Another difficult year for our industry is coming to a close. This year, a number of furniture manufacturers either closed down an existing operation to move offshore or went out of business completely.

Thousands of industrious employees are out of work because of executive decisions to pursue cheap labor as a means of seeking competitive advantage, or the doors were closed because managers didn't have the capability to create the nimble manufacturing environment necessary to compete in today's flattening world. At the current rate of decline our industry, once an integral part of the domestic manufacturing base, will soon become another statistic in the changing landscape of our economy.

Community commitment

Most companies that succumbed to competitive pressures in 2007 were part of the corporate culture that focuses on stockholder equity rather than community commitment. It's pretty easy for the president of a large conglomerate to close the doors of an underachieving plant in some remote location because there's no emotional commitment to the people or the community. On the other hand, the president of a family-owned company anguishes over how to keep the business afloat even if it means dipping into personal resources. But then, it was the family-owned business that made our industry and country great to start with, and I believe they can do it again.

From surviving to thriving

Evolving from a survival mode to a vibrant, exciting and thriving mode is not an easy task, but it is a doable one. The transition requires patience, persistence and perseverance, blended with a large measure of commitment. I'm talking about shedding the current business philosophy and embarking on the lean journey to a new and better, albeit unknown, place. If you haven't started your lean journey, there's no better time than now and no better resource to help you launch than FDM magazine.

I wrote an article of a similar nature at this time last year (FDM, December 2006, page 51). I encourage you to search the archives for that and other articles to help you develop an improvement strategy for 2008. The manager of one company reported that last year's article inspired him to do just that. He gathered all of the lean information he could in order to prepare his company for a transition in 2007. I visited that company a couple months ago and found it not only to be surviving, but really beginning to thrive.

Not every company has the internal resources necessary to make the transition on its own, which is why I launched The Center for Lean Learning earlier this year. The center is a consortium of furniture industry experts who share a common passion for assisting domestic manufacturers in their quest to regain competitive advantage.

If you've been following this column on a regular basis, you know that lean is not rocket science, but it's not for the uncommitted, either. To better understand the commitment necessary to achieve success, I encourage you to retain the service of an expert to conduct a value stream analysis of current operations, identify opportunities that will have the greatest impact on overall flow of information and material, and train the staff in recognizing and eliminating waste.

Can't afford to invest the financial resources to retain an expert? Not a problem. Almost every state has grant money available to help you stretch your limited resources.

Making the transition

If you're currently on a lean journey, it's important to clarify who is involved in the transition process. Are the managers and supervisors trying to juggle lean balls with all the others they have to keep in the air? Is the entire workforce actively engaged in the process? Supervisors and managers need to promote lean at every opportunity in order to achieve success, but their primary role is to enlist the support of the staff in executing the change process.

A successful lean initiative results from the cooperative effort of everyone in the supply chain. For example, the manager of a client company wanted to transition from a single upholsterer completing the entire piece to a two-person team sharing the process. All of the staff had been trained in the lean philosophy, so they understood the benefits of sharing the job to eliminate unnecessary handling. Three two-person teams were established to prove the concept.

One of the teams was led by a deaf-mute upholsterer. This person was so actively engaged in the change process that he developed an even better plan by incorporating a third person into the team to further share the work, reduce material handling, improve throughput and achieve takt time. The plan included a layout, a breakdown of tasks and expected throughput time for each person. A year ago the manager wouldn't have considered trying to implement teams because he had too many other fires to fight. Now that the staff is engaged in the process, the fires have become smaller and fewer. The manager now has time to do the visionary planning that will set the stage for even more improvement opportunities.

Eliminating waste

A lean philosophy is all about eliminating waste through a collaborative effort of management and staff. Managers provide the training, lean tools, guidance and resources while the staff develops workable solutions to the challenges that surface as the water level drops and obstacles appear. It doesn't matter how passionate the CEO is about implementing the tools of lean if the staff isn't equipped and empowered to use them.

As you plan for another challenging year, make sure your resolve is aligned with your resolves. Resolve to make 2008 the year of lean. You have a choice in how successful your business will be next year. Success isn't necessarily measured by how much new business the sales staff is able to garner. A better measure of success is how effectively you manage existing resources to deliver a quality product to the customer, on time.

The choice of how successful your business will become is entirely up to you. Will your business thrive in 2008 or become a casualty of the inability to adapt to a changing marketplace? Implementing lean is not an easy task, but it is a doable one. I know the three companies that I worked with this year are not only positioned to survive the challenges that lie ahead, but to thrive in 2008.

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