Survival of the Smartest
James Hopkins is a humble man. When a reporter uses the word great during an interview, he gently corrects her: "Our goal would never be to offer ourselves as a great company. We try to present ourselves as a good company that is honest and hardworking." When asked how Hopkins Printing differs from the competition, he responds, "We always assume they're better than we are. That way, we work harder." Hopkins's attitude is of a piece with the company's modest beginnings: He and his wife, Arnie, started it 36 years ago in their garage, while Hopkins worked at a plant that made tapered roller bearings. "I never went to college, and I think if you're self-taught, you believe everybody can learn," says Hopkins. "People always want to be better."
Commercial printing is a waning industry, but enthusiasm is waxing on the factory floor of Hopkins Printing. The reason is a cultural reboot that pushed employee skills and ideas to the forefront of what was once a more traditional top-down company. In the past two years, most employees have been trained in an additional one to two jobs and have implemented dozens of improvements that they devised. "We work smarter and help each other work smarter every day," says Mike VanAtta, a lead operator in the bindery and 19-year employee.
At Hopkins, roughly 95 percent of employees are trained in at least two jobs, and a large majority is versed in three. So plant workers operate gluing, shrink-wrapping, and stitching machines, and human resources staff also handle payroll and accounting. This deep cross-training allows workers to fill in for colleagues taking vacation and move among steps of the production process as order volume dictates. It also creates more opportunities for overtime.
The training is facilitated by standard work documents, a lean manufacturing tool that lays out the steps of each task in a couple of pages, so workers can absorb them quickly and refer back when necessary. At Hopkins Printing, employees write the documents, using the kinds of language and perspective familiar to colleagues who will train after them. "Often these training things are paragraph after paragraph, and you can get lost in them," says CEO James Hopkins. "This is employees talking to employees in the language they would normally use."
When new projects come into the bindery or other parts of the plant, employees set up workflow simulations "to reduce steps, reduce mistakes, and improve speed and quality," says Roy Waterhouse, Hopkins's president. "If we can remove 20 seconds out of a process that we'll be doing for six months, then it's worth it." Employees incorporate all such tweaks into their standard work documents and revisit those documents every year to ensure they haven't missed some opportunity to do better. They are also expected to recommend at least one new process improvement a month, for either their own jobs or—because they are cross-trained—someone else's.
The continuous learning initiative kicked off in 2009 as a reaction to a significant drop in revenue. The company returned to profitability in 2010, and as a result of cross-training, revenue per employee is up more than $10,000. That's good news for the work force in this 100 percent employee-owned company.
"Being able to do all these different things makes people here feel valuable," says VanAtta. "We use the adage, 'The guy with the most tricks in his bag wins.' "