More than one way to innovate

I have always been a bit leery of the person who declares there is only one way to do something. Experience tells me otherwise. Two roads lead to the same destination. Is the super highway always the best route because it’s most direct? Not if a tractor trailer is sprawled across three lanes tying up traffic. And even if the highway is free and clear, it may not be the preferred route if the goal is not related to speed.

Moving your business ahead is a lot like that, especially in these uncertain times. Perhaps the highest danger is trying to do things a certain way simply because “that’s how we’ve always done it.” Times change, circumstances are different, resources may be less. Often the old supposedly tried and true ways don’t work anymore.

Since merging CabinetMaker and FDM, one of the areas we’ve especially tried to spotlight is innovators and innovations in the woodworking industry. In this issue, I’m particularly fascinated by two stories of innovation that go against the mainstream.

Randy Deem of Anvil Motion won the WMIA innovator of the year award for his company’s breakthrough fully automated kitchen design. Deem says the design, which pairs sophisticated software with servo drives, lighting, computer software and innovative new door configurations, came out of a simple frustration with kitchen cabinetry lacking real game-changing innovation. As he saw it, basic kitchen cabinets in the form of boxes with standard doors and drawers are largely unchanged from what they were a century ago. Deem wanted to do something about that. It’s too soon to judge the impact the Anvil Motion system will have on kitchen design, but it’s the kind of innovation that makes you stop and rethink what you have been doing.

In a different way, Carl Spencer is also taking a different road. By fully integrating the Toyota Production System in a relative small operation (just eight employees and 6,000 square feet), Spencer has disproved theories that such a system is only for big operations. In fact, he’s proved it may work even better in a small shop because there is less corporate bureaucracy to get in the way of implementation, and it’s easier to get complete buy-in from a smaller staff.

But he’s also discovered side benefits. While his primary goal was simply ultimate efficiency and higher profits, he discovered he also achieved unprecedented levels of environmental sustainability and even won awards for it. He also found he was able to achieve tremendous improvements in production with mostly conventional machinery. And finally, he found huge benefits from training and creative compensation packages that have helped build a team that is fully invested in the success of the company.

Randy Deem and Carl Spencer both deserve applause for setting forth on new roads. Are you going to be left behind or can you blaze a new trail of your own?


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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.