As you head west from the Mississippi River across the United States the landscape becomes increasingly, spectacularly more beautiful until you finally reach California, home of the most beautiful places of all. There are plenty of great places along the way, to be sure, but California’s collection of fertile farm land, vast amounts of timber and, of course, gold, made it the truly promised land back in the westward migration days. Yet the trails are strewn with farms, towns and cities built by people who stopped along the way and decided that was far enough … better than the old farm in Ohio or Indiana, so – mission accomplished, we stop here.
I’m sure they had lots of good reasons for deciding some spot along the Oregon Trail was good enough, but I have to believe if they had only known what was awaiting them if they summoned up the strength and fortitude to push on a little further they never would have quit. They never would have settled for 'good enough' rather than going for the whole enchilada.
The same can be said of companies like La Z Boy and others that charge out of the starting gate with a commitment to lean tools, celebrate the great improvement they make over old school tools – then quit the journey. The bosses just never seem to have grasped a vision of the promised land that awaits just over the horizon and the next set of mountains.
Six years ago Kevin Meyer wrote about La Z Boy, quoting their treasurer as saying, “Delivery speed is why La-Z-Boy continues to assemble upholstered products in America and why it likely always will, said Stegeman, the company treasurer. La-Z-Boy uses Toyota's production system that eliminates waste, operates with virtually no inventory, and continually improves production. The Michigan firm calls its version "celluar" manufacturing, or using a team or "cell" of employees with the skills to make an item of furniture, like a sofa. They produce customized items quickly and as needed, saving on resources, inventory, warehousing, and delays.”
Six years later you can read the La Z Boy web site and learn that “At La-Z-Boy, we are investing in our plants and doing everything we can to remain a trusted, strong and competitive employer in the U.S. We recently launched a new “cellular manufacturing” process that increases efficiency and gives our American employees more job satisfaction and ownership of the products they craft on our behalf. Our American-made advantage allows us to provide the fastest custom-order furniture delivery possible, a feat none of our competitors with outsourced production facilities can match.”
They sound pretty much the same in 2013 as they did in 2006. So much for continuous improvement … not much has changed at La Z Boy in seven years.
In fact, La Z Boy in New Zealand never got the message – “In 1970 Morgan Furniture of Takapuna, New Zealand, founded by Jack Morgan, commenced manufacture of the La-Z-Boy recliner for Australia and New Zealand. In September 2007 [ a year after the treasurer proclaimed the value of speed] his son Graham Morgan announced that the company was to import the furniture from China and Thailand with the loss of around 200 Auckland manufacturing jobs.”
And La Z Boy in the UK is doesn’t seem to know much about the whole lean thing – at least in the same terms the U.S. side of the family knows it: “La Z Boy UK has recently completed a major overhaul of operations at its factory in China, to cement its reputation as a world-class furniture manufacturer. The firm has made a $400,000 investment to introduce a 90-point lean manufacturing programme that has seen the factory employ advanced manufacturing techniques … As a result, all lead times for made-to-order furniture are now consistent at 10-12 weeks.”
The company treasurer sees lean as the key to delivery speed, and he sees delivery speed as essential to their success. In the UK, three months for a custom made recliner seems to be good enough for them, although it is hard to imagine a whole lot of folks are willing to wait three times as long for a recliner as it takes to make a GE locomotive, or eight times longer than it takes Toyota to make a car to order.
The top management at La Z Boy must be pretty well disconnected with lean for this sort of thing to be taking place – content to see lean as nothing more than a quick, slick way to slap imported parts together to make a chair – but no so slick and quick as to compel the folks in New Zealand or the UK to do the same.
They obviously started down the lean trail, realized a quick and easy benefit from it – and then called a halt. Declared it a success – good enough – leaving the lion’s share of lean’s potential unrealized. This is the sort of thing that takes place when lean is understood as a technique for generally getting better, rather than as an initiative deployed directly in support of strategy.
Hopefully the leadership of La Z Boy will figure it out soon. In the meantime it will be interesting seeing how that $400K investment in lean in China to get three month lead times for chairs works out for the boys in the UK.