American Greeting Wraps Up Success with Pal’s BEI

logo_home_10edfeb[1]When plant manager, Scott Crawford, sped into the American Greetings (AG)  warehouse in a Bristol Motor Speedway pace car, the crowd of associates assembled there strongly suspected that the workday would not be business as usual, and they were right. This event marked the day that employees of the largest printing and converting facility for gift wrap in the world would declare a race to beat their own records, that of their competitors, and, in the process, win the battle against outsourcing. As he stood in the amazed crowd of over 700 associates, Jon Reynolds, traffic manager in the material movement department, observed that in his 14 years at the plant he had never attended a gathering of the entire workforce and he knew that this was also a first for people who had been employed there much longer. “I think that our plant had never tried to work on a common goal,” agreed Scott Felts, production department manager, “This brought everybody together.” The day, April 16, 2007, marked the grand kickoff to the Greeneville 200, a 200 day  Racing Event that was designed with  a lot of sweat equity and brainpower from a devoted steering team . . . yet it was only the beginning. 

“It’s always Christmas here,” says Reynolds, describing the AG plant in Greeneville, Tennessee. In fact, hourly associates work from seven to nine months out of the year in this seasonal plant, printing, converting, and packaging millions of rolls of Christmas wrapping paper annually! So how did the manufacturers of a product that makes gifts festive for people around the globe come to gather at a stage decorated with a NASCAR race theme? It began when several managers attended a workshop  called Accelerated Continuous Improvement (ACI) taught by Russell Justice, a specialist in applying quality management and positive behavioral principles in the workplace. Justice developed the 10-step process that he describes as the “fully blended mix of TQM methods and applied behavioral analysis,” an approach that was instrumental in earning Eastman Chemical, from which he has since retired, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. “This approach  is the best known method in the world today to accelerate improvement,” says Justice.

 Accelerating improvement was the goal of the first group of AG representatives who attended Justice’s workshop  at the PAL’s Business Excellence Institute in Kingsport, Tennessee. Pal’s Sudden Service, a quick service restaurant chain based in Kingsport, won the Malcolm Baldrige award in 2001, and as part of the award’s mandate to pass on excellent business practices, created the institute which has been attended by hundreds  of people (from organizations of all types,) who want to learn from the exemplars of business success.  Felts attended one of those early sessions and tried the 10-steps in his department: pinpointing an area for improvement, measuring, studying the processes, establishing a baseline, setting goals, creating an action plan, and providing feedback and reinforcement.  He admits that at first he bit off more than he could chew by starting too many projects at once. That’s when Justice asked him, “What’s keeping you up at night?” setting him on a path of simplification with the advice of never graphing something that involves using a calculator. Felts followed his lead. “It was phenomenal how the productivity in my department took off,” he said. “That was really when a lightbulb came on for me. You make performance visible on something that your crews have ownership of and relate to, give them feedback and positive reinforcement, and then you can almost stand back and watch!” 

Proponents like Felts saw the improvement that the process made in their individual areas but it wasn’t until Scott Crawford came on board as plant manager that the effort to apply the process to a plant-wide pinpoint took firm hold. Crawford, an admitted skeptic at first, agreed to attend an  ACI workshop  and emerged convinced that this was the way to run the facility, and eventually the other five U. S. AG plants. Today Crawford states, “We now have a workforce that I consider engaged and empowered. We listen to people a lot more now that hadn’t been listened to in the past. The facts speak for themselves.” 

The facts are that the entire plant aligned behind a goal of implementing process improvements that impacted the measure of feet of gift wrap  printed and converted (into smaller rolls and then packaged) for every dollar spent plant wide.


The cross-functional Step 10 Team (STT) selected the NASCAR theme because of the many regional fans of the sport. They also reasoned that the requirements of a winning driver matched those required of their team members: skill, speed, accuracy, innovation, safety, and teamwork. Individual departments discovered a carload of meaningful ways to link-in to the pinpoint of feet per dollar . Their data was then rolled into a plant-wide measure that was calculated and revealed every WINSday, a day when associates were encouraged to wear their official 200 Days of Racing T-shirts.  These T-shirts were earned by signing the racecar banner as an official crew member on kickoff day.  “We told our partners, vendors, and customers who came to the plant,

‘You’re a part of our success too and invited them to sign the banner, and receive a T-shirt as well,” says Reynolds.


Divided into 29 weeklong races, the Greeneville 200’s overall feedback board consisted of three cars on a giant racetrack: a green car represented the current year’s actual feet per dollar racing against the yellow car (current year’s budget), with the red car representing the actuals for the prior year. Everyone became so involved with winning the races and the plant achieved so many milestones that AG next used an Indy-style racing  theme with a few added twists and turns as they finished even more achievements the following year.


The racetrack scoreboard at the plant entrance roadway which shows which car won last week’s race, a checkered racing flag painted on the foyer floor (Victory Lane), link-in measurements and graphs regularly posted, weekly overall  feedback broadcast on the closed-circuit AGTV, sights and sounds of a racetrack funneled over the public address system, graphs representing department/workgroup efforts, and regular celebrations accented with creative racetrack theme reinforcers: all contributed to the incredible ongoing wins of the plant that continues today.


The original nine-member steering committee received the company-wide Chairman’s Award for their involvement in the effort and graphics designer Garry Renfro recently received that same annual honor for his creativeinput on tying the crucial elements of the theme together for the organization. With the racing theme putting every associate in the driver’s seat, the rubber really met the road with each associate taking responsibility for two jobs: 1) doing things the best known way today, and 2) finding a better way to do them tomorrow. “Real continuous improvement happens at the frontline, at the departmental level,” says Reynolds. “Effective continuous improvement requires positive reinforcement which creates discretionary effort. When we go into this race every day we want to win. The improvements we made in this effort have tipped the scale back towards producing in the U. S. I think the message is that we’ve won that race!” And the data (just a few of which are listed below) back that assertion: 


·         30 percent reduction in press changeover time

·         51 percent reduction in converting changeover time

·          Intercompany lead time reduced by one week

·         Scrap paper reduced by over 36 percent and liquid waste reduced by 47 percent

·         Over $200K reduction in carrier costs

·         Total recordable rate (TRR) reduced 41 percent via Safe Production Teams

·         And overall, an  improvement  of  17.5 percent  in feet per dollar over the plan


 As word spread about the Greeneville plant and other parts of the company wanted to know more, Crawford arrangeda workshop with Justice in Nashville for key leaders  of other American Greetings facilities. Those leaders have since completed ACI  workshops at their own plant locations and are implementing impressive improvement applications of their own.


Crawford’s vision of Accelerating Continuous Improvement throughout American Greetings by unwrapping the power of the people has become a reality.  Passing it forward, Crawford and team members have even met, as mentors, with other local business leaders.  “We’ve saved millions of dollars that point straight back to this process,” says Crawford. “It really wasn’t magic; there’s a science to it and it worked out perfectly.”