“Housing was at record levels and we were very confident about the market, but we saw a need to change,” explains Mike Salsieder, president and general counsel of Kolbe & Kolbe. “In the market we serve, which is the mid-high to high-end window and door business, we want to be the best, and to do that we needed to make some cultural changes in our organization to drive out non-value-added costs and activities. Even for people who are building $3, $4 and $5 million homes, lead time is critical to their builders. Lead time has always been an element, but not such a critical one as it is today.”
Competition and pricing pressures were another driver in the company’s decision to embrace Lean. In the highly splintered construction industry, where there are nearly as many sources as there are participants, builders have numerous sourcing alternatives. A company that passes along every raw material, energy and labor cost increase to its customers soon finds itself with few customers. Kolbe saw greater efficiency as one way to keep costs in line and stay competitive, and continue to be able to offer builders a high quality product.
The high-mix question
But would Lean work for Kolbe & Kolbe? Mix was the question. Salsieder and Jeff De Lonay, vice president of manufacturing for the company, point out that while 65 to 70 percent of Kolbe’s products are “custom” items, the company doesn’t build anything that isn’t already on order.
“The remodeling and commercial markets are huge for our products, and they are very custom-, very option-oriented,” De Lonay says. “We knew those segments would grow for us so we took action to be proactive about it.”
But the specter of a high-mix environment remained. With two plants turning out four different primary product lines, wood, clad and extruded aluminum and vinyl windows and doors in dozens of wood species and countless color combinations, applying Lean systems might seem impossible.
Yet, just 18 months into the transformation, Salsieder and De Lonay’s answer is an unqualified yes. After running more than 123 Rapid Improvement (RI) teams the company’s transformation efforts are beginning to meet in the middle. This is largely by design: some of the company’s earliest RI events focused on “opposite ends” of the manufacturing process, on improving efficiency in order entry “up front” and on the loading docks “out back.”
“We didn’t necessarily go after the plant right away; we set up our key metrics first,” De Lonay says. “Our Continuous Improvement (CI) program was based on four metrics: lead time, quality, productivity and inventory turns. So for lead time, if I can produce windows and doors faster, I can have a better lead time, but the process starts much farther back than that, as the order comes in.”
“We didn’t look at this as a plant/manufacturing project; we looked at it company-wide,” Salsieder adds. “So in that first week we had two events, one on the loading dock and one on inside sales.”
The maintenance component
The first maintenance member to be assigned to an RI team was on team number 123. Prior to that, no team had enjoyed any maintenance staff as “active” participants. However, maintenance and engineering members served as advisors and resources for many teams, turning ideas into applications. And as the RI projects have become more production-focused, maintenance has become more indispensable.
“Many of our teams so far have been indebted to the maintenance teams because they were so deeply involved in moving and redesigning equipment,” Salsieder notes.
One such project, covered in the MRO Pro article accompanying this story (see page 22), has involved the design and fabrication of “miniature” paint and drying booths that can be incorporated directly into assembly cells. When perfected, these will have a significant impact on cell productivity.
Not just hot air
Another project relates to air management. Compressed air is used for powering sanding and fastening tools, for dust collection blowers and paint booth guns and dryers, almost everywhere in the plant.
“We’ve spent a lot of money on energy management in the last two years,” De Lonay says. “Last year we installed an ecogate system that, by sensing the volume of air flowing through machines, can tell when those machines are not being used. The computer will close off gates to those machines and we can throttle down the motors and save some electricity.”
This system will save the company $85,000 to $90,000 a year on air and energy costs.
Mike Bartelt, one of the company’s lead electricians, explains the next step of the program. “We did the same thing with the compressed air system,” he says. “We put a computer controller on it and tied a manifold between the north and south compressor rooms to equalize pressures throughout the facility and reduce the number of compressors we needed. Originally we had seven compressors and we were able to cut that down to basically two that are running most of the time.”
His group has also added ducting to reclaim the heat off the cooling fan units and route it back into the facility.
“One of those 100-hp compressors is enough to heat 15 homes, so it adds up,” he says.
Another component of the air management system captures and re-burns exhaust fumes from natural gas burners used in adding wood preservatives to the lumber Kolbe uses.
Getting in the zone
While some efforts are system-wide, others are targeting specific cells. Kolbe & Kolbe is redeploying some maintenance teams to specific “zones,” such as paint and window assembly, that have area-specific maintenance needs and required skill sets. Paint, for example, requires knowledge of water-borne finishes, atomization and related application and drying issues as well as the ability to maintain paint sprayers, sanders and conveying systems.
The maintenance people in the window production zones are also dedicated now because they have to know much more than how to maintain nail and staple guns. Today they must also understand such technologies as flow rates for silicone glazes and Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) and be able to change programs.
To build and maintain these skills, maintenance technicians are required to earn educational credits each year. Specific amounts and types of credits are required to graduate from a Tech 2 to Tech 1 grade. Some credits may be earned in-house; others can only be earned off-site in technical schools or programs.
Changing the culture, one person at a time
An additional benefit of maintenance involvement in RI teams is that maintenance members begin to think more about building reliability into the emerging Lean systems.
“When you get some of your more experienced maintenance people involved, they start to see their work doesn’t have to be the daily grind of, ‘Hey, my machine is broke, come fix it,’ ” De Lonay notes. “We are starting to become more preventative in nature, and more creative in asking how we can do things ourselves; what’s easier, what’s simpler to do? Maybe it won’t break down as often if it’s not so complicated.”
Clear as glass
In many industries, there continues to be the question about how effective Lean concepts can be when you’re in a highly custom business. Does it work? When your company is steeped in tradition, how will your people embrace change?
“We have concluded that Lean concepts work,” Salsieder states. “Although they might be somewhat different in a service business, manufacturing or distributor or wherever you intend to employ them, they work.
“But they do require significant support from all levels of management, right to the top. You’ve got to have complete and total support and buy-in at all levels, because how this all happens is always through employee involvement.”
Take 123 teams, multiply them by six people per team and you’re looking at more than 700 people. That’s a lot of employee involvement. And those people talk to their co-workers in the cells.
“That’s how you create buy-in,” Salsieder says. “That old concept of ‘empowerment,’ which is so often overused, actually is part and parcel of this, and it’s empowerment in all kinds of ways. Their ideas are important; they come in sometimes in these RI weeks with little ideas that make you say, ‘Wow, that was a great thought!’ That really helps increase the productivity of that line.”
Today, as Kolbe & Kolbe’s continuous improvement program continues, employees and management alike are encouraged by the results they are seeing, not just on the plant floor and in the front offices, but in themselves as well. As the company gets leaner, as maintenance becomes more predictive in nature and as processes improve, so does employee buy-in and enthusiasm for the future. For Kolbe & Kolbe, the wisdom of embracing Lean has truly been crystal clear.
Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co., Inc.
Ownership: Privately held
Facilities: Wausau and Manawa, WI; over 1 million square feet combined
Products: Wood windows and doors, roll-formed aluminum clad and extruded aluminum clad windows and doors; vinyl windows and doors; fiberglass and interior doors