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Innovation At Work

Fri, 03/16/2012 - 2:02pm
Rachel Leisemann Immel, Associate Editor, IMPO

After seeing a 40 percent year-over-year reduction in sales during the 2008 recession, Mity-Lite streamlined operations to successfully deliver new products while its industry shrank. Led by chief operations officer Brian Bowers, this Orem, UT-based lightweight table and chair manufacturer released five innovative products within a year to rejuvenate its product lines. Since 2008, Mity-Lite has introduced aluminum and plywood tables, pioneered an office-grade mesh folding chair, and expanded several product lines — all while working to bring manufacturing back from Asia.

Besides the success attained through internal opportunities, the forward-thinking strategies of this progressive company also caught the eye of the Utah Manufacturer's Association, who honored Mity-Lite with the Utah Manufacturer of the Year award in 2011.

Setting The Stage

With three new products in 2008 and four more in 2009, Mity-Lite’s dedication to create competitive and innovative products helped it become more successful after the recession than ever before. While many businesses were in survival mode, Mity-Lite began to consistently outperform its market—in 2010, by 33 percent.

Bowers saw that growing market share based on price alone with Mity-Lite’s existing products was a losing proposition. Due to the recession, growth in the industry needed to come from expanding market share and extending into existing and new markets with innovative new products. The new products successfully created new revenue streams for Mity-Lite in a downtrodden industry.

While many manufacturers may not have seen the national recession as the best time for new products, Bowers explains, “There’s a fundamental belief at the company that it’s always the right time for new products, especially in a difficult economy. More than at any other time, you need customers picking your products.”

And the strategy worked. Bowers says, “The differentiated new products really gave us the edge that we needed.”

What, Where, How

Mity-Lite’s MeshOne® and FlexOne® series folding chairs were immediate successes, winning the Utah Technology Council’s 2009 Innovation Award. And through an operational transformation including process improvement and SKU rationalization, Mity-Lite’s table leg production was drastically simplified—from 90 different leg styles to 11. “Through this simplification and additional Lean manufacturing improvements, we were able to bring all of the legs back from China because we were able to produce more cost effectively here,” says Bowers.

In 2009, all of Mity-Lite’s table leg production was sent to China until better production processes could be put in place at the Orem, UT facility. Bowers was part of the production shift to working in “cells” where workers form teams, and production equipment is functionally laid out on the shop floor to create efficient production units. Today, three workers are able to build a majority of the table legs the company needs.

“The outsourced vendors still pay the same for steel, they still pay the same for parts, and then they pay freight on top of that,” Bowers explains. Lowering the value proposition of overseas manufacturers — namely low labor costs — by eliminating waste in every step of the production process allowed Mity-Lite to return the last of the overseas leg production back to America in the spring of 2011.

Bowers stresses that a large part of Mity-Lite’s story is the focus on rationalization of the products. “If it’s not selling, why are we making the operation more complex?” Cutting the number of available leg styles made table leg production a much simpler process. Other Mity-Lite products, like lecterns, were also discontinued.

Eliminating Waste

Utilizing a Kanban system for self-scheduling production throughout the factory has eliminated wasted energy spent building unnecessary product, and the time wasted on elaborate shop floor scheduling. Mity-Lite’s Lean approach to utilizing Kanban replenishment has also improved stock inventory accuracy. Now, workers only produce what they need, when they need it.

Facility-wide process improvements have enabled a point-of-use parts presentation that has doubled Mity-Lite’s production capacity on two shifts at the 200-employee manufacturer. “We have the ability to do a lot more than we’ve ever done,” says Bowers.

So with leg production efficiently moving along, workers turned to a new obstacle: banquet seating production. Mity-Lite’s banquet chair production processes needed innovative solutions to be competitive. With a fully upholstered seat, these banquet chairs required large rolls of fabric that workers were forced to pull down, bring to the cutter, and return to the rack. A Mity-Lite employee decided to build a new machine to address the inefficient and laborious system. The new machine is loaded with multiple rolls of fabric, and rotates at the push of a button to present a roll that can then be easily pulled onto the fabric cutter. The new machine, when completed, will eliminate the difficult steps in the process, and make the entire process safer.

Bowers credits the competitive nature of his team in making process improvements, and investments in equipment, for Mity-Lite’s improved production capabilities. “We try to continually innovate, improve what we’re doing, and eliminate waste,” Bowers says.

Staying Power

While facility upgrades and process improvements increased Mity-Lite’s production capacity, they also created a much safer workplace. Mity-Lite’s OSHA rating was reduced to one third of what it was, and employee turnover has dropped dramatically.

When Bowers came on board in 2007, Mity-Lite was experiencing a 100 percent annual employee turnover on the shop floor. “Maintaining safety standards, or production standards, was impossible,” Bowers explains. Along with the facility-wide clean-up, Mity-Lite invested in its employees with training and monthly equipment instruction. Employees learned to safely work on a team, and they stayed.

“The jobs obviously weren’t very competitive because of the turnover,” Bowers says. “The jobs are much better now than when the business was purchased in 2007. Now we have very little turnover and we can pay people better and reward them for their effort and they take ownership in it.”

Voluntary employee turnover in 2010 was less than 10 percent. “It’s just a much better place for employees to work,” Bowers says. While the safety improvements and clean-up were great for production capabilities, Mity-Lite had a particular goal in mind. “We want to be a good employer in the community,” he adds.

A Job Well Done

Mity-Lite management and employees have also committed themselves to delivering on operational ‘key drivers,’ to safely and consistently deliver a quality product. They strive to deliver on metrics such as lead times, quality, and on-time delivery—which has also resulted in increased productivity and safety. Each team has a set of metrics — three to six goals — that they are measured on.

The goals are attached to a bonus potential, which for production workers is $900 each quarter. “There’s really an incentive for them to participate in these key driver metrics,” explains Bowers.  Because of the savings generated by the workers’ improvements in labor productivity and other key drivers, management has been able to triple the bonus potential over the past three years. Bowers says it has helped to keep employees involved and working as a team. But joining together to reach a common goal didn’t always go smoothly.

A month into the goals program, table production began to experience quality issues in the trim department, which comes late in the production process and caused the entire production team to miss its quality goal. The workers at the beginning of the production line believed that they shouldn’t be penalized for what was going on at the other end of the line. Management’s response? “Our customer doesn’t care where a quality issue comes from. They don’t care whether it comes from the front of the line or the back of the line. You guys are a team,” Bowers says.

The goals that originated with a team were to be completed by that team. After some resistance, workers from the front of the line began traveling down the line to help workers at the end of the line be successful. Everyone, as a team, eventually took ownership for their entire product.

“The goals are motivating and then they become something else beside just the goal and the money—there’s pride.” Bowers adds, “That’s much more valuable than the bonus.”

Vendors are held to the same standards as Mity-Lite employees. A ‘Supply Chain Performance’ scorecard displays how each vendor rates with regards to on-time delivery, quality, and accurate order completion. Vendor scorecard highlights are distributed each month with the Mity-Lite newsletter to allow vendors to see how they are performing compared to their peers.

Tables, Chairs… Dance Floors?

Mity-Lite products meet the needs of multiple markets, including hospitality. A standard product offering when Bowers came on board, Mity-Lite’s portable dance floor is not the same floor it was five years ago.

Made from real wood, the dance floor was susceptible to scratches and punctures, and was costing Mity-Lite almost more than it was selling in warranty costs. Almost 50 percent of the product that was being sold was coming back to Mity-Lite for repair. Covered by a 12-year warranty, the wood floor was warping, bending, and planks were popping. “It was a mess,” Bowers says. Weekly meetings to examine warranty expenses eventually prompted the decision that a solution to the rising warranty costs was to be met within two weeks, or the portable dance floor would be discontinued.

“Sometimes, under a little bit of motivation like that, you get very creative,” Bowers says. The engineering team went to work and decided the best solution was to make the dance floors out of a high pressure laminate. The reengineered floor looked like wood, but increased performance in the product tenfold, Bowers says. The new floor also took out labor costs; it can now be assembled in less than seven minutes, and uses high strength magnets and interlocking steel wedge bars to lock each panel of the floor together.

It took about four months, but Bowers says the portable dance floor is now a “staple product for us.”

Asleep At The Wheel

“When it happens around you over a period of weeks, months, years—you don’t realize it,” Bowers says of the constant, routine product and process improvements that are part of everyday life at Mity-Lite.

Mity-Lite hadn’t even considered being a nominee for Utah’s Manufacturer of the Year until after members of the Utah Manufacturer’s Association had been through the facility on an educational tour, unrelated to the award. The Utah Manufacturer’s Association facilitates plant tours to expose manufacturers to a variety of manufacturing facilities. The positive feedback that Mity-Lite received from members of that tour group is what prompted him to consider applying, Bowers says.

“I think we were a little guilty of falling asleep at the wheel,” Bowers says. “My first thought went back to where we were and where we are currently. The improvement has been more than sustained over the past four years.” Bowers was confident that Mity-Lite could be a strong contender to be Utah’s next Manufacturer of the Year.

“I think if you asked us before this if we would be eligible to be the Utah Manufacturer of the Year, we’d have thought we have a lot of work to do,” Bowers says.

Mity-Lite submitted an application that included information on company-wide improvements and the impact that Mity-Lite has had on the Utah economy. The Utah Manufacturer’s Association, one of Utah’s longest running trade organizations, recognized Mity-Lite as the 2011 Manufacturer of the Year at its 106th annual awards banquet. The Manufacturer of the Year award is one of the most highly sought-after awards for the industry in the state.

Bowers says everyone at Mity-Lite was proud to receive the award, and feels a sense of accomplishment, though they still recognize the opportunities ahead of them as well. Almost immediately after receiving the Utah Manufacturer of the Year title, Bowers says the sentiment of his team changed to ‘this is awesome, but we have a long way to go.’ “The impact is one of helping us,” Bowers says, “to point us back to ‘what’s next, what do we do?’”

A long standing manufacturer in Utah, the Manufacturer of the Year award is a catalyst to push Mity-Lite’s innovation into the next stage. With more goals already in mind to continue to improve production and introduce new products, Bowers says the opportunity is there to innovate, and Mity-Lite can continue to offer the most reliable products in the market. But there’s always room to grow.

Bowers says Mity-Lite’s goal is “to innovate into the next generation. We want to be ahead of everybody else who’s nipping at our heels.”

“I think we’ll be the most competitive table and chair manufacturer in the country.”

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