Lean manufacturing has enabled this Florida-based stair manufacturer to improve productivity and profitability.
"I always aim higher - and higher still," Cheponis says. "I strive for constant improvement."
With Cheponis' high standards and obvious passion for his work, it is not surprising that Pompano Beach-based Symmetrical Stair has been a major player in the Florida construction industry since 1995. Its stairs are the choice of the state's top home builders; 85 percent of Symmetrical Stair's clients are from referrals or repeat business, and the company boasts a client retention rate of 90 percent. Furthermore, executives from the top 50 home builders have chosen Symmetrical Stair to create the staircases for their own personal residences.
In addition to creating intricate metalwork pieces, Symmetrical Stair specializes in wood curved and straight stairs, as well as handrails, made from cherry, maple, oak, mahogany, and from rare and exotic woods. In its recently opened state-of-the-art millwork department, Symmetrical Stair also creates custom millwork for high-end homes in which the designer has specified something unique.
The Next Step: Going Lean
Not one to rest on his laurels, Cheponis looked for ways to further improve his company's production. The answer: lean manufacturing.
"I admire [philosophy founder] Dr. Deming as a technical and strategic leader. Dr. Deming's timeless principles of lean manufacturing, if applied properly, could make the United States a manufacturing powerhouse once again," Cheponis says.
Cheponis began consulting with The Florida Manufacturers Partnership last year for help in implementing the lean manufacturing principles at his business. The group's consultant, Gil Lugo, took a personal interest in the task, and earlier this year became an employee of Symmetrical Stair. His job is to apply the principles of lean manufacturing and improve operations at the shop.
In a nutshell, the lean methodology emphasizes continuous improvement in small increments. Some of the methods that Symmetrical Stair borrowed from the lean ideals include "Kaizen," which roughly translates to "analyze and solve problems."
One of the problems at Symmetrical Stair was that it was taking weeks for a job to get from the front office to the shop floor. In an exercise called "Kaizen Blitz," Symmetrical Stair employees were given four days to identify the problem and implement a solution which would eliminate all non-value-added activities. The exercise proved successful, and today the lead-time from front office to shop can be counted in hours instead of weeks.
Several other techniques also have been implemented to increase efficiency at Symmetrical Stair. These include Kanban, a term that refers to a visual technique for replacing inventory.
On the shop floor, a visual queue system is now used by the employees to keep track of inventory. "This system eliminates the need for shuffling through a stack of papers or digging into a computer's database," Lugo says. "This system also eliminates any language barriers, something that is important in South Florida where we have many people who speak Spanish."
Another method that has had positive results at Symmetrical Stair is Batch Size Reduction. Tasks for workers are organized in four-hour batches, ensuring that work is done in sequence and on time.
Ultimately, Cheponis says, the employees are the key element in the success of implementing lean manufacturing. At Symmetrical Stair, each department now is viewed as a team. In order to foster team spirit and to reward increases in production, money is put into a pool and periodic payouts are made.
"There has been lots of cross-training," Lugo says. "Now it is possible for one person to pitch in and help out team members if they are falling behind. Additionally, each team has been given the power to vote an unproductive member off, just like the TV reality show 'Survivor,'" he says.
According to Lugo, some employees had difficulties with the changes that came with implementing the lean methodology. "Some people just couldn't accept the changes and get beyond their comfort zone with the old ways of doing things. When it comes to hiring new employees, I am looking at attitude first. It is relatively easy to teach a skill, but harder to change an attitude," Lugo says.
Cheponis observes that, overall, the program has been excellent for morale; employees seem to exude a genuine pride in their work.
Improvements in Production
"It was no accident that Gil Lugo was brought in to consult on productivity issues when new and expensive machinery was purchased and the plant was expanded from 15,000 to 55,000 square feet," Cheponis says. "We sat down and worked out a plan with the end in sight. For instance, you can't add a piece of equipment like the C.R. Onsrud CNC router without thinking about adequate dust collection. With that in mind, we also purchased a 24,000 cfm Torit Donaldson dust collection system with a Flamex fire suppression system."
The new CNC router enables the company to make radiused railings and millwork for irregular shapes. Additional equipment in the new millwork department includes a Weinig Unimat 1000 CNC moulder, a Raimann gang ripsaw and a Weinig Rondomat 960 CNC profile grinder for custom grinding of cutting tools.
Another recent purchase is a Mereen-Johnson Model 900-M custom moulder/shaper. This piece of equipment makes it possible for the company to create radius millwork that can precisely match up with straight pieces, Cheponis says.
The employees at Symmetrical Stair add value to the machined components by using old-world, time-proven techniques in the assembly process. Stair components are bent and assembled by hand, and hydraulic stair clamps are used to ensure that every staircase will be square, and that each step is glued and wedged to ensure it remains squeak free.
"Most would expect the waste to show up in production and to be solved by purchasing a more efficient piece of equipment. [However, the machine] is only as good as the plans that program [it] and the paperwork that follows the job from start to finish," Cheponis says.
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