For a company facing the challenges of a difficult market, the folks at JK Concepts are really busy. The 40-employee, Denver-based architectural millwork and casegoods firm is celebrating its 30th anniversary by reinventing its manufacturing operations, rejuvenating and reenergizing itself in the process. CEO and Vice President Margery Johnson ticks off the company’s aggressive action plan:

• JK Concepts is the first Colorado woodworking company accepted into OSHA’s SHARP safety program.

• JK Concepts received its Architectural Woodwork Institute Quality Certification accreditation in the spring.

• In the manufacturing area, it consolidated two operations under one roof, completing a reorganization of its shop floor after an audit and review plan by Stiles Machinery.
Oh, and it just launched its first Website.

“We have also evaluated every aspect of our company, and made strategic improvements,” says Johnson, who manages JK Concepts with her husband Stanley Johnson, president.

 
JK Concepts merged casegoods and architectural millwork from separate sites to under one
roof. An analysis by Stiles Machinery led to a revamped production flow, though big machinery stayed put.

 
Fine millwork in mixed material graces a reception area
at the University of Northern Colorado – Turner Hall.

Steps to Drive Sales
One important change was in the bidding process, notes Margery Johnson. Bids are sent not just in response to direct RFQs from contractors, but proactively sent to any contractor pursuing the same project. “Instead of bidding through one contractor, we send it out to all the contractors bidding on the job,” says Johnson. “It’s our main form of advertising.”

To handle the workload, two estimators were assigned full time to bid development. “We gave them a full-time assistant, as well,” says Johnson. “As a result, we have been able to maintain our volume at pre-recession levels.”

The increase in bidding volume did change one metric: “Your percentage of wins is not as good as it once was,” Johnson notes. But total jobs won is what really matters, she adds.

The practice, though, “has driven awareness of us among the contractors in our market. They recognize what we bring to a job.” As end clients work with JK Concepts, “We are now being requested by more clients,” Johnson says.

Improving Efficiency
In order to increase productivity while at the same time reduce manufacturing costs, JK Concepts decided to merge its two manufacturing sites — caseworks and cabinetry, and custom millwork — into one location. According to Johnson, they undertook this at the first signs of the economic downturn.

“We saw the economy was going to change,” says Johnson. “That’s when we took a moment and said, ‘While things are still good, what do we need to do to prepare?’ We decided we needed to have cultural change within our company, to give our employees a sense of our proactiveness, and show that we are invested in the company’s survival and their welfare.”

Merging operations proved to be more efficient, notes Don Sook, production manager. Previously, production assembly of basic cabinets was a mile away, “so we were trucking parts to the other plant,” says Sook. “The reorganization [helped us] to reduce costs, become more efficient and also maintain capacity.”

Storage was split into immediate need and long-term inventory, the latter stored a half mile away. Immediate access to all of the inventory is not necessary, says Sook, who also worked with lumber sources for just-in-time delivery. “What many of us don’t take into account is that many times you need a only a few sheets.

 
The Wells Fargo Center Lobby.
(Photos courtesy of Maguire Properties.)

“We are doing our best to do just-in-time inventory. We have found most of our vendors are willing to work with us. I will give them a date and they will accommodate us.”

With all manufacturing processes under one roof, cross training and other efficiencies also were possible, with the flexibility and adaptability of the workers critical to the success.

“You wind up doing more with fewer people and keeping people flexible so they can do more things,” says Sook. “While I have stations in the shop that are dedicated to doing certain functions, I don’t have to dedicate one man to that. And while you have people who are specialists at what they are doing, their ability to fill in at other positions is key.”

Successfully blending the chemistry of two separate workforces engaged in very different activities was of equal concern when merging into one location. Safety, production and personnel practices would all have to be put in conformity. Human Resources and Safety Manager Debby Mauldin worked closely with Sook and Johnson on this.

As employees are trained, they are assigned a color based on their skill level on the tools and machines. A recap of all the machines with employees names and skill level color is posted in the shop and each employee also is given a copy to keep at the workstation.

Mauldin coordinates the training and safety programs, which also can be handled off site or online. “In the engineering department, which runs Microvellum on top of Autocad, we use Microvellum online resources and training,” says Mauldin. “Training is also one of those areas where you count on your more experienced guys to train your less experienced.

 
The layout of the plant prior to the reorganization, and JK Concepts’ new plant layout
emphasizes work cells and dedicated stations.


Reworking the Plant

Once JK Concepts decided to stabilize its operations under one roof, it looked for ways to further optimize its production flow. The company worked with Stiles Machinery’s Dave Walsweer, a project engineer, on the process.

“The first step was providing Stiles with a floor plan of the building and the equipment list,” says Sook. He completed a questionnaire and projected volume and capacity requirements.

“I did not want to do a total revamp,” says Sook, adding that there were four items he specifically preferred not to move: the company’s main beam saw, edgebander, CNC and the finishing area. “Relocating a spray booth, you open yourself to all kinds of building code issues. We made practical choices along the way.”

Sook says the biggest surprise in reorganizing the workflow was the hardwood portion of the shop. “With me just giving an equipment list, Stiles set it up almost identically to what I had. In that third of our shop we changed very little .”
Countertop fabrication and assembly, however, “was a major redo,” says Sook. “We talked about work cells and efficient flow within work cells.”

Operations were defined to be completed at specific positions within the plant. “Before, a cabinet was completely finished right at the workers’ bench,” says Sook. “Now we have gone to a roller conveyor system, with a location to put the drawers in, another to put the doors on, and all the tooling is right there. We eliminated all that walking to get what we need. That is what we worked at diligently.”

Optimizing the production flow at the company also has helped it to better meet the fast turnaround demanded by today’s marketplace. “The pace of so many of our projects is very fast: it’s just incredible,” he says.


A case study of architectural millwork and custom woodworking firm JK Concepts is presented in a free Oct. 20 webcast by the editors of Custom Woodworking Business and Woodworking Network. The webcast will explore the steps firms can take to certify to customers their shop’s ability to produce at the highest levels of quality and performance, using an accreditation process that not only improves internal production processes, but open the doors to new business opportunities.

Special guest presenter will be Margery Johnson, CEO of JK Concepts, who will tell how her Denver-based custom woodworking firm has reinvented itself, from shop floor workflow, safety programs, and through production quality control. Johnson will also explain why JK Concepts continues to renew its participation in the Architectural Woodwork Institute Quality Certification Program, and and the steps her firm has taken to expand its bidding process. JK Concepts describes its newly revamped manufacturing process, with equipment reconfigured into more productive work cells and work stations.

Tenant-finish projects that may run six weeks allow 15 business days for JK Concepts. “We get three weeks to draw, receive materials, build it and get it installed fast,” he says. The company practices lean manufacturing and continuous improvement in optimizing the productivity and profitability of its manufacturing process.

Continuous Improvement
An advocate of the Toyota method, Johnson regularly coordinates with managers to monitor programs that optimize the manufacturing cells while integrating all aspects of JK Concepts’ operation — sales, job bids, quality control, human resources, materials handling and manufacturing.

Taking the lead from Johnson, Sook utilizes the Toyota Way, which embraces lean manufacturing, continuous improvement and respect for employees. “Everything you do that does not add value to the product is waste,” says Sook. “It puts it in whole new perspective. Elimination of waste is the key to everything.”

By optimizing its own production, JK Concepts helps ensure the contractors it works with stay on schedule. “The more we can do to assist them to stay on schedule, the more successful and profitable the project,” says Johnson.

Within her firm, “We wanted to make sure that everyone understood why we made the changes we did with ongoing education,” says Johnson. “You want your staff energized to understand why there are rules and changes and methods that may not be the quickest, but make the best process. This means understanding AWI quality standards and why they exist. Those are things that will serve them in life. Our employees see that we invest in them as tradesmen. And our clients can see at a glance that we provide quality.”

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