Judy Dunaway first heard the words " lean manufacturing " in November 2000. Six months later, she implemented lean principles at  Airline Manufacturing Co. , and the company successfully reduced inventory, improved cash flow, decreased costs, cut lead times and became more flexible.

Becoming more flexible means Airline's employees perform fast changeovers and setup to produce short runs, or they quickly make large quantities of back posts, corner blocks, drawer fronts or other components. All products are manufactured to customer specifications so flexibility is critical.

The road to successful lean manufacturing was full of roadblocks. "I learned as much about lean as I could before I even uttered the word at Airline," company president Dunaway says. "Every book says successful lean must be supported from the top of the organization. I wanted to be as knowledgeable as possible so I would be able to defend lean to those in our organization who might be resistant to change."

After three months studying on her own, Dunaway started a book club, and required 15 members of Airline's management team to read four books: "Who Moved My Cheese" by Spencer Johnson, "The Goal" by Eli Goldratt, "A Better Way" by Terry Acord and "Lean Thinking" by James Womack. The management team discussed the books at weekly lunch meetings. Airline then scheduled consultants to evaluate the company's operation and do some training sessions.

Well-traveled part

After two months of reading and discussion, it was time for action. "We started by cleaning, organizing and identifying waste on the factory floor," Dunaway says. "Next, we selected a component we made a high quantity of every week. We tracked every movement of that component. We discovered it took us five days to produce 1,000 parts and each part traveled more than 50 man-miles in the process."

A team meeting used AutoCAD to develop a plant layout optimized for that part's process. Then they moved the equipment.

"There was lots of moaning, complaining and resistance about moving any equipment, but I insisted that we do it anyway," Dunaway says. "On the first run with the new layout, we produced 1,000 parts in three-and-a-half hours, compared to five days previously. That was our first success story. There have been many since then."

Moving machines

After the first changes, Dunaway says Airline has made constant, incremental changes. On one of the flow lines (work cells), the customer wanted the part shaped after it was stained, so machines had to be moved.

The person running the staining tables was particularly resistant to change. "We moved his tables one morning, and he could not work with the new arrangement," Dunaway says. "He was given an opportunity to arrange the tables his way, and he ultimately came on board."

The staining tables have been moved five times as the cell has been modified to improve flow.

One employee quit when his machine was moved. "He got so far out of his comfort zone he couldn't deal with it," Dunaway says. "If there are roadblocks in your way of doing lean, you have to go around them.

"As I walk through the plant, I could pinpoint machines that we're going to move within the next month," she says. "Moving machines is a constant. We have most of those tables out there on wheels - because we might need to move them again."

In May 2001, Airline had more than 3,000 carts, each used to move work-in-process. Two-thirds were moved - out.

Dunaway emphasizes that Airline hasn't gotten too "fancy" with lean manufacturing.

"We just try to keep it simple and do what works for us," she says. "Some companies talk about lean like it is rocket science, and you can take it to that level. But to me, lean is anything you can do to reduce waste, reduce lead times, reduce inventories and keep costs down for our customers."

One person now cleans up around all the machines instead of each machine operator spending the last 15 minutes of the day sweeping the floor. Dunaway literally took everyone's brooms away.

Finished goods inventory was slashed from $1.2 million to $200,000; Airline seeks to reduce that further. Previously, Airline gave customers a lead time of four weeks. Now, lead time can be a matter of days, once a component is produced the first time.

Leaner lumber inventory

Airline used to have five million bf of hardwood lumber on hand, but now that's down to about one million bf. Only wood that is cut is replaced, based on a weekly report. As late as 1994, all of Airline's components were solid wood, but now plywood accounts for about half, and the percentage is rising. Composite panel inventory is carefully managed. Some vendors store material in Airline's warehouse and do not invoice Airline until the panels are used. Engineered panels are moved directly to panel saws, routers, CNC band saw or gang rips in the finish mill.

Airline's finish mill is divided from the rough mill by a wall. Here, work cells (called flow lines at Airline), comprise two to six machines placed together so wood isn't loaded and offloaded onto carts. A basic component fabrication cell might have a router, horizontal borer, vertical borer, t-nut, dowel and strapping operation all working together. Another example of a flow line at Airline is composed of a double-end tenoner that feeds two boring machines, with components immediately strapped and palletized for shipment.

Equipment used in these cells includes a Holzma panel saw, MBD CNC bandsaw, SCM panel saw, Northwood CNC routers, boring machines and a Vertex clipping machine. A new Koch SBD trim, bore, glue and dowel machine was purchased at IWF 2002.

Because Airline has a large number of similar machines in its finish mill, it can dedicate machines to flow lines for high-volume parts, while keeping flexibility in its overall operation to fill smaller orders, cut samples and redesign customer frames.

Dunaway believes in keeping manpower at the lowest possible level necessary to ensure that employees are always busy doing value-added work.

"I like to keep manpower at a level that makes our supervisors always wish they had a few more employees. But to do this, employees must be cross-trained to run many machines so the supervisor will have the flexibility he needs to produce any components on any combination of machines."

Airline's primary customers are upholstery manufacturers, including many in Mississippi. Being close to its customers also helps reduce lead time. Airline can send a trailer to a customer's plant and have components taken directly into production. The customer may not even put the pieces into inventory.

Biggest challenges

Dunaway says the current state of the economy and overseas production are the company's biggest challenges.

"Airline is extremely concerned about the continued loss of manufacturing jobs to Asia," she says. "I think if more companies would adopt lean principles into their manufacturing processes, they would become more competitive with overseas producers."

Dunaway points out that  Mercedes  and  Nissan  built plants in the United States, recognizing that the benefits of manufacturing the product closer to the consumer outweigh the low Asian wages.

"Airline is not going to give up to imports without a fight."

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