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Pit crew helps Kodak race against waste

Ben Rand
Staff writer

(August 13, 2004) — Eight men in yellow overalls and helmets leap into action as the race car screeches to a stop in front of a makeshift Jersey barrier.

In a sudden explosion of energy, the men swarm the car and give it a complete makeover: Four new tires, 22 gallons of fresh fuel, a clean windshield and, if needed, other adjustments. Just 13 seconds later, far less than a typical television commercial, the car's driver punches the accelerator and speeds off.

It's a scene that takes place over and over again during the nine-month NASCAR racing season — and one that was repeated for a special audience Thursday at Frontier Field.

The pit crew for NASCAR driver Brendan Gaughan, whose car is sponsored by Eastman Kodak Co., demonstrated and discussed pit stop and car maintenance techniques with several hundred Kodak employees and their families.

The goal wasn't to show off. The demonstration and related activities were organized to give Kodak a chance to study NASCAR's approach to productivity and efficiency in the workplace.

Streamlining work has become a critically important subject to Kodak as the company shifts from chemical to computerized imaging.

The company must get used to more competition and lower profits from its portfolio of digital cameras and related products, said Charles Barrentine, director of the Kodak Operating System, whose office organized Thursday's activities.

One of the ways of coping, he says, is to lower costs by eliminating wasted effort, wasted materials and other forms of excess.

NASCAR offers an excellent case study in that challenge because crews must be close to perfect in every pit stop, Kodak says.

The margin of victory in NASCAR races is often measured in fractions of a second, meaning that there's little room for error or waste.

A driver can fall behind 18 of his competitors by spending one extra second in the pits, studies have shown.

Pit crews follow an exact science developed over many years. In the 1960s, a typical pit stop took about 50 seconds — but crews could change only two tires. That number was cut to 30 seconds in the 1970s, but crews were able to increase to four tires.

“Now they can change four tires, fill the fuel tank, clean the windshield and tweak the car in 13 seconds,” Barrentine said, “but they can't quite brush their teeth.”

NASCAR looks to eliminate waste during pit stops by setting up a standardized system that encourages safety and reduces the chances for error. For instance, the team uses visual controls — color-coded tools, for instance, or marking the spot in the pit where drivers have to stop. The team members all have specifically defined roles — one person carries the front tires, for instance, while a second crew member does the changes. Another crew member mans the jack; another fills the gas tanks.

The pit stop isn't the only place for reducing waste. The team makes many highly detailed adjustments in the garage between races designed to give themselves an edge, said Shane Wilson, crew chief for Gaughan's No. 77 Dodge. Teamwork is also important, he said.

NASCAR is a sport, but “we're still considered a company,” Wilson said. “We're just not competing against Fuji. We're competing against 42 other teams. But we all have the same goals. We all like competition.”

Kodak Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dan Carp encouraged employees to accelerate their efforts to remove waste. He said he had just learned of a procedure in human resources that required something like 20,000 steps. Through careful study, “we've reduced that number by 87 percent,” he said. “We're taking this across the whole company, and it's going to help us win.”

Kevin Carpenter, 44, a 26-year employee of Kodak, said he and four or five co-workers decided to attend the event as a team-building exercise. They intended to talk to the Kodak NASCAR team about teamwork. It offered a nice change of pace from the daily grind, he added. “We're going through a lot of stresses,” Carpenter said, “and this was an opportunity to take a breather.”

Donna Mura, who celebrates 25 years with the company this year, was staffing a booth on eliminating mistakes. The centerpiece of her exhibit was a coffee maker. The machine is designed in a goof-proof way, she said: The filter will fit only one way, and hold only the exact amount of water, for instance.

The NASCAR event gives Kodak people “a chance to see how this all works, how they can make things better in their own areas.”

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