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ISO Collaborative = New Market Opportunities for United Plastics

"The Sales Department is making appointments with companies who would not even look at us before we had our certification. We are also looking to expand our business outside New England now. This has been a great and worthwhile adventure."
-- Joe Peter, President Universal Plastics

MassMEP's ISO 9001:2008 Collaborative was conceived as a way to make the certification more accessible to small and medium-sized manufacturers. The project brings four to eight companies together in a collaborative setting. The group benefits by learning from each other while sharing costs and ideas. The program takes members from the participating companies through the process of establishing or upgrading their quality management systems to the ISO9001:2008 standard through seven monthly meetings, on-site consulting days, and related homework assignments.

Universal Plastics, of Holyoke, Massachusetts, is a family run company of approximately 55 employees. For over 45 years they have specialized in custom thermoformed plastic, a process that converts plastic sheets into a variety of custom and detailed products. Universal was one of seven companies who participated in the first MassMEP ISO Collaborative in March 2011. The Collaborative was presented by the MassMEP and their partner Exolytic, and sponsored by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Universal Plastics decided to investigate ISO back in 1999 and hired Don Moreau to oversee the process. As Quality Assurance Manager and Director of Safety and Training, Don came from years of quality experience and had already assisted two companies thorough ISO certification. At the time, Universal recognized that their job shop status might present some unique challenges. Don had been making good progress on the company's documentation and on streamlining some procedures. When the recession hit three years ago, Universal put everything, including ISO, on hold to focus on day-to-day operations.

Customer Requirement for Certification
Mention from a new aerospace client that they were going to require all their suppliers to be ISO certified was the incentive Universal needed to reignite thoughts of certification. "We also hoped to do work for Volvo and Raytheon in the future, and neither of those companies will even look at you without certification," says company president Joe Peters.  "We recognized that still being in business in Massachusetts meant we were good, but if we were going to have a future, we needed to be great. ISO had to be part of our plan!"

Internally, Universal had Don to lead the ISO project and keep things focused and moving forward. He was well prepared in many ways but knew they could benefit from professional assistance in areas he was less familiar with.

Finding an ISO Partner
The company began to interview consultants and found that most were willing to "tell" Universal what they had to do or had to change in order to fit into the proper mold, an approach that made the process even more uncomfortable. Then, in January 2011, Joe Peters and Don Moreau attended a public event in Springfield where they learned about the MassMEP's ISO9001:2008 Collaborative and met Jim Saropoulos, who would be the program instructor. Universal Plastics knew that in order to grow as a company and continue doing business they needed to become certified and felt that the collaborative format might be just what they needed. They started the Collaborative in March, knowing that they had work ahead to transform some cultural perceptions about ISO. Employees understood the basics but changes to processes and procedures take time for people to adapt to. 

"When we heard about the ISO Collaborative, we were intrigued," says Moreau. "I had been involved with an ISO user's group at another company where we met once a month to share ideas. The collaborative process of idea sharing where it is not just quality people, but top-level managers and owners communicating their thoughts, seemed like a great concept! Consultants provide one solution - their way. The collaborative allows you to do your own thing and figure out how to make it work for you in your situation.  Getting perspectives from companies other than your own, helps get everyone involved and sends a message that the process is real," he adds. "There is a bit of peer pressure and you don't want your department to be the one who can't do the work!"

Putting Together the Collaborative
The collaborative forum ended up being a valuable resource to help Universal clean up their processes to get ready for ISO. It was also very cost effective for the participating companies, typically costing about half of what they would spend hiring a resource and tackling the preparation on their own.

There were seven companies in the first session; they committed to seven monthly workshops plus homework in between. While some of the companies had begun doing ISO previously, others had more to do or were starting from scratch. "The Collaborative allowed you to bounce issues off other companies going through similar situations and share experiences," says Don. "Like a support group."

For instance, Don was able to share a matrix tool with the group that they all found helpful, then as a team they made suggestions to make it even better.  "Everyone was on the same plane with different issues to work thorough," says Moreau, "and Jim Saropoulos was great at clearing up and synthesizing issues!"

Don suggests that 85% of all business is similar. It is the 15% that is different or unique about each business that makes it hard to address. The Job Shop is a different mentality since it is all about process and you need to find areas where processes can be standardized. This is where Universal needed help. "The collaborative process provided the tools we needed which could be customized for our own needs," says Moreau. "The way the Collaborative is put together almost any company could be successful if you follow the examples given in the curriculum!"

Even Naysayers Were Won Over
"I went to most of the sessions and Don attended all of them," adds Peters. "Each time we tried to include a person from the company who would be involved in the particular area we were addressing during that session, like purchasing etc. Over the seven months of the program, the naysayers began to come around. Training was happening on the shop floor and people were asking questions and getting involved."

"This opportunity came at just the right time for Universal," admits Peters. "When companies are struggling, staff members wear more than one hat and it is harder to make process changes because people can't give enough time. On the other hand, when times are good people are just too busy. The collaborative, running one day a month for seven months, required a smaller commitment of time which was manageable and easier to stick with. Being part of the group and having that peer pressure to do your work and contribute keeps participants motivated."  

Universal also utilized Jim outside the Collaborative to help them prepare for first round internal auditing.  He did informal audits at different points in the process to help Universal practice and prepare for the real thing. The amount of days typically spent on mentoring the audit stages is based on company size.

"Jim's manner is great. He makes positive suggestions rather than dictating to you," shares Peters. "He gives you the idea that you may need to look at something more carefully rather than just pointing it out and barking orders. And Jim always has a work around or an easier fix for some daunting problems!"

ISO Certification
During actual auditing for Stage 1, the auditor found a minor typo in a manual. This "finding" was addressed before Stage 2, which is when the auditor really gets into minute detail. Universal had no major findings, only one minor finding, and a few observations in stage 2 and was cleared to apply for ISO certification, which they proudly received three weeks later.

Universal Plastics has been ISO registered for about two months now.  They feel lucky to be precision manufacturers from Massachusetts citing the reputation in our country for New England's manufacturing expertise. ISO certification makes that even better. The sales team has been contacting both current and potential customers to inform them of the new status and making appointments with companies who would not even consider them in the past. Being ISO certified saves customers the time and money of having to do their own audits on Universal. Becoming registered also reduces the amount of paperwork involved in Universal's transactions with their aerospace clientele. Now, Universal Plastics looks forward to expanding their business outside New England, and perhaps, outside the U.S.

Top of Their Game
Moreau says, "We are a precision manufacturing company and people don't want to deal with you these days unless you are at the top of your game. We want to be world class manufacturers and ISO indicates that we are on our way." Peters adds, "In our segment of the plastics industry, there is a small minority of thermoform who are ISO certified and now we have that one-upsmanship.  We are top quality, quick turn-around, good price and we are right here in the USA! Our clients can call and talk with us about changes or concerns. This keeps us from having to worry too much about competing with China in our niche!"

"We haven't heard any negative feedback on the ISO collaborative process from anyone," says Moreau. "The routine of going out once a month and working with the group of other companies was all very positive. Working through the steps and challenges together to share notes and see what differences and advantages each of us experienced was really the way to go. Jim the trainer had a lot to do with the success. He is clearly the right person and personality for the task."

"Our ISO Certification has been a BIG source of pride for Universal Plastics and we don't get too many of these," says Peters. "We have put lots of effort into safety over the years and have seen great results, now we have done the same thing with ISO."

"Employees are taking a lot of pride in our certification like they did with our safety record - nobody wants to be the one to 'mess up' and let the team down. It is surprising to see the way opinions have changed," he admits. "The naysayers ended up rooting for us in the end. They were pushing the work to make sure we got it all done. Productivity has improved as people have gotten on board- it will certainly pay out dividends in time!"

"Nowadays everyone is so lean it is hard to get people out of their factories to talk about anything. It would be hard to find any topic of interest that would attract as much attention or be as beneficial as ISO Certification. The real advantage, especially for smaller companies, was that they could share the cost and Jim was able to teach 12 people rather than 2 people and help 7 companies at once rather than just one at a time. This had been a great and worthwhile adventure."
-- Joe Peters, President and CEO, Universal Plastics

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