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Iowa State University Extension

Wood manufacturers learn about lean from all the right places

Wood products employees use lean principles.

Wood manufacturers in the state rely on hammers, nails, power saws and other tools of the trade for their craft. However, five northeast Iowa wood manufacturers now depend on a partnership and management program that ISU Extension designed for their small companies.

Extension staff from the Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) helped form the Iowa Wood Lean Partnership and acted as a mentor, showing the manufacturers who joined the partnership how they could benefit from lean manufacturing principles. All employees from the participating companies attended CIRAS’s Wood Lean 101 class, based on the lean system first advanced by the carmaker Toyota.

“They came back and completely reorganized the shop—in two hours,” says Matt Cable, owner of Distinctive Wood Works Inc., about his five employees who took the training. “They were instantly able to apply what they heard and move on. We saw improvements immediately.” The Earlville-based company manufactures cabinets and other wood products for a diverse set of clients, including Iowa State.

The training in lean manufacturing, known for eliminating waste in the production process, spurred the manufacturers to reevaluate their entire operations. CIRAS staff developed an individualized plan for each company and made two or three follow up visits through summer 2007 to set the changes in motion.

Trappist Caskets of Dubuque, whose request for assistance initiated the program, established standardized training in each workstation. Its atypical workforce, half of whom are monks, found that meeting on a regular basis improved communication between management and employees and made them work better as a team. Another bonus was a boost in the bottom line, namely a 20 percent sales increase and a 3 percent gain in sales retention.

The manufacturers realize it’s important to keep lean manufacturing principles in the forefront now that the training is over. “We must remember what we learned,” said Trappist Casket assistant manager Kelly Myers, “and grow with that knowledge.”

For more information about the program and CIRAS’s partnering organizations, see the spring 2008 issue of the CIRAS newsletter.

This article appeared in October 2008 -- From Jack Payne Newsletter