Every business wants to be more efficient and profitable, but the majority of woodworking businesses in North America have not embraced a system that promises to do exactly that. We are talking about what is commonly described as lean manufacturing, but it has its roots in the Toyota Production System, which has transformed not only that company but also many others around the world.

Because of those Japanese roots, a blizzard of unfamiliar terms and acronyms, and some fundamentally counter-intuitive concepts, lean manufacturing has not been as widely adopted and applied in manufacturing in general and the woodworking industry in particular as one might think. But from those who have really embraced lean, the success stories are often spectacular.

To help demystify lean and make it easier for more manufacturers to take the first steps toward lean thinking, we talked to a handful of experts drawn from the woodworking industry. They range from corporate consultants to small shop owners. Some have written books on the subject. One turned a garage-based cabinet shop into a multi-million-dollar product development company. What they all have in common is the language of lean thinking.

Paul Akers: 2 second lean 

When you meet Paul Akers, president of FastCap in Bellingham, Wash., you have to be impressed by his seemingly boundless, jovial energy. He’s always moving, always enthusiastic and always on the lookout for good new ideas. That’s how he started FastCap, with one good idea: an adhesive screw hole cover. That helped change his business from a cabinet shop to selling products to other cabinet shops. But early on it took a setback to introduce him to lean thinking.

“It was a rude awakening,” Akers recalls. “We were doing incredibly well. The bank was willing to give us a big loan to expand. But then a guy walks in to help us with an inventory problem and he basically told us our business was a piece of crap.”

FastCap was generating way too much inventory and not moving it fast enough, the consultant said. Akers was taken aback. About the same time two young men fresh from studying lean production techniques in Japan offered their services. “I hired these guys, and they wanted to tear (the whole operation) apart, and I let them do it,” says Akers. “Oh my God, I was clueless. It was brutal. It was rude.”

But adopting lean techniques put FastCap on the fast track for growth. As an example of the transformative power of lean, Akers tells how it affected one of the company’s first major products, the LaserJamb laser leveling device. “We were making 100 at a time,”Akers explains. “Everything was done in big batches.”

That seemed efficient, but if they found out something was wrong, they had to rework all 100 units. He didn’t believe it when the lean consultants told him they were going to make them one at a time.
“We took a 45-minute process and turned it into 7 minutes,” he says. “You just don’t realize how much waste there is.”

Akers has become a vocal advocate for lean. He’s visited countless factories around the country and in Japan. He even promotes lean thinking in a weekly radio broadcast. His advice to those just starting out on their lean journey is to be consistent in their approach. “It’s better to do a tiny bit of lean every day than do a ton of it and stop and start,” he says. He wrote a book to that effect called “2 Second Lean.” It talks about his experience and recommends a process of continuous improvement to try to save at least 2 seconds every day.

Akers is also very people oriented and emphasizes training. Through extensive training he has created a complete lean culture at FastCap. “You have to train people on a daily and weekly basis,” he says. “The number one thing is leadership.”

Jim Lewis: Transforming a factory 

Involved in furniture manufacturing for decades, Jim Lewis first encountered lean in the 1980s. “I was first awakened to it when I was a senior manufacturing engineer at Steelcase in 1989,” he recalls. Undergoing a plant reorganization and consolidating operations in a larger facility introduced him to concepts of cellular manufacturing and flow. “It got me excited about the things that could be done,” he says.

Lewis has long worked as a lean consultant helping manufacturers transform their operations. One of the most dramatic examples he recalls involved the Hallagan Furniture plant in upstate New York. The century-old business was under new leadership from the fourth generation of family ownership. “We wanted to implement a team cell. That’s the toughest cell because it was going against the culture, getting everyone cross trained,” Lewis says. “Now they have one cell with nine people who can support all the operation. It’s an amazing transformation to see that happen there. They’ve been able to expand their market in a down time for upholstered furniture. They’ve expanded product offerings and the region they serve and they have increased their flexibility, all through lean.”

Lewis says it is crucial to the success of lean to get everyone engaged. “Don’t leave anybody out,” he cautions. He says the Hallagan project worked because ownership embraced lean thinking and was adventurous. He says the place to start is with basic workplace organization using the lean 5S system (see the glossary of lean terms).
Just as it takes engaged people and strong leadership to succeed, Lewis warns that all affected need to understand what’s involved. “There has to be understanding of what the commitment to the process means for the leadership of the organization,” he says, and he urges business leaders to seek professional advice to guide them.

Bob Buckley: Lean and the one-man shop 

Lest one think that lean is only for big factories, take the example of Bob Buckley. He has never had more than a handful of employees and now is actually down to being a very productive and profitable one-man shop in LaVergne, Tenn. He first encountered lean thinking at a seminar featuring Stephen Covey talking about efficiency expert Edward Deming. That eventually led him to Eliyahu Goldratt’s book “The Goal,” a business novel that introduces the Theory of Constraints, which is all about effective production flow.

Buckley strongly believes that lean thinking enhances TOC, but they need to be used together. “It’s like a steel chain with one plastic link,” he says. “Tell me what you are going to do by improving any one of those steel links without doing something about the plastic one. I use my lean toolbox once I find my constraint. TOC leads me to the core problem.”

Buckley’s company, True32, is named for the 32mm cabinet manufacturing system he uses and promotes. “True32 has been on a mission of continuous improvement since 1999,” he says. He fairly recently pared his operation down to just himself. In one nine-week period with just one man in a 5,600 square foot building, he was able to produce $92,000 in cabinets. He has a lead time of just three days to a week, but he knows of one lean small shop that successfully operates with a lead time of just one or two days.

Buckley says systems such as lean manufacturing work best when the people involved understand everything in the process start to finish. He recommends people start off by reading “The Goal” with its accessible novelized format. “People can put names on the characters in the book (from their own experience),” he says. “It allows them to personalize it.”

Buckley echoes what others say about encouraging full involvement. “You’ve got to build the culture where everybody is empowered,” he says. “Lean has to be bottom up. TOC is more top down. Not everybody has profound knowledge of the entire process.”

He is very interested in automating processes, confessing that he is a “horrible manager of people.” So, he takes a systems approach wherever possible. “A cabinet shop is a series of dependent events. With TOC, I design systems for those events,” he says, pointing to the example of his kanban system that automates ordering processes.
Buckley describes his processes in great detail in his book “True32 Flow Manufacturing.”

Gero Sassenberg: It’s all about value 

It was a book that first opened Gero Sassenberg’s eyes to the value of lean thinking. “Basically I read a book about it, and the logic of it made such good sense, although a lot of it is counter-intuitive,” says Sassenberg, who has spent some 40 years in the woodworking industry, working in South Africa, Europe, and the United States.

For some years he was a consultant to California Closets. “We set up 70 plants, going from a mixed approach to supply and setting them up to flow manufacturing,” he says. “That made a big difference to their bottom line.”
Sassenberg likes to focus on a key tenet of lean thinking, which has to do with waste and value. “When you start, you have to understand the only thing that has value is what’s seen through the customer’s eyes, and everything else is waste,” he says. “That’s the simplest and most poignant reason to consider lean.”

He advocates a straightforward approach to starting lean, especially in smaller operations. “Smaller companies don’t have the luxury of having lean teams,” he says. Sassenberg recommends motivating staff to do very simple things. For example, tabulate all go-backs and put a number up on the wall every day. “It’s a simple approach to monitor your progress.”

Sassenberg says it is important for shops to identify their core competency. “Smaller companies take on all aspects of business and they don’t have expertise in all of them,” he says. He advocates extensive use of outsourcing where appropriate.

Objection to any change is the biggest stumbling block to adopting lean, says Sassenberg. “It’s the comfort level that people have, the attitude that if it’s not broke don’t fix it. They fight it. They fight new machinery. They fight new technology. It’s not even funny.” He gives the example of resistance to use of the metric system. “I tell them 300mm is about 12 inches; 600mm is 24, etc. Then I give them metric tapes. For four days they hate it, and then they love it. You have to do it with a little wileyness,” he says with a chuckle.

Carl Spencer: A cabinet shop powered by TPS 

After working for large manufacturers and trying diligently to adopt the Toyota Production System with only limited support from senior management, Carl Spencer has finally found his dream job. He owns and operates a small cabinet shop in Monroe, Wash., that has completely embraced TPS. His introduction to lean thinking came in a class when he was employed by Fleetwood and working on his masters degree at Cal State San Bernardino. He immediately saw ways that Fleetwood could benefit from lean even though he describes Fleetwood as a very lean company for its times.

Then his eyes were really opened when he went to work at the Starmark plant in Lynchburg, Va. “In a matter of less than six months we turned the worst plant we had into one of the best,” he says. “We took a 10 day lead time and got it down to 3 to 3-1/2 days.” The company previously had a terrible record for on time and complete, with the naturally ensuing customer service issues. After the lean transformation, Spencer says the customer service person had to be moved to scheduling because he had nothing to do in customer service.

Spencer suggests it is important for those considering lean to visit other lean operations. “Visit a plant that is already well down the line. I had the benefit of that. I persuaded Fleetwood to let me visit Lantech Engineering. You could see how well everything worked,” he says.

“Many of the consultants I’ve dealt with start and end with 5S,” he says. “It’s easy to get discouraged. But if you see the entire comprehensive thing that brings in several years of continuous improvement, then you know what you want it to look like at the end.”

Naturally, Spencer says the biggest stumbling block to avoid is not getting enough support from top management. “If top management doesn’t get it and they aren’t deeply involved, you might as well forget it,” he says. “Top management has to be on the floor. They have to basically live on the gemba (shop floor). Top management is usually more interested in sales dollars and rarely grasp the strategic importance. Think of a company that can fabricate and ship in one or two days in an industry where everyone else takes one to two weeks.”

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