Appalachian Engineered Flooring

In less than 18 months’ time, a small wood products manufacturer in northern Vermont embraced a series of innovation initiatives to completely turn around the company—achieving consistent profitability and sustaining quality jobs for rural Vermont residents.

Appalachian Engineered Flooring began operations in North Troy, Vermont, in 2012.  The company’s owner, Jean Leduc, also owns Appalachian Flooring ltd., a manufacturer of solid hardwood flooring located in Cowansville, Quebec.

In the spring of 2014, Jean Leduc and Appalachian Engineered Flooring General Manager Jennifer Fraser concluded that the company was facing significant obstacles that went beyond normal startup challenges. Challenges in the company culture were causing staff turnover at a rate of 1 to 3 people a month in a company of approximately 20 employees. Morale was low and there was no predictability regarding production or financials.

Transformational Organizational Development

To their credit, Jean and Jennifer realized that major changes were urgently needed.  In May of 2014, the Northern Forest Center introduced them to Jeff Howe through the Center’s Wood Products Innovation program. Jeff is founder and president of Minneapolis-based Dovetail Partners and is—in the Center’s view—the nation’s leading expert in helping wood products companies implement organizational development initiatives that can transform a company.  Transformational Organizational Development focuses on:

  • Creating a culture of change that supports innovation, promotes effective workplace communication, encourages teamwork, resolves conflicts and encourages personal growth; and
  • Implementing effective planning processes, including marketing, operating, financial and human resource plans.

Jeff Howe has been one of the Center’s key partners in implementing its Wood Products Innovation program, assisting a number of companies with transformational organizational development, with the Center covering half of the cost.

“A key step was understanding the changes we needed to make. Jeff’s guidance has allowed us to make remarkable progress in one year,” said Jennifer.

At Appalachian Engineered Flooring, Jeff assisted with a transformation that focused on company culture, company values, internal communication, and conflict resolution. The changes resulted in dramatic improvements in employee morale, attendance, and a sense of commitment to the team.  The employee base has stabilized, and employee productivity has improved measurably.  The company made significant improvements in its hiring process, so that new employees fit well within the new company culture.

Lean Manufacturing

While Jeff’s work with the company continued, the improvements in company culture were significant enough by December 2014 that Appalachian Engineered Flooring was able to begin implementing a significant Lean Manufacturing initiative, fully embraced by the company’s employees. Everyone pitches in with ideas for improvement.

“Our Lean work has had a direct financial benefit. We’re producing the right stuff at the right time at the right quality for customers, and that equals profit,” said Jennifer. “We’ve learned how to be smarter about what we’re doing.”

The Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center (VMEC) has been assisting Appalachian Engineered Flooring with its lean transformation, with the Northern Forest Center covering half of the cost.  Results to date include:

  • Dramatic increase in productivity
  • Reduced lead time from 3 weeks to 4 days
  • Reduced inventory by almost  half
  • Consistent profitability

Skilled Workforce Initiative

This year, Appalachian Engineered Flooring also began implementing the Northern Forest Center’s Skilled Workforce Initiative for Wood Manufacturing. The Center’s partner in the Skilled Workforce Initiative, the Woodwork Career Alliance (WCA), worked with Appalachian Engineered Flooring to develop new Skill Standards on a number of machines not previously included in WCA’s Skill Standards. WCA trained senior company employees as In-House Evaluators, and the company used the Skill Standards to help create a new company training manual.

All manufacturing employees began participating in the in-house training program in the spring of 2015, and have been enrolled in WCA’s Woodwork Passport program. In August, WCA performed an audit that certified each employee’s level of proficiency on various machines. Those certifications are recorded in the employee’s Woodwork Passport. 

The Skilled Workforce Initiative fits well with the other initiatives being implemented by Appalachian Engineered Flooring. For example, the systematic training and credentialing of employees enhances company culture. In addition, the Skill Standards are helping to define “standard work,” which is an important concept in Lean Manufacturing. And the cross training of company employees directly helps make Lean processes more effective.

The improvements in company culture, Lean processes, and employee training have positioned the company to take advantage of growth opportunities. Already sales have been increased by 17%, and the company believes that is just the beginning. The initiatives have helped put the company on a path for long term success and continued growth.

J.K. Adams

A 70-year-old wood products manufacturer in southern Vermont is using Lean Manufacturing to improve its manufacturing process and customer service, paving the way for future growth.

J.K. Adams Co. manufactures wooden cutting boards, appetizer plates, kitchen storage products, rolling pins, wine racks and other wood products for cooking and entertaining. The company employs approximately 50 people in Dorset, Vermont.

CEO Jon Blatchford has identified substantial opportunities for J.K. Adams to grow its sales, but he concluded that the company must significantly increase its manufacturing efficiency to take advantage of these opportunities. Jon and his management team determined that Lean Manufacturing would be central to addressing this challenge and knew that for Lean to be successful, employee buy-in to the program was essential. By early 2015, Jon concluded that improvements in company culture meant that the company was ready for a successful Lean implementation.

The Northern Forest Center assisted J.K. Adams in helping the company determine the most effective way to initiate a significant Lean Manufacturing initiative. In March of 2015, the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center began providing expertise and guidance to J.K. Adams on its Lean initiative. The Northern Forest Center is covering half of the cost, using funds secured by the Vermont Wood Manufacturers Association (VWMA) from Vermont’s Working Lands Enterprise Fund.

“Our company is only seven months into our Lean journey, but already we are seeing important improvements,” said Jon. “These benefits will only increase over time as we move forward on our continuous improvement initiative through Lean.”

The first step of the initiative was to create a baseline of knowledge for all company employees, so VMEC organized and conducted a “Fundamentals of Lean 101” class for all the employees at J.K. Adams.

The second step mapped and diagrammed the manufacturing process through an exercise in Value Stream Mapping, which identified ways to improve the manufacturing process. The mapping revealed that although raw materials traveled 600 feet through 5 operations to become a finished product, employees were walking a full mile to get the job done. By moving tools around, and by making more efficient use of routers and scanners, the company was able to reduce employee walking distance by two-thirds or more.

As part of examining work flow, the company realized that some machines were used very infrequently and could be taken off the floor, or made portable to be available when needed. By making these types of changes, the company freed up enough space to be able to relocate the design team, which had been working in a separate building about five miles away, to the main facility so that the entire team will be located in one facility.

J.K. Adams has now begun to apply lean principles to its administrative side, and is using Lean principles to improve the efficiency of their customer service operations.

The company is also pursuing product development ideas to enhance the growth opportunities made possible by its Lean initiative. Jon Blatchford views the product development focus and the Lean focus as going hand in hand, with Lean making the company more nimble.

Maine Wood Concepts

In New Vineyard, Maine, a company called Maine Wood Concepts turns out everything from wooden nickels to chopsticks to yo-yos to parts for wooden trains—and so much more—supplying many other wood products manufacturing companies. The business has been in the Fletcher family since 1971, and has worked hard to adapt to changing markets and international competition. In 2012, Maine Wood Concepts launched a major expansion when it acquired the rights to a line of gourmet kitchen products from famed drumstick maker Vic Firth.

Maine Wood Concepts President Douglas Fletcher estimates they’ve made about a million different specific items, and each of them in great quantity. The company is an important employer in rural western Maine, about 15 minutes north of Farmington, where it employed about 75 workers before acquiring the rights to the kitchen product line, which it rebranded as Fletchers’ Mills.

The Center began helping Maine Wood Concepts in 2011 with financial and technical support through our Wood Products Innovation program. The Fletcher brothers wanted to update their management approach and organizational structure to keep the company growing. The Center brought in industry expert Jeff Howe of Dovetail Partners to help Maine Wood Concepts change company culture and structure to reach their goals.

To succeed in its expansion, Maine Woods Concepts had to hire about 30 new employees all at once—a 40% increase in jobs at the plant—to produce all the new kitchen products. And the expansion continues. In a feature in Northern Woodlands magazine, Doug Fletcher said Maine Wood Concepts is looking to add jobs, to expand its machine shop and research and development capacity.

The company won the Pine Tree award from the Maine Wood Products Association in 2013 in recognition of its innovation and strength in the industry. Receiving the award, Doug Fletcher told the crowd that without the help of the Center and Jeff Howe’s guidance, the company could not have managed the expansion and successfully absorbed all of the new employees. “They’re helping a very traditional business sector find new ways to be successful in a global economy.”

Read more about Maine Woods Concepts:

Northern Woodlands magazine

Maine Biz

To shop the new Fletchers’ Mill line of kitchen products: www.fletchersmill.com (click on item pictures to see details and add to shopping cart).