Herman Miller's American ingenuity

Co.Design's founding editor tours Herman Miller's factory and shares lessons from the company's history of small improvements.

Every 17 seconds, an Aeron chair is boxed and finished. Thirteen years ago, one Aeron chair took over 600 seconds to build. Today it takes 340 seconds. Herman Miller, producer of the ubiquitous symbol of corporate arrival, is a study in the success of American manufacturing prowess, as adopted from Japan. Co.Design's founding editor Cliff Kuang tours Herman Miller's factory and shares lessons from the company's history of small improvements.

The company's progress is based on the Kaizen process:

The Kaizen ("continual improvement") process that yielded all those results was imported directly from Toyota, in the 1990s. At the time, Herman Miller was hoping to bring down costs in order to stay competitive across the world. And Toyota was hoping to build better relationships in the U.S., as part of its effort to build more cars in America. Herman Miller’s present EVP of operations, Ken Goodson, eventually cajoled Toyota into making Herman Miller one of the first companies in a pilot program to teach American companies Japanese manufacturing techniques. Toyota eventually sent Hajime Oba, a legendary manufacturing genius, to lead the lessons. (Oba himself, humble to the end, prefers that he be called sensei or coach.)

Small moves like adjusting the assembly line height and placing parts within the reach of workers added up to impossible sounding improvements of 500% in productivity and 1,000% in quality since 1998, birth year of the Aeron. With the same amount of labor it took to produce five designs, the company now produces 17.

That labor force is also the source of ideas for improvements, suggesting tiny changes to the process every year. Even at fractions of seconds, the refinements add up to improvements year over year.

Kuang points out that the United States is still tops in manufacturing, and produces one fifth of the world’s total manufacturing output. He makes a good case for increases in efficiency contributing to that continued success. But there's something to be said for the culture of a company like Herman Miller that values different ways of thinking, encouraging workers to look beyond the familiar to find solutions, and listening to their ideas.

An American-Made Miracle: How An Aeron Chair Gets Built Every 17 Seconds [Co.Design]

Image: Herman Miller

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com