In 2000,  Woodland Furniture  was facing major problems. The Idaho Falls, Idaho, manufacturer of custom high-end solid wood furniture had been in business for five years and business was booming. Annual sales had reached $8 million, but the company was pushing as much production as management thought possible through its 36,000-square-foot factory. Meanwhile, orders were out to 20 weeks. It appeared that production was going to strangle any chance for increased sales.

The obvious solution was to expand. Plans were made for a $10 million, 150,000-square-foot expansion to allow manufacturing to meet the company's growth plans.

But at the 11th hour, the company's management reconsidered. Would simply throwing money around for more space solve the problem? Or should the company rethink its entire approach to manufacturing?

"At that time we had a consultant, Paul Iverson of  Tech Help , talking to us about lean manufacturing," says David Fenton, Woodland's co-director of manufacturing. Simply defined, lean manufacturing is adopting a pull system, where work moves through cells within the factory on an as-needed basis, reducing work-in-process inventory. Companies that have successfully implemented lean manufacturing have seen dramatic increases in productivity - and generally a decrease in needed floor space. But very few wood products manufacturers have fully implemented a lean solution, so Woodland's management didn't have a specific example to follow. But they pushed ahead.

Dramatic results

The results speak for themselves. The company finished 2002 with $16 million in sales. It is still in the same 36,000-square-foot factory with approximately 150 employees. There is empty space in the factory today where two years ago finished product was stacked three layers high waiting for shipping. By all measurements, the switch to lean manufacturing has been an overwhelming success.

Woodland was originally structured like any factory. Product started at the rough mill, moved through machining, into assembly areas, and then to the finishing department. Work-in-process stacked up at each stop along the way, and throughput was being measured in weeks.

Today the factory is broken up into five separate, self-contained manufacturing cells. They are chairs - which is located off site and finishes outsourced chairs - beds, casegoods, tables and cabinets. Cabinets and casegoods each have their own manufacturing areas. Tables and beds share an area - one uses it during the day shift and one during the night shift. So the plant actually contains three distinct manufacturing areas - each starting with panel layup feeding clamp carriers and culminating with a finishing room.

Instead of taking weeks to get product through the factory, it takes hours. A custom table that is started in the morning is often ready to move into finishing that afternoon. On average it takes four days to take a product from raw material to crated and ready to ship.

Break it up

"What we've done is break the factory into small, nearly self-sufficient cabinet shops," says Fenton. That extends from drafting to finishing. "We used to have the drafting department in the front of the building. If there was a problem in the back, it was fixed, but nobody ever told the people in the front," says Fenton. Today each cell has its own drafting department located adjacent to the work area. Both the drafters and the craftsmen have much tighter communication as a result.

Breaking the finishing room into three separate units is another radical change. "We had a complete finishing room, but work was stacked up in front of it from all the cells," says Fenton. "If you would have told me two years ago the solution was to put finishing out on the floor, I would have said you're crazy." Finishing areas are surrounded by plastic curtains. Positive air pressure keeps dust out.

The table cell was the first implemented. "At that time the entire plant made 18 pieces a day, and the table department made five tables a day," says Fenton. After changing to a lean work cell approach, the cell was able to produce 18 tables a day.

"After that it was easier to sell the change to the rest of the company," says Fenton.

Double up

Fenton and Trent Coates both have the title co-director of manufacturing.

Coates says the two look at themselves primarily as developers of people and teams. "Most of our time is spent coaching leadership," says Coates. "The rest of the time is working through processes and leading Kaizen events."

A Kaizen event is where team members and others take up to a week to analyze a specific cell or process. Each cell will run its own Kaizen events, and from them will determine machine placement and organization.

In fact, both Fenton and Coates say managing people is the real key to implementing lean manufacturing. "When it comes down to it, you have to focus on the people to make it work," says Coates.

Keep everyone involved

The company spends a lot of time keeping the associates involved in the process. A gainsharing program was implemented, so if the cell is running at 100 percent efficiency, the workers in the cell benefit financially. "We have developed the 'Game of Work'," says Fenton. Through large scoreboards on the walls of the plant, associates know where each cell stands at reaching its goals.

"We had one cell that was hitting 122 percent efficiency, so they were taking home two extra days' pay each two-week pay period," says Fenton. They have experimented with different time frames, and have found keeping everything in two-week intervals works the best. "If you do a year-long program, you get a push at the end of the year," says Fenton. "We did a one-month program and found we had a spike every month. Two weeks works well, and the employees like it."

The company also relies on co-leadership through the factory. "We try to find two people who complement each other and let them bounce ideas off each other," says Fenton.

As for the future, Woodland's business continues to grow but the company's management is no longer worried about keeping up with demand. They continue to stage Kaizen events and work at eliminating waste in the production process. The experience of other companies has shown that dramatic gains in productivity occur after repeated analysis of a process.

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