Despite its supposed bottoming out, America is still the world’s largest manufacturer, producing one fifth of the world’s manufacturing output. Although there are not as many jobs, American manufacturing is done by skilled workers using highly effective techniques without many of the extremist anti-workers pitfalls of other major economic powers. Cliff Kuang of FastCoDesign.com recently toured the factory that makes the Herman Miller Aeron chair to see how American workers make a quality product in a mind=bending 17 seconds. After having adapted processes used by Toyota in the late 90’s, the company has yielded a 500% increase in productivity and a 1,000% increase in quality since 1998. Kuang further explains those numbers:
The Kaizen (“continual improvement”) process that yielded all those results was imported directly from Toyota, in the 1990s. At the time, Herman Miller was hoping to bring down costs in order to stay competitive across the world. And Toyota was hoping to build better relationships in the U.S., as part of its effort to build more cars in America. Herman Miller’s present EVP of operations, Ken Goodson, eventually cajoled Toyota into making Herman Miller one of the first companies in a pilot program to teach American companies Japanese manufacturing techniques. Toyota eventually sent Hajime Oba, a legendary manufacturing genius, to lead the lessons. (Oba himself, humble to the end, prefers that he be called sensei or coach.)
Kaizen, as many people will tell you, isn’t about grand ideas or huge structural changes. Rather, it’s about tiny improvements that accrue over time. So for Herman Miller, these involve adjustments as minute as the placement of a bin of washers so someone has to reach over 6 inches less, or the height of an assembly line, so people don’t waste a fraction of a second bending over.
The process is as important as the results: It’s the individual employees on the line that are suggesting these improvements. At Herman Miller, they average 1,200 “plan-do-check acts”–that is, little proposed changes to the assembly process–every year. “The biggest thing is to empower people to change the work in ways that matter to them,” says Eric VanDam, Herman Miller’s director of operations in seating.
All of these tiny improvements, in the course of 13 years, have meant that a new Aeron chair, which used to come off the line every 82 seconds, is now boxed and finished every 17 seconds. A decade ago, an Aeron took more than 600 seconds in total to build. Today, it’s about 340. Meanwhile, safety metrics have improved by a factor of 6. Quality metrics have improved by a factor of 10. A single Aeron takes one fifth of the labor to make that it once did. The actual factory itself is 10 times smaller.
The ever-improving process employed on the Aeron has allowed the company to stay competitive in the global economy while having their manufacturing force based in the United States. Trusting skilled workers to adapt to highly efficient processes has paid off for the company whose workers pride themselves on their output. Companies like this make the death of the American Manufacturing Industry seem prematurely declared and should perhaps be viewed as the symbol of a maturing sector willing to do more with less.