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Best Practices & Innovation in a Maquila

admin | 19.09.2011

The outside appearance of four boxy buildings on a certain maquiladora campus in Tijuana is the only similarity the factory shares with hundreds of others in the border region.

The outside appearance of four boxy buildings on a certain maquiladora campus in Tijuana is the only similarity the factory shares with hundreds of others in the border region. Inside, the plant — where Plantronics headsets, Bluetooth and other mobile devices are made — hums with not just production but also operations that would typically be housed elsewhere. Thousands of workers are members of innovation teams, business cards are given to every single worker and education — from high school completion to master’s degrees — is an option. The man behind these unconventional practices — Alejandro Bustamante — is credited for building one of the most innovative, productive and employee-friendly maquiladoras in Tijuana. Some of his strategies and practices have been implemented across Santa Cruz-based Plantronics.

His mantra: People. Respect. Competition. “Workers generate value to customers, themselves and the company,” said Bustamante, president of Plamex, the company’s Tijuana operations. “When you have those elements you have a better product, a better company.” The image of Bustamante, who is behind more than 120 initiatives and the company’s first-rate reputation, is visible on the production floor at Plamex. It’s not a staged executive headshot but instead he can be found in a collage of photos depicting factory community-outreach activities such as picking up trash alongside co-workers at the beach and helping colleagues deliver recycle bins to local schools. As maquiladoras go, Plamex is considered one of the best. The manufacturer has been gifted every award the

Mexican president

gives for leadership, best practices and innovation. Plamex has also been recognized internationally for quality and commitment. The latest accolade came in August, the “Great Place to Work,” award given by the Great Place to Work Institute. This particular recognition, in some ways, means more to Bustamante because it is given based in part on the anonymous survey of employees. Since its debut in 1972, the plant has gone from producing subassembly work to complete production. Today, it is one of the few factories that also houses a customer call center, an

inside sales

force and a design center, said Plantronics President Ken Kannappan. Kannappan points to the cost effectiveness, longevity of the workforce and lack of competitors in Tijuana for making it possible for Plantronics to expand there. “They are not just an incredible, high-quality, low-cost flexible manufacturing site, it is not just a site we use for other functions at lower cost, they are something that contributes to our sales and marketing and the overall innovation in the company,” he said. Design Center Director Jacobo Torres oversees the creation of products and testing of new gadgets. The 11-year Plamex veteran started as a manufacturing engineer. He shows off a soundproof room, cushioned by foam all the way around, where a head and torso simulator nicknamed HATS works with his staff to test products in various sound environments. “We have the opportunity to do more here, to innovate,” he said. “Most factories come here to find cheap labor but Plantronics is about creativity.” The company, with more than 2,200 employees, produces 16,000 different products annually and operates on a system Bustamante created called “Just in Time.” With no inventory, everything is made to order and 92 percent of orders are shipped within 48 hours. Bustamante is known as a co-founder of Tijuana Innovadora and a member of one of Tijuana’s prominent families — his cousin

Carlos Bustamante

is the city mayor. A fixture in the maquiladora industry for decades, he previously managed the construction and startup of Matrix Aeronautica, the first aircraft maintenance facility in Mexico. To hear Kannappan tell it, Bustamante is equal-parts pack leader, worker and innovator with passion, motivation and commitment. “It’s really about Alex’s leadership,” Kannappan said. “It starts there and then it snowballs. The talent, the team, the culture is so strong.” The stocky figure is a familiar sight on the brightly lighted production floor where workers build products. He says hello to workers by name and observes assembly lines and workers browsing digital kiosks for information from the president’s staff meeting notes. Bustamante’s efforts have not gone unnoticed in the community, said Marlene Solis, professor of social studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. “There are very few maquiladoras that do the things they do to contribute to the community,” Solis said. “The problem with the maquiladoras is that they are typically very small. They don’t have as good conditions, they don’t have cafeterias, there are many differences.” According to Solis, one of the main concerns maquiladora workers share, despite where they work, are about low earnings. The average factory worker earns $50 to $100 a week, said Solis. At Plamex production, workers earn between $2.80 to $3.80 an hour, or about $112 to $152 a week, Bustamante said. Skilled workers, designers and other professional workers earn more. “You have to be competitive,” he said, referring to the Plantronics plant in China, where wages are much smaller and costs are cheaper. This is why the recent award is vital, workers are critical to the team and their high praise give Bustamante a benchmark. “As a person you want to know, did you do the right thing, did you give them all the tools they need,” he said. “It’s all in the small details.”

elizabeth.aguilera@uniontrib.com (619) 293-1717