Lessons from Joe’s Cabinet Shop

“Everything I Needed to Know About Manufacturing I Learned in Joe’s Garage” by William B. Miller and Vicki L. Schenk is a fun read that should have a prominent place in your lean resource library. There isn’t enough space in the few pages of this article to tell you all of the lean lessons learned at Joe’s Cabinet Shop, but just as the characters in Miller’s and Schenk’s book discovered while working in Joe’s garage, hands-on involvement in a lean transformation offers valuable lessons for every participant.

I’ll share some of the lessons learned at Joe’s, but not all of them. The real “Joe” will be sharing more of them at the Wood Pro Expo in Baltimore, October 9 and 10. I hope all of my readers will be there to hear Joe’s testimony to lean. Brad Cairns of Signature Wood Systems and Dustin Hunter of Hunter Trim and Cabinet will be there as well, all part of a panel discussion. The Expo will be a great opportunity for readers to learn from each other and from experts in a variety of fields.

Meanwhile, here are a few of the lessons learned at Joe’s since the Lean transformation started in June 2013.

COMMUNICATION CAN ALWAYS BE IMPROVED: As is typical in many non-Lean cabinet shops, Joe’s always had a lot of work in progress, but the staff couldn’t seem to get the right parts coming together in the final process at the right time. The result was missed or delayed shipments, lots of overtime, and friction throughout the organization.

The driving force for what to do and when to do it was a paper schedule that projected anticipated demand in eight-week blocks. Every manufacturing and manufacturing support function was expected to adhere to the schedule. If a scheduled room couldn’t be worked on in one department, that supervisor would set it aside and move another one into the rotation. Most of the time the internal customer wasn’t aware of the substitution and was expecting parts, drawings, or materials to arrive that never did. When one of the department islands of activity completed what was on their plate for the week they would try to work ahead on whatever room might be available for them thus creating more work in progress and more confusion.

Thursday was the usual production meeting where all of the supervisors would come together to update the production manager on how far behind they were and when they might be caught up. It was a time for reacting to past situations rather than collaborative problem solving, so each week was simply a repeat of the week before and ”catching up” never really happened.

I suggested they eliminate the Thursday meeting and replace it with a daily stand-up session involving all of the key players. The intent of a stand-up is to share issues and concerns that might hamper the smooth flow of materials between internal suppliers and customers, and then collaboratively implement a solution in real-time. To better facilitate 100-percent on-time room completion a change in the protocol for entering a room into the production sequence was implemented as well. Rather than entering all rooms into the schedule and hoping for everything to come together properly, only rooms with materials available and drawings complete would be sequenced for manufacturing. That required greater coordination and control across the enterprise, which necessitated a complete review and revision of the engineering and purchasing functions. Once the schedule is approved the sequence cannot be changed without approval.

The stand-up suggestion met with some resistance. Some leaders felt that they were already communicating effectively so nothing would be gained through a deliberate daily session, but they all reluctantly agreed to give it a try. Stand-ups were initiated in October 2013. A couple of months after the launch, one of the supervisors told me that he was amazed how ineffective their previous ad hoc communication process was compared to the daily stand-up where cross-leveling of resources and collaborative problem solving ensures on-time completion of orders in the proper sequence to facilitate smooth, continuous flow.

NOT EVERYONE CAN LEAD A LEAN TRANSFORMATION: Leading a successful lean transformation requires a different set of management skills than most task-managers have been trained to employ. Joe used working team leaders to manage work flow so the leader’s time was devoted more toward fighting fires and running a production process than leading change and exploiting continuous improvement opportunities.
Accountability for leading change rather than managing chaos caused some of the team leaders to self-assess their ability to contribute to Joe’s future success. Over a few months three team leaders decided that they could apply lean thinking best in a smaller area of responsibility so they opted to return to production and allow someone else to lead the team.

These personnel changes provided an opportunity to assess how to better align the internal customer/supplier chain and eliminate individual silos of activity. The concept of value streams rather than separate departments connected mutually supporting processes under a single value stream leader (VSL) instead of multiple team leaders. The VSL would have greater responsibility, but he would also have more control of the supply chain. The focus switched from seeking a supervisor with skills in a variety of machining processes to seeking a person with good leadership and change management skills. Now the VSL uses his leadership skills to maximize the productivity of existing resources.

AN ENTHUSED, ENERGIZED, AND EMPOWERED TEAM CAN CREATE LONGER LASTING IMPROVEMENTS THAN A ROOM FULL OF CONSULTANTS: That statement is not intended to be a slam on consultants. After all, I am one. However, it is important to remember that lasting change comes from within an organization, not necessarily from outside of it. That is not to say that consultants don’t bring new, fresh ideas to the table that are enthusiastically embraced by the staff, but the best continual improvement initiatives come from organic resources led by a capable sensei.

For example, one of the bottleneck processes was sand/stain. Parts come to that area in a variety of shapes and sizes. At the time, parts came from different internal suppliers at different times, so room completion accountability was difficult to ensure. As parts arrived in the area they were stacked against a wall in space allocated for each room. Sand/stain employees would go to the wall, get a part, carry it to their work space, sand or stain the part, and return it to the wall. With six people in the department, multiple rooms would be in process at the same time with none of them being completed in any particular sequence. Flow was virtually non-existent.

A kaizen team was tasked with improving the process with emphasis on reducing work in progress, completing rooms in sequence, increasing throughput, and creating flow. After thoroughly analyzing the current process the team determined that a layout change would facilitate better flow and interaction of the workers. The breakthrough solution that accomplished all of the objectives was a cart system designed and tested by the kaizen team and enthusiastically approved by the sand/stain employees. The cart consolidates all of the parts for a room in a single location eliminating the waste of walking back and forth to wall locations. Current protocol requires every room to be run in sequence and completed thus minimizing work in process and eliminating chaos and confusion associated with multiple rooms being run simultaneously.

Make sure you get registered for this important panel discussion at Wood Pro Expo in October. You will hear Brad, “Joe”, and Dustin tell their lean journey stories, and you will have an opportunity to get your lean questions answered. See you there.


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About the author
Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis has worked in the furniture industry for 40 years with a special emphasis on facilitating the transformation process for businesses embracing the Lean Business Model.  Jim’s company, The Center for Lean Learning, is headquartered in Grand Rapids, MI, with an office in St. Thomas, ON, Canada.  He is a consultant, author, and writer.  Jim’s books include, “The Journey to Excellence – Successfully Applying Lean Thinking in Your Business,” “A Testament to Lean Thinking – Cases for Change,” and a series of ebooklets under the main title “Applying Lean Thinking.”  The books are in ebook format and are available through all major ebook retailers and through smashwords.com.