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‘Lean’ methods cut waste

New business model energizes, transforms production methods

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Two Buck Knives employees assemble knife components. Buck Knives recently started lean manufacturing, transforming its lumbering, inventory-laden, inefficient assembly lines into the fast-response work cells.

Two Buck Knives employees assemble knife components. Buck Knives recently started lean manufacturing, transforming its lumbering, inventory-laden, inefficient assembly lines into the fast-response work cells.

Associated Press

POST FALLS, Idaho (AP) — North Idaho has a promising new business model that may help to invigorate manufacturing and give vocational hope to many in the area's work force.

Lean manufacturing was brought to Post Falls by Buck Knives Inc. when it began production in its new facility this year.

"Lean manufacturing is a philosophy with a series of tools to get there," said C.J. Buck, president and chief executive.

Three years ago, Buck Knives was manufacturing the old way, using long, specialized assembly lines that resulted in the need to warehouse large amounts of partially completed knives that were not yet ready to be shipped or sold. This unusable inventory — work in progress — had a considerable amount of labor invested, took up floor space and needed to be tracked.

Buck Knives was introduced to lean manufacturing by its executive vice president of operations, Phil Duckett, and began to transform its lumbering, inventory-laden, inefficient assembly lines into the fast-response work cells of today.

Lean manufacturing is a new way of looking at production that starts from the premise that adding value for the customer is the primary goal.

"It's the elimination of waste, and you define waste as anything that doesn't bring value to the customer," Buck said.

This premise uses several tools to accomplish that goal.

One tool, value stream analysis, attempts to identify actions that create value for the customer and those that do not. It is a mapping exercise that contrasts current methods with a variety of alternate actions.

A process called a Kaizen Event is then used to problem-solve these value streams. Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning gradual and orderly continuous improvement.

Buck said that in a Kaizen Event, six to eight people — who may include vendors and customers — are immersed in a brainstorming session of 48 to 72 hours. This is in contrast to the one-hour weekly sessions spread out over months that characterized problem-solving before, often with meager results.

"The Kaizen Event won't be effective if it is not facilitated, and the people involved don't have some team skills," Buck said.

Ray Ramos, production control/lean enterprise manager at Buck, said that during the Kaizen Event all you do is work on the project.

"You leave your phone, pagers, whatever, out on the floor. You all work together. We provide lunch, breakfast, whatever it is, that's all you need to work on the project.

"At the end of the beat, that project is done, implemented, changes are made and presented to top management."

Many of these solutions are about enabling those who do the work.

"One of the goals of a lean organization is to push down the ability to say, 'Yes,' " Buck said. "The closer the decision can come to the person doing the work, the more efficient the process."

Lean organizations are constantly trying to reduce waste. This means using the concept of work cells — 12 or 13 people at Buck Knives — to assemble a completed product from beginning to end.

"These cells are self-defined," Buck said. "We use our own people to define what each station does, and that gives the cell a vested interest to make it work."

Work cells at Buck Knives have several advantages, among them the ability to quickly change knife models.

"To change the model a cell is working on just takes the first person to get a new box of materials and start the new model," said Chuck Buck, chairman of the board.

Another obvious benefit is that there is no work in progress. There are either just knife parts or there are completed knives, nothing in between.

Finally, the work-cell participants are cross-trained and have added value in that capacity. It enables the cell and the company to continue in spite of absences caused by illness or vacation.

The better that lean principles are implemented in a company, the closer that production can approach Just In Time (JIT) operations. JIT is a concept that uses physical inventory control cues — called Kanban — to visually signal a need to move parts or order more parts. Kanban uses clearly labeled control cards in each work cell location to signal low inventories of a certain part.

The JIT principle keeps raw component parts and final product inventories low. It is about knowing the time needed to produce customer orders and time estimated to receive incoming stock from various vendors. The end result is a more efficient parts flow, money saved that is not invested in parts or unsold product and a dramatically improved cash flow.

At a special presentation by North Idaho College at Buck Knives recently, Robert Ketchum, executive director at the school's Workforce Training Center, outlined the effort to start a Lean Enterprise Center to train industry and its work force in lean enterprise principles and techniques.

"This area of 'lean' is something that we're picking up as increasingly critical across all industry sectors," Ketchum said.

Janet Bourque, who is helping the school write a grant proposal to help fund it, stresses that it is important for a broad spectrum of businesses including health care, banking, services and nonprofits.

"Lean manufacturing is like the big superwave coming in," Bourque said. "The companies that are on that surfboard on that wave are going to meet the goal; the ones that are not using lean are going to fall off and drown.

"A two-person company can take these principles and use them as well as someone like Buck."