Meet Jim, Our Diaper Guru
Hello and welcome to Kudos. My name is Jim Keighley. I have spent my 40+ year career working on systems to make consumer products like diapers, tampons, razors, cheese, hot dogs, coffee...you know, things you may have used before. I have been a technical and manufacturing advisor for the Kudos team from the beginning. Ask me anything!
When did you get started in the diaper industry?
I started working on diapers for the Charmin Paper Products Company (owned by Procter & Gamble) in 1976 after I graduated from Michigan Tech as a Civil Engineer. The plant I worked at was P&G’s first disposable diaper plant.
What did you do as a Diaper Engineer?
I spent 20+ years of my career designing, building, starting up, and operating diaper making & packing systems around the world. That required learning the needs of the moms & dads buying our products and the needs of the kids wearing them. Diapers are a BIG global business. In fact, there are thousands of diaper machines around the world - some costing millions of dollars.
Wait, what is a diaper machine?
Diaper machines take incoming streams of ~20 materials (like rolls of plastic, tape, non-wovens, elastic plus ground up wood pulp and some hot melt adhesives) and combine them into a continuous stream of diapers. The machines then cut the stream into individual diapers, fold them, count them, stack them and then put them in packages.
Coming from a diaper pro, anything about diapers parents would be surprised to know?
Making quality diapers is a demanding technical challenge with some lines producing 1200+ diapers per minute running 24/7. Each diaper is scanned for dozens of defects while being made and when that happens those defects are removed from the product stream while the line keeps running. Doing that inspection at those high speeds while keeping your package count correct and your products defect free is an amazing challenge. Did I mention I am an engineer?
What has changed most about diapers since the 70’s?
Two things plus one that Kudos is changing now:
- The addition of shape and elastic gathers has greatly improved diaper fit. Diapers began as rectangular pads with no elastic gathers (just like cloth diapers still are today).
- The addition of super absorbent gelling material has dramatically improved diaper absorbency. If you open a diaper before you use it - this gelling material looks like sugar in the fluff core. It was developed in the 1950’s to retain moisture in soil for farming in arid regions. It also does a great job of absorbing urine and holding it versus releasing it (as a sponge would) when babies sit down in a loaded diaper. It also enabled diapers to be more absorbent AND much thinner so that they fit more like real clothes.
- The move to plant based materials will be the third major change since the ‘70s. There has always been an environmental conflict between cloth and disposable. Cleaning and reusing cloth diapers consumes large amounts of potable water - a major issue in many parts of the world - and an issue I don't see a solution for. Disposables are more convenient and work better but at a significant price: solid waste disposal of plastics that don’t decompose in a landfill. Kudos is a major step towards being 100% plant based - and that is a real solution.
What hasn’t changed about diapers since the 70’s?
In conventional diapers, the bulk of the absorbent core has always been ground up wood pulp with EVERY other material being petroleum based plastics. Kudos is changing that - we are using plant-based materials wherever it is technically possible and we won’t stop until we get to 100%.
Do you dream about diapers?
Some nights - but don’t worry - not too often.
You and the Kudos founder Amrita go way back. She worked for you? Now you work for her?
Yes to both. We hired Amrita to join our Engineering Team at Gillette after she graduated from MIT. She is super smart (obviously), but also driven. Which is just as important. Check out what she did with Saathi in India, sanitary pads for schoolgirls. I advised her Saathi team a bit. When she called to talk about starting Kudos, given I am a diaper maker at heart, I thought working for her after she worked for me would be a fun change.
You’re retired. You could be spending magical afternoons on your boat! What made you want to get involved with Kudos?
Yes, I could be, but… I admire the entrepreneurial spirit with a broader purpose exhibited by many Millennials starting up their own companies. My generation never had that. All we wanted to do was get a job and not go to Vietnam. Nobody talked about starting their own company and making something better for society. The Kudos mission to make a natural disposable diaper that performs as well as the best diapers on the market is very exciting to me, especially as a long time diaper maker. From a personal growth standpoint, working with the Kudos team is a way of feeling and staying mentally younger.
Big company vs. startup. What’s your take?
Older big companies can be more fun than people think. I was given a great amount of freedom as long as I treated people the way I wanted to be treated AND delivered results. That said, big companies become trapped by their scale. Every small product change requested is very expensive to act on because of all the machines you own. So, only a small subset of good ideas can afford to be worked on. Kudos is just starting out, and we have FAR more freedom to do what the small group of us thinks is best for our users. I enjoy that very much.
Diapers are fun. But what else do you like to do for fun?
I like working with equipment, any kind of equipment. Tinkering on boats, cars, construction, yard work, computers…anything. if equipment is involved I enjoy learning about it and doing it.
Also diapers aren’t fun. How many diapers have you had to change in your lifetime?
Not as many as you might think. We have two sons and three grandchildren and after a few disasters it became clear I was way better at making them than changing them.
We did test them on our kids. When we were testing super absorbent gelling materials, my wife had to go someplace for a day. All I had to do was change Mikey’s diapers as normal and record the weight of the used diaper. Mikey and I spent the day in the backyard building a deck. I forgot to change him and he was never a complainer.
My wife came home and was not happy about how it would look when the test evaluators found out he wasn’t changed for 10 hours - she wrote in the test log that Dad was in charge when that happened. I got a call at work a few days later from the employee running the test. She called me to tell me how funny it was. But hey! The diapers we tested worked great, no leaks, and Mikey was fine.
Favorite thing about living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula?
We live in the Les Cheneaux Islands on the eastern end of the Mackinac Straits. Our County has 11 people per square mile (we are naturally good at social distancing) with no stop lights, and one incorporated city (St. Ignace). We love the change of seasons. We cross country ski & snowshoe in the winter. We boat and fish in the summer. Tons of migratory birds pass through the Mackinac Straits twice a year on their journeys north and south. The deer herd migrates down from the inland hardwood forests to our shorelines to spend the winter with us in the Cedars. So when I’m not diapering, I love to be here.
Three books you’re loving now. Go!
Probably part of being an Engineer, I don’t read fiction. I do read every instruction manual for anything I own (and keep them either on my computer or in large three ring binders). I own a show quality 1970 VW Karmann Ghia convertible and a show quality 1950 Chris-Craft 22’ Utility so I read a LOT about the restoration and care of old cars and wooden boats.
Maybe a better question for me might be - what are the best books I have read? (Still not fiction)
- Barbarians to Bureaucrats (by Miller). Helped my career a great deal. Taught me to value working for and with people who think differently than I do.
- Checklist Manifesto (by Gawande). Helped me be a more effective Engineering Leader. Like most people, I hated following checklists but that comes at a cost of making more mistakes. I didn’t understand and value that a well designed checklist reduces mistakes by significantly improving teamwork.
- Positive Power & Influence (not a book - a training course by SMS). Helped be a better husband, father, and manager. As a young man I was all about using push energy to influence things. This course helped me develop using pull energy (attracting, visioning, and finding common ground) to influence things. I am a better & happier person when I use pull energy.
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