Sausage making is art at Johnsonville. Corporate-wide maintenance excellence, fueled by strong management buy-in and a unique company culture, helps ensure this manufacturing success.

By Jane Alexander, Managing Editor

Embarking on a journey to maintenance excellence isn’t for the faint of heart, especially when multiple sites, diverse product lines, fast-paced processes, extreme environments, and stringent regulatory compliance are involved. To help ensure the success of its growing production operations, Johnsonville Sausage (Sheboygan Falls, WI) began moving toward corporate-wide maintenance excellence in 2009. Today, Johnsonville continues to embrace and nurture maintenance excellence—and appears to recognize its performance-improvement potential as a  value-added part of the company’s business model.

Most equipment and production areas at Johnsonville undergo rigorous sanitizing procedures every 24 hours (events that, in some cases, can span approximately six hours). The processes and high-pressure hot water used in these washdown environments can be a death knell for critical systems and, in turn, an especially difficult factor in their maintenance.

Privately owned Johnsonville Sausage manufactures a wide range of fresh, smoked, and fully cooked meat products for sale throughout the U.S. and in 40 countries around the world. To meet demand, the company employs approximately 1,600 individuals, known as “members,” in its operations, and typically runs three shifts per day in most of its five plants (four in Wisconsin and one in Kansas).

On its own, maintenance associated with so many different workplaces, equipment systems, and production schedules would seem daunting for any manufacturer. But Johnsonville’s plant-maintenance teams—comprised of multi-craft personnel at each facility—also routinely contend with other factors that can affect reliable operations, including:

human and equipment assets expected to continuously perform well in often hostile environments, i.e., from 40 F or so on several production lines down to –40 F in at least one area)

rigid sanitation measures and personnel-, process-, and product-safety requirements

varying packaging preferences, demands, and languages reflected in a global customer base, i.e., U.S., international, retail, wholesale, commercial, and institutional.

To an outsider, the breadth of what must be maintained at Johnsonville, and the conditions under which it must be done, seems overwhelming—from ovens to freezers to automated production lines and the many components and consumables required to keep them up and running (pumps, motors, drives, compressors, controls, electrical gear, seals, bearings, and lubricants). Most equipment and production areas are subjected to rigorous sanitizing procedures every 24 hours (events that, in some cases, take approximately six hours). The sanitation processes and high-pressure hot water used in these washdown environments can be a death knell for critical systems, particularly electrical components. In addition to each facility having its own maintenance team, tools and other gear used in one plant can’t be used in another.

These ongoing challenges might constitute a maintenance nightmare for other companies, but not at Johnsonville. Its maintenance-excellence efforts make sure of that. Keys to this success include:

A remarkable level of management support and a unique company culture (see sidebar) play vital roles in driving maintenance excellence throughout Johnsonville. How many companies, for example, would be willing to not only fund offsite technical-certification training for a single plant maintenance professional, but to also fund the same training and certification activities for the site’s maintenance planner?

Johnsonville’s teams also understand the underlying principles of maintenance excellence—it’s not a program to be “implemented,” but rather a level of performance to be “achieved,” and that best practices developed by one plant or team are to be shared freely among others within the corporation.

These days, it’s not difficult to find individuals from all levels of the organization who are eager to discuss the company’s maintenance-excellence journey and recount their personal experiences with it. John Wolf, a maintenance technician at the Meadowside plant, is among them (see sidebar). So are Kim Bassuener, the company’s engineering and maintenance reliability analyst, and Jason Yancy, its reliability and energy engineer. Bassuener and Yancy, in fact, were involved with the corporation’s maintenance-excellence journey from its beginning.

Bassuener joined the company in 2003 as a member of the packaging line at the Riverside facility. Yancy started in 2006 as a maintenance coordinator. In 2009, former engineering director Dale Arnold (now retired) tapped them, along with Dana Presley, who was then serving as global maintenance coordinator, to be part of a new Corporate Maintenance and Reliability Team. While their task sounded straightforward—bringing together five independent teams and moving maintenance excellence throughout the corporation—nobody expected it to be easy.

“How,” Bassuener worried, “were we to go about standardizing five separate teams that had been working independently for many years?“ They did it, though, and, in the process, helped draw a map the company still follows.

Other attempts at getting individual plant maintenance teams to work with each other had been made over the years—without much success. Bassuener noted such efforts require extensive time and dedication. Prior to establishment of the Corporate Maintenance and Reliability Team, these commitments were hard to come by in Johnsonville’s rapidly growing, increasingly busy production facilities. Plus, each maintenance team was accustomed to working its own respective strategy.

Privately owned Johnsonville Sausage manufactures a wide range of fresh, smoked, and fully cooked meat products for sale throughout the U.S. and in 40 countries around the world. The breadth of the equipment and processes that must be maintained in the company’s five plants, and the conditions under which it is done present special challenges. Here, smoked product cools prior to packaging.

Planning the journey

The new team began its work by trying to improve maintenance strategy, which first required performing individual maintenance assessments of the five plants. Those findings established a baseline for each facility and helped identify which functions offered the most opportunity for improvement. Johnsonville’s Maintenance Excellence Team—which included the maintenance coordinator (manager) and plant engineer from each of the five facilities and members of the Corporate Maintenance and Reliability Team—was created shortly thereafter.

All team members helped develop Johnsonville’s maintenance-excellence vision and mission. Bassuener said this was the first time the company had a maintenance vision.  Having that common goal was crucial in standardizing maintenance practices and defining responsibilities. Critical tasks and benefits were documented, along with metrics that could be used to evaluate improvements in key areas. As the business has grown over the past five years, some responsibilities have been re-evaluated and assigned to other team members.

Prioritizing improvements

The baseline maintenance assessment—incorporating 20 areas of focus with 300 data points—reflected feedback from every maintenance-team leader and member, and many operations-team leaders and members, “If maintenance and operations are going to be partners, working closely together,” Bassuener cautioned, “it’s necessary to get input from operations when evaluating maintenance performance.”

Reviews of the assessment data identified the following nine key improvement areas:

Planning and Scheduling

Preventive Maintenance and Lubrication

CMMS and Business System

Craft Skills Development/Training

Maintenance Strategy


Maintenance Performance Management

Predictive Maintenance

Operator-Based Maintenance.

Given the company’s vast product lineup, even something as seemingly simple as the application of package labels is considered a critical process in Johnsonville plants. Keeping these and other high-performance automated systems up and running as required is an important issue for maintenance team members.

Next steps

With priorities assigned based on assessment scores and potential benefit to the company, the Maintenance Excellence Team chose to concentrate on Planning and Scheduling, Preventive Maintenance (PM), and CMMS (computerized maintenance management system). “By focusing on these areas, Bassuener said, ”we would also see benefit in teamwork and maintenance strategy.” She shared these details of actions and results:

Planning and Scheduling. The maintenance planner/scheduler position was created to help maintenance teams become more efficient. The goal was to increase technician wrench time and quality of work performed.  Prior to establishing an official planner position, several plants had their own method of planning/scheduling work. Most had been using some type of Excel-based schedule exported from the company’s CMMS. An expectation was set for all new planners to receive planning/scheduling training through a specific third party, thus ensuring that they would all have the same knowledge base.

For planning and scheduling to be successful, everyone on a maintenance team needed to understand their responsibilities. One of the challenges Johnsonville faced when starting maintenance planning was resistance from technicians. According to Bassuener, they had been accustomed to planning their own work, ordering their own parts, and scheduling the work for when they wanted to do it. “Now they were being asked to give up that control and let someone else plan and schedule their work.”

Yancy said, while planning and scheduling has been “one of the biggest struggles,” it’s moving in the right direction. He recalled meeting several years ago with what, at the time, were the 12 or so members on the Riverside plant-maintenance team.  “A guy on third shift,” he said, “departed shortly after the maintenance-excellence journey began, leaving us with the choice to put another wrench on the shift or turn someone into a planner/scheduler.” Presented with those options, the team unanimously decided that creating a planner/scheduler position was the way to go, versus replacing the mechanic on the floor.

“Even one of the most senior guys on the team, someone who had not yet bought into the maintenance-excellence concept, agreed that this was a way to work smarter and, accordingly, make everyone’s job easier when it came to ensuring uptime.” More of that attitude, Yancy said, can be seen in today’s plants.

Although Bassuener and Yancy admit that the Maintenance Excellence Team still has some work to do on the planning and scheduling front, notable best-practice results from one Johnsonville plant will make it easier to implement at other sites. Andy Scheutte, first-shift maintenance lead at the Riverside facility, was happy to discuss this success.

According to Scheutte, the pictorial job plan forms developed by Riverside’s planner/scheduler Chad Pennings are saving substantial time and effort for the plant’s maintenance team. Pennings provides details on the job plans, along with pictures to ensure that technicians, whether experienced or new to the job, can perform the required task. This approach helps newer technicians complete work orders on their own without needing an experienced technician to walk him/her through the task. Scheutte also explained that these types of job plans are beneficial for experienced technicians as they highlight critical or easily missed steps in a task.

Johnsonville’s Maintenance Excellence Team identified PM (preventive maintenance) optimization as one of its key improvement opportunities. An early series of formal PM-optimization events in the plants quickly led to notable returns in terms of reduced PM hours. Today’s events are shorter versions of those earlier multi-day sessions. That’s because maintenance personnel now look for ways to improve PMs as they perform them.

Preventive Maintenance. Planning and scheduling helped improve Johnsonville’s preventive maintenance (PM) by ensuring that work is scheduled and completed as needed. The next opportunity, according to Bassuener, was in how PM instructions had traditionally been written: very basic, without enough information for technicians to understand what was expected of them. Moreover, many non-value-added tasks were often included in these instructions. “The solution,” she said, “was PM optimization.”

PM optimization involves input from maintenance personnel, machine operators, and other technical experts. At Johnsonville, these individuals now meet to review each task on a PM instruction and determine the value of doing it. “After the first event at each plant, which was led by an outside facilitator,” she said, “we averaged a greater than 10% reduction in estimated annual PM hours.”

Bassuener observed that personnel involved in the company’s first PM-optimization activities are now facilitators for ongoing events at Johnsonville. A rotating schedule for which equipment undergoes such optimizations is in place, and participants look into the PMs of any equipment that has unusually high downtime. “These events also help identify modifications we can make to the machines to prevent future failures” Bassuener said.

It’s important to note that today’s PM-optimization events at Johnsonville are shorter versions of the first multi-day sessions. That’s because maintenance personnel now look for opportunities to improve PMs as they perform them. This approach is becoming increasingly apparent across the Sheboygan Falls campus.

A prime example is what happened after Yancy learned formal lubrication procedures weren’t in place for critical gearboxes on a Countryside production line. A pilot program of regular lubrication-PM “walks” has since been launched, incorporating the use of best-practice procedures with standardized lubrication carts. The plant expects the return on this modest investment to be considerable.

PM optimization also involves other elements associated with maintenance operations. For Johnsonville’s facilities, that includes streamlining inventories of parts and equipment. In a gearbox standardization move, for example, the Countryside plant managed to reduce the number of gearbox types it uses and stocks for certain equipment from 16 to four. Angela Gibson, Countryside’s inventory-control specialist, also worked with the site’s maintenance team to develop a standardized kitting program for a wide range of equipment PM jobs.

Maintenance-excellence efforts at Johnsonville call for sharing best practices or solutions developed or applied at one plant with others across the corporation. An example is using predictive technologies such as ultrasonics (shown here) to assess equipment and component health and identify problems before they occur. Strong management support has been a key driver in the plants’ adoption of these types of technologies and approaches.

CMMS. Bassuener explained that tremendous effort during the past five years has gone into implementation of a new CMMS at Johnsonville, since capabilities and use of the company’s legacy system varied greatly among the five plants. Based on evaluation of available systems and the company’s particular requirements, SAP turned out to the best fit, given the fact that it would allow integration of other business information.

The CMMS implementation team consisted of an IT lead, a business lead, and three others. Additional resources (ABAP programmers or BW specialists) were brought in as needed. Because of the implementation team’s small size, the new system went into service in phases—launching in one plant at a time and providing two weeks of training with all affected members and two weeks of 24/7 on-site support services. “Maintenance technicians,” Bassuener said, “helped test the system and provided feedback that served as the basis for adjustments.

Today, with every Johnsonville facility operating on the same CMMS, Bassuener and Yancy said it’s easier to run KPI reports and compare the reliability of like equipment between plants. Among other things, a common CMMS has also given Johnsonville’s plants the ability to share materials and parts, thus allowing the company to reduce inventory levels.

Despite the challenges that Johnsonville’s manufacturing processes and environments pose, the company’s Maintenance Excellence efforts have  produced notable results thus far. But the journey is not over. According to Bassuener, Johnsonville’s 2015 Maintenance Excellence efforts focused primarily on technician training, operator inspections, and predictive maintenance. The company has purchased a computer-based training program for technicians, and the five plant maintenance coordinators are working to develop individualized training plans for their respective personnel.

Bassuener noted that several Johnsonville plants are now using SAP to track completion of operator inspections. “We’ve also started using ultrasound and thermal imaging technologies on some of our equipment, “ she said “Our plants have invested in sending members to training and are realizing the benefits of these technologies.”

Jason Yancy agrees with Bassuener regarding the journey thus far and moving forward. He adds that Johnsonville Sausage is the number one company in its market for a reason: “We invest in what it takes to do things right,” he said. That clearly includes maintenance excellence. MT

Johnsonville’s Company Culture: Growing Success

The role of Johnsonville’s unique culture in the company’s successful journey to maintenance excellence can’t be overstated. There are no employees at this company, much less bosses (or people to be bossed). All personnel are referred to as “members,” and managers are typically referred to as “coaches.”

Every member, regardless of his or her role or responsibility, is encouraged to offer ideas for improvement—and those ideas will be seriously considered and frequently implemented.

Johnsonville’s philosophy is simple: It grows members to grow the company. Not vice versa.

Driving Predictive-Maintenance Excellence

Johnsonville members John Wolf (left), a maintenance technician at the Meadowside Plant, and Fred Schneider, the site’s maintenance planner/scheduler, have helped champion the use of predictive technologies.

John Wolf likes to highlight his own positive experience on Johnsonville’s Maintenance Excellence journey and the support that company management has provided for it.

A millwright by trade (40+ years), Wolf is a maintenance technician at the Meadowside plant, where his enthusiasm for predictive maintenance led him to champion the use of ultrasonic technology. Johnsonville, in turn, funded training not just for Wolf to receive his Level 1 Certification, but for Meadowside’s planner/scheduler Fred Schneider as well. The rationale was that a maintenance planner should know what tools the technicians use in their work and how they use them.

Leveraging his ultrasound equipment and training to monitor motor bearings on Meadowside’s ovens, Wolf began to predict failures in these components before they occurred.

Later, having determined the root cause of certain impending failures to be associated with recently added variable-frequency drives, he helped a supplier identify the installation of grounding rings as a way to prevent future failure events.

Today, Wolf uses ultrasound to establish when to lubricate oven bearings and to prevent over- and under-greasing. These improved approaches are providing significant payback in terms of equipment and process reliability.

In the meantime, Wolf continues to laud the use of ultrasonics and other predictive technologies at Meadowside. And the company continues to invest in training on such technologies for others on the team.

Maintenance Done Right

As one of the original members of Johnsonville’s Maintenance Excellence Team, reliability and energy engineer Jason Yancy, has a deep appreciation for the challenges his company has faced on its journey. Asked about the current multi-crafts-profile of the plants’ maintenance teams (with experts generally found only in the refrigeration areas), he acknowledged the model could be difficult to maintain as the company grows and technology advances.

“Trying to build the perfect maintenance person is tough,” he said.  “Everyone needs to know a certain level about everything, meaning the basics of hydraulics, pneumatics, PLCs, controls, vision systems, electrical, machining, metal detection, and x-ray systems. But we can’t expect everyone to be a mile wide and a mile deep in all of these technologies. Some of our members will be going deeper in some areas in the future.”

Yancy gives enormous credit to Johnsonville’s management and culture for the success of maintenance excellence across the organization. That includes encouraging individual members to step forward with improvement ideas, keeping them in the loop as those ideas are nurtured and often implemented—or letting them know why some aren’t. “This,” he observed, “helps educate members and elevate the understanding across the organization of what it takes to implement new ideas.”

As Yancy described it, Johnsonville’s company culture helps drive improvements in other interesting ways, citing the fact that it’s easy for everyone on a maintenance team to view their department’s budget at any time. Staying on budget, he said, could translate into improved uptime. “Knowing that they are coming in ahead of their respective budgets, however, reminds our teams that they’ll have more money to implement even better solutions going forward.”

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