Lean manufacturing bulks up profits for this Pennsylvania cabinetmaker.

Craft-Maid Kitchens Inc. has a reputation as a high-end kitchen cabinetmaker. But while the Reading, PA, company is proud of its manufacturing quality, it still has big ambitions. "We feel we can build the volume to $20 to $25 million (from $10 million currently) within four to five years," says Jerry Goldberg, national sales manager. The company also plans to cut delivery times from 10 weeks to six.

Craft-Maid Kitchens Inc.

Reading, PA

Craft-Maid produces custom residential kitchen cabinets. Annual sales are about $10 million.

Three Keys

1. Craft-Maid recently began implementing lean manufacturing principles to eliminate waste and improve output.

2. Among the company’s more dramatic early goals has been to cut paperwork in half and hardware inventories by a third.

3. The company currently operates out of a 110,000-square-foot facility, but it plans to halve that and improve productivity with an integrated plant layout.


To achieve these goals, the company decided to embark on a program of lean manufacturing and continuous improvement.

In December, Craft-Maid began working with advisor to industry Gunter Geiger Systems Ltd. to audit its production and eliminate waste. The process involves analyzing the entire company from order entry through invoicing.

Gunter Geiger, president of the eponymous company, says lean manufacturing will improve the customer experience, the product, the manufacturing process and management control. Moreover, it must reach all four areas and affect the entire factory, or the manufacturing process is, by definition, not lean.

"You can’t go and say, ‘I’m going to have lean shoes but not a lean coat,’" Geiger says, "and you cannot say ‘I have a lean computer system’ if it does nothing for the customer."

Trickle of Production, Storm of Ideas

Step one was fact-finding. Herman Keesee, senior project engineer with Geiger Systems, spent a week walking through the factory to find out exactly what steps went into making a Craft-Maid cabinet.

The verdict was: room for improvement. "Only 22 percent of the steps to make the product were actually value-added," Keesee says. The other four-fifths were transport and delays.

By charting how product moved through the plant on a process flow diagram, he learned that cabinets traveled 3.2 miles from start to finish — equal to about 12 times around the circumference of the 110,000-square-foot plant.

Craft-Maid gathered samples of every piece of hardware it uses on boards like this. The company is now looking to see which similar styles can be consolidated to save in purchasing and inventory.  

"We lived every day with the problem, but when you’re shown the infrastructure and how you have to go through a process to get the product out, it really shows you your day-to-day struggles and how to now make the same product in much less time," says Craft-Maid Production Manager Jack Sassaman.

Keesee brought some ideas for improving production from other companies he has worked with. He and Sassaman also formed employee teams to brainstorm ideas.

Coaching those teams improves the brainstorming results. "You cannot just tell people, ‘Write down on a piece of paper what you think,’ — it’ll never happen," Geiger says. Coaching has the added benefit of immediately sorting out negative attitudes, he adds.

"The benefit of combining inside factory teams and experienced advisors is that together they are an unbeatable team," Goldberg says.

"The employees knew the bottlenecks," Geiger says. The result was a full bulletin board of employee ideas, which Craft-Maid is now analyzing.

The Big Test

Once new ideas have been compared and combined into the best possible procedure, the company tests them by building a sample cabinet. "The team experiences something they wouldn’t have if they had worked it out by themselves. This way, they only build one box and they can see it works," Geiger says. "It’s a very short cycle between problem identification, solution identification and the actual benefit."

Craft-Maid put together a binder of problems that have been identified. Each page has a problem, the solution to that problem, and the benefits achieved by implementing that solution. The effect is that the whole company can see and sign off on new procedures.

"It organizes the problems and prioritizes them," Goldberg says. "That’s the point we’re at. When we’ve finished, we’ll know where we can get the most improvement for the cost and that will become our top priority."

This approach helps to make employees eager to embrace change as well. "We take the ideas that work and demonstrate them," Geiger says. "Then the team comes around and says, ‘We’re ready — when are you going to do it"’"

The analytical approach extended to the company’s order processing as well. One point that immediately became apparent was the volume of paperwork generated: 162,000 pages per year.

"We decided we could cut that in half," Keesee says. The novel approach: simply asking each person who received a copy of each form if they actually needed it. If not, they stopped getting it.

This system analysis also helped the company make important decisions earlier. For example, if a cabinet requires a special part, Craft-Maid now can order it when an order is confirmed; previously, it did not order special parts until it had generated parts lists.

To visually show the steps it takes in cabinet production, Craft-Maid put every step on paper and posted them on the wall. This is one small section; the pages actually cover all four walls of a medium-sized room.  

The Results — So Far

One of the first changes made, and probably still the most immediately visible, involves just a couple grams of polyester and helium. A red balloon is attached to pieces that need rework.

"It’s a visible marker, and it puts into everybody’s mind that, ‘Hey, I need to work on this first,’" Sassaman says.

"Rework used to just sit there unrecognized," Goldberg agrees. "People initially thought the balloon idea was silly, but it became a game — how can you get these out of your department."

The balloons are part of a more formal program as well. Each balloon is attached with a tag that shows what the problem is, when it was found, and its scheduled and actual completion date. Craft-Maid is using that information to build a database that it will use to analyze what types of rework are most common and why, so it can address any recurring problems.

The balloon program has since expanded as well. Now the company tags sample pieces with a yellow balloon and "make-afters," when a dealer needs to add a piece to an installation, with a green balloon. The principle on the floor is the same, however: process the balloons first, because they represent either mistakes that need to be corrected or opportunities for new business.

Craft-Maid is also re-engineering its construction methods to save money and produce better products. For example, in the cabinet shown on page 60, the company eliminated glue blocks from the construction, changed the joints to make it easier to automate production and changed the back panel to the same 1/2-inch-thick material used for drawers, which improves yield.

"We didn’t change anything that the customer sees, and we changed nothing on the style," Goldberg says. "But we upgraded the materials to make the quality even better than it was."

Craft-Maid also formed a team to examine the hardware used in construction. The team identified every fastener, for example, used in making a cabinet and gathered them together on a single board. Now, that team is looking at those boards to see if similar hardware can be consolidated — replacing similar sizes of staples, for example, with a single size. "That lets you inventory less, purchase less, handle less, and use less," Geiger says. It also forms the first step in automating those processes.

Craft-Maid believes the team can consolidate at least one-third of the hardware styles, reducing storage and handling costs. "We’ve already reduced our inventory," Goldberg says.

When the team diagrammed the flow of product through the plant, the finishing room jumped out as an area that needed improvement — pieces could loop around the department several times before moving on. The team calculated that only 15 percent of the time a piece spent in the finishing department was used for value-added processes.

"Finishing is so complex, and the mix Craft-Maid offers just adds to that," Keesee says. "There may be a simple three-step stain and an 18-step antique paint in the same day." He divided Craft-Maid’s finish options into five different families based on the timing required, and put them into a matrix. Using that matrix, the company can schedule finishing jobs better to break the bottleneck.

In addition, the company began using prefinished interiors for its cabinets. Sassaman says the move improved quality and reduces finishing time by up to 25 percent.

Big Things on the Horizon

Craft-Maid has not yet invested in new equipment. Ultimately, the company will, but the delay is vital to the implementation of lean manufacturing principles.

Before now, the company addressed problems and opportunities as they arose. While the company may have responded to those specific issues in the best possible way, that patchwork approach led to unforeseen ramifications in other areas.

Now, the company wants to examine the entire process and make the best decisions for the total factory.

Standardizing parts and joints to make automation easier is one part of that process. The computer system is another. Craft-Maid uses Cabinet Vision software. "We’re in a position to use the entire system," Goldberg says. "We want to start from the dealer creating the order and then seamlessly send the data to the CNC machines in the factory."

Geiger adds that "Part of the answer is a different plant layout to move the work cells closer together. Ultimately, the factory will be half its size and it will respond quicker, and all of these delays will be gone."

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