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Plant tours: 
How often is enough?

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WMCO by Mike Baker
Mike Baker is the Chief Executive Officer of the Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario. He can be reached at: mbaker@wmco.ca
How often do you have a chance to see another manufacturing operation that makes a similar product to yours? How often do you get to see a manufacturing operation making a different product than yours?
There’s lots to learn on both fronts. You should be getting into another plant at least four times per year- every quarter at least; to keep you and your team critically thinking about your operations; always looking for ways to improve. And it is good to get in diverse operations across all of the wood segments: cabinetry, commercial millwork, furniture, and other wood component manufacturing. Often the best ideas come from plants that make a different product from you. WMCO plant tours happen at least four times per year, sometimes five depending on availability, and they are free. They do not cost anything extra for members.
What are some of the ways to optimize the opportunity of a plant tour? External benchmarking (comparison of what they do to what you do) is the exercise you must take, and WMCO focusses on two main themes: best practices, and a host challenge that leads to a Kaizen (continuous improvement problem solving) discussion.

Best practices
It’s always uplifting to see a company do something really well. Plant tour hosts like to show what they do well, as they and their employees are proud of their accomplishments. It is very rewarding for them to get recognition from their peers. Best practices are also nuggets of value for you full of ideas you can take back to your plant and see how you may adopt the idea in some fashion to reap you rewards as well.
Best practices can be anything that the host considers to be a strength in their operations, and it can be anything from very simple to the complex. Examples of simple ones are plant visuals, work space organization and housekeeping (5S), morning meeting structure, and visual inventory management. More complex can be digital integration from CAD to ERP, paperless workflows, parts tracking systems, automation adoption and integration, and automated finishing processes.
It’s always good to look around at the employees to get a sense of culture by their behaviours and tone of their demeanor and body language. How busy do they look? Are they happy to see you? How does the host culture compare to yours? What are they doing (or not doing) that you are (or not)?

Host challenges
WMCO members who host tours have the choice of offering a challenge to the visitors that they are experiencing and solicit feedback and suggestions during a debrief discussion after the tour. This is often the best part of the tour, where ideas flourish from outside eyes providing rich discussion and take-away ideas as common solutions to unique problems. Members ask the host questions about why something is done a certain way, or why an employee was doing a certain task in a certain manner.
Host challenges take many forms. Examples include through-put challenges and bottlenecks, to finishing quality to lean initiatives, to employee engagement and ERP implementation. Some have included the front end of the value stream in administration where often bottlenecks take place before production. Equipment optimization is another and challenges with employee training, recruitment and retention are others. All of these themes have driven valuable solutions and takeaways at the WMCO Plant Tour events. The discussion is facilitated by WMCO staff so it stays on track, nurtures participation, and keeps the discussion moving.
Industry clusters harness the synergies of competition to raise the capabilities of an industry’s performance, to become globally competitive. The fact that this applies to both suppliers and manufacturers, amplifies the value of cluster networks whereby the individual manufacturer can leverage the knowledge, skills, and abilities of those around them to improve and thrive. While initially counter-intuitive to traditional competitive mindsets, over 400 industry clusters exist in the EU alone. Canada’s main competitors in our industry, such as Sweden, Finland, and some eastern EU countries, have been leveraging clusters for over 30 years. Sweden and Finland alone each have three established wood industry clusters. Those clusters inform the government on policy to assist their industries and execute government programs for their members. One additional unique feature of industry clusters is they recognize the need for benchmarking and learning from other industries outside their own.

WMCO’s most recent tours:
Windmill Cabinetry, Chatham, November, 2023
ONbord (cabinet door manufacturer), Mississauga, January
Toyota Canada, (Cambridge Lexus Plant) February
Belair Office Products, London (Office Furniture) May

Upcoming WMCO 
Plant Tours:
Milestone Millwork, Niagara Falls (Commercial Millwork) Aug. 29
CCW Millwork, Waterloo, (Commercial Millwork) Nov. 14
Host TBD: Jan. 30, 2025
Toyota Canada: Feb. 2025

Why Toyota?
The Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario (WMCO) has been actively engaging the Toyota Production System (TPS) as one of our themes for programming and change for our industry. Our members have used it as a model for continuous improvement and eliminating waste for the past 12 years. The TPS system was initially responsible for the success of Toyota in the ‘70s to emerge as a leader in the automotive industry ahead of the likes of GM, Ford, and Chrysler. The discipline, which is based on creating a culture of empowering their employees while following a systematic disciplined approach, has been adopted across industries far beyond the auto
sector. The TPS, also known as Lean Manufacturing principles, has been applied to health care, education, and the pharmaceutical industry. Recently, WMCO has begun a path for wood manufacturing companies to apply the principles to the office and administration functions (Lean for the Office).
Plant tours are one of the most valuable opportunities open to you. Ask yourself how often do you take the time to look outside your operations? Hosts of tours want to learn too, and are open to sharing what they do well, and gain insight to their challenges, just like you do.
External benchmarking is extremely important for our industry if we are to become globally competitive and thrive in an ever-changing marketplace. The ecosystem of manufacturers who are on the same journey allows you to compare and benchmark with your peers; this is part of the value of cluster networks.
The WMCO and its members welcome you to join in the journey to being the best you can be. Non-Members are welcome to attend as our guest at WMCO tours anytime.
Get involved now with the only cluster for the wood industry in Canada.
You can learn more here: 
www.wmco.ca, or contact us at mbaker@wmco.ca

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