Is the Industry Undergoing a Lean Transformation?

More window and door manufacturers talk about kaizen events and changing the corporate culture. How widespread is this type of change?
John G. Swanson
October 15, 2003
FEATURE ARTICLE | Management, Operations

Ask nearly any window and door manufacturer, and they’ll tell you they’re “lean.” Competitive pressures, reflected in demands in pricing, lead times and quality, make “being lean” almost essential. But it’s clear that more manufacturers look to take this concept to a higher level.

Although the trend may not be across the board, most window and door manufacturers have made efforts to reduce inventory levels and shift to just-in-time production. Influenced by methods that came from Japan, manufacturing operations are being reorganized and re-equipped to reduce work-in-process and, in some cases, shifting from batch production to one-piece flow. In this issue, we feature an article that looks back at “a decade of lean” at Pella in Iowa. Major initiatives have been implemented at such companies as Gienow Building Products in Calgary, Alberta, Canada; Peachtree Doors & Windows in Norcross, GA; Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago; and Simonton Windows in Parkersburg, WV. At these companies, executives don’t just talk of programs or upgrades in production, but of change in the “corporate culture.”
Another example is AccuWeld LLC, a replacement window manufacturer based in Bensalem, PA. The company adopted what it describes as a Kaizen Breakthrough Methodology as part of its manufacturing and management philosophy in 2001. The reason to make the change was simple, according to President Craig Seller: “The way prices are going in this market, we wanted to stay profitable and remain competitive.”
 
A Total Change
The company started implementation in 2000, training employees and then running kaizen events every month. Kaizen may not yet be part of the standard industry glossary, but it is part of a growing terminology adopted by window and door manufacturers today as they grow increasingly sophisticated about producing more and better products for less. Typically, kaizen is translated from the Japanese as “continuous improvement.” A kaizen event is a rapid-deployment methodology that employs a focused, team-based approach involving both managers and plant personnel to improve a specific operation or process. In AccuWeld’s case, Seller points to one such event for the company’s glass line. “We took all of the equipment out and reorganized everything. A piecemeal approach doesn’t work. You’ve got to have a total change.”
 
 
AccuWeld is a Window & Door Top 100 manufacturer, with about 250 employees and sales reported in the $30 million to $40 million range, but even smaller manufacturers have undergone“a lean transformation.” Yale Industries in Dayton, OH, employs 14 people in its window operations. In 2001, it signed up to be part of the American Window Alliance, a group of fabricators around the country working with Dayton Technologies. While making plans to gear up production of its new window lines, Howard Ducker, Yale’s president, heard a news item on lean manufacturing, and simply “liked the idea.”
“Sometimes, it’s all just a matter of timing,” he recalls. He began studying lean manufacturing concepts in more detail and happened to be contacted by a consulting firm. As Yale Industries began tooling up for its new window line in early 2002, the consultants came in, examined the old process and mapped out a new one, with the primary goal of creating “one-piece flow wherever possible,” Ducker states. The consultants also ran training sessions for Yale’s workers, including a mini-manufacturing simulation involving ballpoint pens.
 
Not the Norm Yet, But the Movement is There
How common are these types of “lean transformation” in the industry? According to suppliers, they are gaining in popularity, but are not yet the norm. Mike Burk of Glass Equipment Development Inc. in Twinsburg, OH, suggests that most manufacturers are looking at the concepts, but few have implemented full-blown programs.
Almost all of the national window manufacturers have an ongoing program of some type or they’re in the process of implementing one, says Dave Pirwitz, vice president of Urban Machinery, the Cambridge, ON, supplier of vinyl-processing equipment. Below that level, such programs are rarer but, he adds, “the big guys are putting some real teeth into it.”
 Even companies that may not be undergoing a total lean transformation are taking steps in this direction, Pirwitz continues. “You see more organized maintenance programs. You see manufacturers making more organized efforts to train line operators—but kaizen events within the industry are still unusual,” Pirwitz states. Another sign that companies are more aware of these approaches is more demand for “lean” upgrades. “Companies are looking to take work-in-process out. We spend a lot of time with line balance issues.”
As for kaizen events, he notes, there are manufacturers who have tried one to see what they can learn from it. “After one, they say, ‘Hey, that was good,’ ” but, he cautions, not many companies in the industry that do one continue with others.
GED’s Burk, who regularly conducts training classes with manufacturers addressing quality and productivity issues, says he’s seen a handful of companies that have held kaizen events. “Where such steps have been taken, you can see it right away. All you have to do is look at the number of racks and carts in a facility and how many people are there looking for items or moving them around. There are places where you don’t see insulating glass carts.” He points to one company that has implemented the concept of demand-flow technology. “Workers can be seen stepping from one position in the line to the next when necessary, as part of an effort to reduce work-in-process.” Reducing floor space has also become a top priority at numerous companies, he adds. “Manufacturers are starting to come around.”
 
Delivering Results
While many window and door manufacturers may only be moving toward lean, and have yet to embrace a complete change, both Seller and Ducker report they’re pleased with the results they’ve seen at their companies. “We’re very happy with the program. The results have been astounding,” states Seller. “We’ve reduced floor space and inventory. We’ve improved quality with lower production costs and we’re able to produce more volume from the same plant.”
 


 
AccuWeld’s on-time delivery rate is 50 percent higher than it was previously, he reports. It has saved 30 percent on floor space and its inventory is now half its previous levels, despite the fact that it’s doing higher volumes. All this has been achieved without significant investments in new equipment, he notes.
Ducker offers a similarly positive assessment for Yale Industries. “Production times for units have come down significantly and the number of units the company is able to produce has also increased.” Previously, he continues, the company was able to produce as many as 35 windows a day. After becoming lean, that capacity has increased to more than 100 windows a day with the same number of workers.
Another important gain for AccuWeld and Yale Industries is improved quality. Both report declines in defect rates and the costs associated with poor quality. In a lean manufacturing environment, mistakes are identified quickly, Ducker states. With one-piece flow, one plant worker basically acts as a supplier to the next in line, and that worker can see if there are any problems. This saves money, as mistakes or defects are caught before more fabrication steps take place or other parts are added. “It’s also effective in keeping mistakes from getting out into the field,” he notes.
One key to this type of success is getting everyone involved. “Management needs to be dedicated to the change,” says Seller. “If it’s just one guy talking about it, it’s easy to be talked out of implementing this type of system. Everyone on the floor has to be brought in. You need to get the real experts in manufacturing—your people on the floor—involved.”
Ducker shares that sentiment, noting that getting his employees involved was not that difficult. “They were surprisingly open to it,” he says, speaking of his plant personnel. “Most want to do a good job and like the idea of doing new things,” he continues. As the company has moved forward with the program, he says, Yale Industries’ employees remain positive. “Things are much more open,” Ducker says. “We used to be a top-down-oriented environment. Now we spend a lot more time talking, instead of telling people what to do.”
At AccuWeld, Seller estimates that about 95 percent of the people involved recognized the value of the program when they started learning about it and initiating change. “Now they wouldn’t think of doing it any other way.” He suggests that the bigger a company is, the more difficult it probably will be to make the change. “You have to strip away more layers of management,” he says, explaining that individual managers’ agendas may conflict with what’s best for the company.
Both executives also recommend having someone from the outside help implement the process. “I can’t imagine trying to do it internally, working out of a book,” says Seller. Training is key, and few companies have personnel literate enough in the process of change.
What are some of the challenges to making the change? Seller and Ducker agree: It’s not the initial implementation, it’s keeping it going. “It’s like a crash diet,” says Seller. “We all know that someone can go and lose 100 pounds. The challenge is to keep the weight off for the long term.” The idea of continuous improvement is a challenge, he continues. “People like to be comfortable.”
“You have to keep talking about it,” agrees Ducker. “Keeping people motivated is a big challenge.” Staying with this type of program continues to produce rewards, however. Yale Industries still has kaizen events, and it continues to find improvements “all the time,” he reports. Seller agrees. AccuWeld also holds kaizen events on a regular basis. “We find something every time. I don’t care how small it is, there’s always a gain.”
Looking at the industry in general, Burk sees companies bringing in consultants to implement lean programs and developing their own programs. Most appear to pick and choose among the various approaches, focusing on their major issues and finding ways to solve them. “Competition in the market is doing it,” he notes. “Everyone has to compete on quality, cost and delivery, and you have to be lean to do that.”
As an equipment supplier, Urban doesn’t try to push particular manufacturing approaches or concepts, Pirwitz notes. “We see lean working in certain situations, but it may not work in others.” Yet he foresees some form of “process improvement” evolving to meet the needs of the industry more generally. Many concepts can be adapted and molded down to windows and all the variables in sizes and options this industry has. “You have to remember, it’s only been during the past five-to-10 years that these concepts have become mainstream for manufacturing in general,” Pirwitz points out. “The window industry has traditionally been somewhat behind because of all the variables.”
“The industry has always been fairly conservative,” Ducker adds. Yet he sees these practices becoming more common. He points to the other member companies of the American Window Alliance. All of them, he reports, have adopted lean-manufacturing concepts to some extent. Whether more companies adopt a complete lean transformation is difficult to predict, but it’s something he would “absolutely recommend, without hesitation,” to just about any window manufacturer. And, he adds, anyone can learn about it. “Toyota’s been doing it for years. There’s literature available everywhere. There’s information all over the Internet.”
Why don’t more window and door manufacturers adopt this type of change? “Many people are skeptical about the gains that can be made if they haven’t really experienced the process,” says Seller. “I don’t know how much I want to promote it,” he adds, pointing to the competitive advantage it provides to AccuWeld. Yet, he adds, every manufacturer—no matter what size—who implements this type of continuous improvement system can benefit from it.