Bringing the Lincoln Paper Mill Back from the Dead

Lincoln Paper Wasn't Even a Zombie Company. It Was Dead. Closed. Kaput. Then New Owners Brought in Multivariable Testing to Help Resurrect It Through a Top-to-Bottom Revamp of Procedures, Processes and Plant Culture

By Nancy Bartels

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The idea is to take the results of brain-storming sessions that involved everyone—operators, engineers, managers, safety personnel, millwrights, electricians—and gather all the ideas they think will improve a process. Everything from changing the recipe for the process to the brand of coffee in the break room is under consideration. Nothing is off the table. These ideas are winnowed down to those that seem most practical. Then the testing of them begins.

The collaborative nature of the MTV process is one of the things that appeals to Van Scotter. "One of the neatest things about this is that MVT forces us to engage everybody, regardless of where they were in the organization, and we were working on real stuff. Nothing is worse than working on things that nobody cares about."

Van Scotter admits the process had its skeptics at first. "I had a couple of senior guys that were blockers. I had to let them go."

But this kind of change is easier to sell at a company such as Lincoln, where everyone feels his or her back is to the wall. "It's tougher to make this cultural change at a successful company. Complacency is hard to overcome. We didn't have to work that hard at Lincoln."

Test Results

For Lincoln Paper, the multivariable tests ranged from one shift to four months in length. Some were "emergency" tests to address an immediate problem. Some tackled longer-term process difficulties, whether an improvement of a particular machine's performance, development of a new product or sales and marketing strategy.

Sometimes, more than one series of tests is required. The first set of tests gives a broad outline of the solution and the second tests refine it.

And the results are often surprising and counterintuitive. For example, according to Van Scotter, through MVT, his staff learned that one of the most hurtful factors in winder performance was lubricating the chucks. "Who would have thought that?" he asked. "I know I didn't. I don't think anyone else did either. You're supposed to lubricate stuff, right? Well, we found out not.  Once we figured out there were several things we could do, we ran a refining experiment and changed the way we worked the machine. On a second test, you work with those help/hurt factors to discover a better way to run your process."

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Art Hammer, who himself was the on-site man from QualPro at Lincoln, says, "One of the most interesting things about MVT in general is the mindset that when you're having a problem with quality or production, you slow the machine down. We have found with MVT that not one time did slowing the machine down help. Sometimes speeding the machine, along with other things, will improve the system. Speeding the machine up is always cheaper. That's counterintuitive, but it's true."

MVT is also a good antidote to the "we've always done it that way" mindset. Van Scotter observes, "How many people are running a business where you say, ‘This is what we gotta do. It adds cost, but we know we gotta do it'? That's a placebo. A lot of procedures are based on theory and opinions. MVT gives you a robust fact set and provides discipline."

Both Simple and Hard

On one hand, MVT is hard. The mathematics behind it is based on the Plackett-Burman Matrix, a statistical formula based on complex equations. "The idea is to test a number of variables," says Van Scotter, "Three, seven, 11, 19—any number. Take the factors and set them based on what the matrix tells you to do. If you're working with 15 factors, you must run 16 experiments. But once you get all the data, you apply the math to figure out which factors work. It's simple math. Add, subtract, divide."

But even before you get to the testing phase, Van Scotter warns, you have to make sure what you're trying to improve can be measured properly. "You cannot take this for granted," he says. "Say you want to ‘improve production.' Is that gross? Net? Over time? You have to figure that out before you actually do the experiment. [The thing is] the quality of measurement systems in most companies is really bad. You need to check that measurement system first. Most of the time, the data you're working with is wrong. The first thing you have to do is fix the measurement system."

Big Machines, Big Problems

Tissue Machine No. 8 is the newest equipment at Lincoln. Bought in 2006, it was the first major investment Van Scotter and his associates made in the plant when they started it up. But, says Van Scotter, "The damn burners didn't work right. Two years down the road, and we're on our sixth version of the burners. We shut down for two days, had the experts in, the vendors, the engineers. We got ready to start up, and we had black tissue—soot all over the tissue. We're burning oil to help make the hot air to dry the tissue. It was a total disaster."

He continues, "The vendor's suggestion was to rip the stuff back out and put back what we just took out. That's another 48 hours down, and this is a Friday afternoon. That's not going to cut it. Our technicians and operators said, ‘Let's try to do something to fix the problem.' So in 10 hours on a Friday night, we run some MVTs and discovered three factors that reduced the problem so we could get to a saleable product."

MVT came to the rescue again with the No. 4 paper machine. Problems with it had cost 10 days of lost production in six weeks. The Lincoln Team ran MVTs on 100 factors to understand the situation. In the end, it was a mechanical problem, but as a result of the testing, Lincoln learned some valuable, money-saving lessons.

Lincoln had taken softwood craft out of the recipe because it was driving up costs. Popular plant wisdom was that removing it was causing the problem. But MVT showed that adding or taking out the softwood craft neither helped nor hurt machine performance. And adding it also added $50.00 a ton to the cost.

Feeding the Bottom Line

These anecdotes underlie the fundamental strength of the MVT approach. It is infinitely adaptable. Once a team is trained to use it, it can be deployed to solve problems from batch production issues to new product development. It doesn't require calling in the consultants every time an issue arises.

And the benefits are real and measurable. In Lincoln's case, MVTs have lead to such items as a $250,000-per-year reduction in oil costs for running an inline kiln, achieved by running a couple of 16-run MTVs. A seven-factor MVT on making 92-brightness paper reduced the cost of getting to 92 brightness by half—all done in two days of testing. On the No. 8 tissue machine, $300,000 a year was saved on strengthening chemicals by virtue of MVT. The same tests were run on the No. 6 tissue machine and saved the company another $150,000 a year.

Admittedly Lincoln Tissue and Paper may be something of a special case. The biggest champion of MVT at Lincoln was the CEO, which never hurts a project. There was a highly motivated workforce that understood that throwing money at problems was not an option and knew all too well the consequences of failure. By starting with small projects and working up, buy-in has come along. Now 120 people in the plant are trained in MVT and are believers in the system. The workforce understands that "we have always done it that way" is not an acceptable approach to process improvement and that testing improvements via MVT is not an add-on but just another part of their jobs.

But Lincoln's success is undeniable. It's still in business, which after its travails of the last decade is something of a miracle in itself. "When we restarted on 2004, not many people held out much likelihood of us surviving," admits Van Scotter. "There were only two types of people in Maine and in the industry—those that were skeptical and supportive and those that were skeptical and not supportive. But there was nobody that wasn't skeptical."

Now, Lincoln is paying its bills—thanks in part to MVT. "This is the difference between paying all the bills and not paying them. We started with nothing, and we've still got it. We were leveraged at the beginning. We've paid our debt down, and it's because of the tools we've had with MVT. It's not the only difference-maker, but it's been a huge one," says Van Scotter.

Van Scotter closed our interview with a story he says epitomizes Lincoln's position. Two Maine men are ice fishing and encounter a very large, aggressive bear. They start to run away, and one man says, "You can't run away from a bear." The other replies, "I don't have to beat the bear. I just have to run faster than you."

Lincoln Tissue and Paper is running faster than its competitors thanks to MVT.

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