Rapid-Line - 2017 MFG Innovation Excellence

For Rapid-Line Inc. in Grand Rapids, boosting innovation depends on something as simple as a “Thank You” board posted prominently near the employee restrooms and something as complex as a plant-wide system of rewarding attendance.

As the 2017 recipient of the MFG Innovation Excellence Award, Rapid-Line has spent the last year struggling mightily to change its corporate culture of the past 90 years to reflect the new owners — the employees themselves.

Rapid-Line President Rick VanDis is the first to concede that “some days are better than others” when it comes to ushering in a new corporate philosophy at the full-service metal fabricator and contract manufacturer, which employs about 115. Innovation is one byproduct of a healthy corporate culture built on respect, he said.

VanDis and Chief Financial Officer Mike Helms point with pride to a tangible result of shaking up the status quo: the first Rapid-Line branded product called MyLine, a line of commercial-grade, custom indoor/outdoor aluminum furniture that can be easily customized with made-to-order logos and designs. MyLine debuted in September at the Casual Market Chicago show at the Merchandise Mart.

“The MyLine product is actually a culmination of the change to the culture,” Helms said. “If we hadn’t changed the culture, we couldn’t have produced MyLine. It’s a result of trying to implement ownership mentality here, where employees work not just for a check, but also because the company is theirs.”

VanDis said the future well-being of the employees is intertwined with the drive to innovate at Rapid-Line. “Our goal is to have people retire from here, well off,” he said. “And the only way we can do that is with everyone’s ideas and input to make Rapid-Line better.”

He said the company is also very enthused about a height-adjustable leg invented by a Rapid-Line engineer that is now covered by three patents.

Rapid-Line promotes a “hierarchy of employee attributes” that includes collaboration, trust, passion, innovation and agility, in that order, VanDis said. To encourage recognition of those attributes, the company installed a whiteboard and dry-erase makers at a prominent location near the restrooms with the hope that individuals would write thank you notes to co-workers for jobs well done. The names are recorded and entered into random drawings for lottery tickets.

“We started in January, and it’s caught on to the point that it’s not management writing the notes, but people on the floor,” VanDis said. “I was really pleased this morning; there were three names on the board last night, and this morning the board was almost full.”

The board has had a definite impact on employee morale. In one case, an employee on third shift worked particularly hard to get parts through his station and ready for the 8:00 a.m. shipment to a customer.

“The employee was a little down when I first saw him,” VanDis said. “But he searched the board for his name, and I literally saw his shoulders straighten up and a big smile break out on his face when he saw it. His whole demeanor changed — he looked like he was floating two inches above the ground.”

Rapid-Line also re-evaluated how to handle problems with attendance. “Attendance is a problem in today’s culture and, in the old days, you only had a punitive system,” VanDis said. “When you racked up too many points for missing work, you were escorted to the parking lot.”

But the company implemented a program that also rewards good attendance. Employees get -2 points for every month of perfect attendance, yielding a free day of vacation when the total reaches -15.

“That does two things: it rewards your good people and it gives a redemption plan to people who are still working on bad attendance,” VanDis said.

Positive points for attendance also can negatively impact pay raises. With +3 points, an employee’s pay raise is decreased by 30 percent.

“If you have more than 7 points you forego your raise — until you make up your time and then you can get the raise back,” he said.

The program appears to be working. Approximately 52 percent of the hourly employees had under zero points in the first week in October, compared with 43 percent about three months ago, Van Dis said.

One piece of advice that VanDis and Helms shared about changing a corporate culture is to practice patience.

“Every day is different,” VanDis said. “I continually tell folks that change is a three- to five-year process. Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back, sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps back. The trick is to always try to keep moving forward.”