Top 5 Operational Practices of Exemplary Manufacturing Plants

In a recent IndustryWeek article1, Jill Jusko distills information about five years’ worth of IW Best Plants finalists and winners, from 2015 through 2019. Among the characteristics common to these high achievers, Jusko identifies five operational practices that stand out as key to the plants’ success. These can be seen as top-ranked advice for any manufacturer pursuing excellence.

1. Quality counts

One of the most prevalent techniques used for sustaining high quality by the Best Plants standouts is FMEA, failure mode and effects analysis2, which was developed to study problems in military systems. With this process, the components, assemblies and subsystems within a system are reviewed to identify potential failure modes, and to identify the causes and effects of those potential failures.

“Reduce Package Design’s Liability with Failure Mode and Effects Analysis,”3 a article by Sterling Anthony, walks readers through how FMEA can be applied to the systems concept of packaging, and applied specifically to the design component. Anthony asserts that FMEA can be used to tease out potential design failure modes and to consider their causes, to gauge the likelihood of failure modes, to detect and rank the severity of failure mode effects, and to plan corrective/preventive steps.

2. The team effort

At the IW Best Plants, empowered work teams, rather than supervisors, handle many or all of the plant-floor responsibilities. As Jusko put it, “The plant-floor population is the one closest to where the value-added work is getting done, and (are) the folks most likely to see the problems and conceive of ideas to make things better. Moreover, responsibility and empowerment helps beget ownership.”

The Best Plants allow work teams to have ownership for and take care of responsibilities such as quality assurance, training, safety review and compliance.

3. Train, train, train

Training is crucial at the Best Plants, whether in a classroom, online or on the job. Most of these manufacturers also take advantage of training via local colleges, with whom they often collaborate to create curriculum and set up equipment. Every one of the cream-of-the-crop manufacturing plants emphasizes cross-training as a key aspect of the overall training plan.

Hugh Alley’s bite-sized but jam-packed article, “High productivity gains: Achieve them with cross training,”4 presented a compelling argument for cross-training and addresses some of the common barriers to this practice. The argument? A cross-training project can deliver an immediate 10% productivity gain, boost the variety of experiences for employees, cut the risk of injuries and broaden the understanding of how seemingly discrete plant jobs are actually interconnected.

4. Everybody loves carrots

The majority of the Best Plants provide monetary rewards for performance, with individual performance rewarded at 75% of the plants and team performance rewarded at 83% of the facilities.

This one is a no-brainer: The potential for bonuses makes people perk up and step up. Who among us would turn down cash money for doing our best?

5. Organize

The majority of overachieving manufacturing facilities use plant floor techniques to speed production and foster flexibility. More than 80% of the Best Plants practice 5S and standardized work.

Jusko explained that with standardized work, the objective is “to provide operators with clear, documented instructions about how each job is performed, as opposed to having multiple operators using multiple methods. Moreover, standardized work is subject to continuous improvement, whereas a lack of standardized work makes improvement more difficult to accomplish.” 5S – Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain – is a technique for organizing a workplace that can boost productivity while revealing little problems before they become big headaches.

Jeff Sipes cited both 5S and standardized work in “How lean manufacturing stabilizes during disruptions,”5 on Sipes argues that lean manufacturing allows plants to remain grounded and productive, even during pandemics. The author describes 5S as a technique that is often the first initiative for lean manufacturing newbies, but a technique that usually remains at the core as organizations adopt additional lean practices. Once 5S has become established, wrote Sipes, “The 5S audit keeps the focus and the resulting scores drive desired behaviors. And now 5S has become a logical place to fold in any additional cleaning and arranging specific to minimizing (COVID-19) virus transmission.”

Sipes viewed standardized work as a positive touch stone, especially during disruptions like pandemics. “Given the severe consequences of spreading the virus, everyone needs to communicate expectations clearly and effectively. Visual management and standard work are part of the answer,” he wrote. “Standard work and standard work instructions help clearly define how a job should be done while reducing the risk for virus spread.”


1. Jusko, Jill. “You Don’t Stumble into Excellence.” Sept. 7, 2020.

2. Wikipedia. “Failure mode and effects analysis.”

3. Anthony, Sterling. “Reduce Package Design’s Liability With Failure Mode and Effects Analysis.” Dec. 2, 2020.

4. Alley, Hugh. “High productivity gains: Achieve them with cross training.” Dec. 15, 2020.

5. Sipes, Jeff. “How lean manufacturing stabilizes during disruptions.” March 1, 2021.