Fourteen years ago, father-and-son team Charlie and Greg White started Economy Cabinets, Inc. with three employees in a rented space the size of a garage. Today the White, Ga.-based company — which has expanded its original plywood cabinet product to include wholesale birch, oak, maple and poplar cabinets — is located in a 15,000-square-foot facility and employs 12 people. This summer, Economy will move into a 30,000-square-foot building across the street from its current location.
“We’ve had really rapid growth in the past couple of years, and our company has more than doubled in size,” noted Jonathan White, the company’s vice president. “I don’t have a background in engineering or manufacturing, and I really wanted our business to be poised for growth once we moved into the new facility.”
To address this challenge, White sought the counsel of David Apple, northwest Georgia region manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. White asked for assistance implementing lean management principles, a set of tools widely used in manufacturing to help identify and steadily eliminate waste from an organization’s operations.
Apple developed a plant layout for both the current and future facilities, an activity that pointed out opportunities for improving efficiency. By timing all of the individual steps in making cabinets, he identified a time spike on gluing and sanding doors.
“All of the individual processes were taking one or two minutes, and when we got to the putty and sanding, the time required was over seven minutes. It was astronomical,” White recalled. “We knew we had to solve that, so I found a new cutting tool that eliminated the need for putty and sanding. It cut that final step down to less than two minutes.”
White also attended Georgia Tech’s lean boot camp, a four-day class that teaches participants how lean impacts profit, lead-time, inventory, quality and customer service. By the end of the course, White was able to map both current and future value streams, identify appropriate techniques for improvement, develop a lean strategy for Economy and plan the application of specific lean techniques.
The first area he tackled was 5S, a philosophy of organizing and managing the workspace with the intent to improve efficiency and safety.
“The visual cues and 5S and having everything in its place – all of that was a novel idea to my employees when we started and now it’s just a way of life,” White said. “Before the lean boot camp, I understood some of the lean concepts, but I didn’t get the big picture. Now I understand it.”
White implemented visual cues to assist with re-ordering the company’s saw blades. Prior to implementing this tool, White would work directly with the person sharpening his saw blades, guessing which machines needed new blades and distributing them to the floor himself. Now, the vendor merely visits a tool board on which the blades needing to be sharpened are hung by employees. This allows him to basically service the entire shop himself.
“This was a hidden waste. It’s a huge waste when you have a saw down for two hours, while someone goes to get a new blade because you ran out of sharp blades,” Apple observed. “Now, the operator always has a sharp blade available when it’s needed, it eliminates searching for a blade he doesn’t have, and it eliminates buying unneeded, new blades.”
Although the cabinet industry overall has suffered a 15 percent business decline this year, sales for Economy Cabinets are up by 10 percent. Through attrition, the workforce at Economy Cabinets has decreased by five employees, but White says that his company’s productivity has increased by 20 percent and inventory has been reduced by 15 percent.
Economy Cabinets has also received assistance from e2e Works, a program of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute that helps entrepreneurs in the state of Georgia.
Andy Helm, an entrepreneur outreach specialist with e2e Works, continues to assist Economy Cabinets by providing expertise in business management practices, technical assistance and access to a variety of industry-specific resources. E2e Works entrepreneur outreach specialists are charged with helping existing entrepreneurs and startup companies in rural Georgia grow their businesses.
“The efficiencies that Jonathan has gotten through the plant have allowed him to meet delivery times that his competitors can’t, and that’s a huge competitive advantage in this industry,” said Helm. “It’s that customer service that keeps his clients coming back.”
White also credits being able to meet deadlines and increase efficiency to having a committed workforce. By offering workers a four-day, 40-hour work week and monetary incentives for meeting goals, he has also seen a dramatic difference in the company’s turnover rate.
“We’re grateful to Andy and David and Georgia Tech for the impact they’ve made on the company,” he said. “Lean is a journey; it’s something you do every day.”
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Writer: Nancy Fullbright