is growing more sophisticated by the day.

“Essentially, cable is a commodity,” says Johnson. “In order to compete, performance quality and cost are key. Our whole process is lean and built for quality and getting all the variances out of the process.”

The success of the quality program in recent years has come in large part as a result of Franklin General Cable’s efforts in continuous improvement, which emphasizes the theme, “Create Your Own Destiny.” Plant leaders have transitioned toward a flexible workforce which can shift between several operations. More importantly, it’s a workforce that is increasingly self-directed and empowered to stimulate ideas.

Franklin instituted a tiered Lean Sigma training program that begins with hourly and salary workers who attend regular training sessions, participate in projects and are mentored by its Green Belts and Black Belts. In 2010 alone, the Franklin plant saved $4 million from these initiatives.

Peter Alpern is chief editor of MH&L’s sister publication, Business Finance, and a contributor to IndustryWeek. Learn more about the IW Best Plants program at