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Manufacturing Success Stories

Quabaug Corporation Puts their Hearts and Soles into Lean

Interview with Jim Barkoskie, VP Human Resources and Craig Barton, General Manager
– Written/Submitted by Karen Myhaver, Outreach Specialist, MassMEP

Since 1916, the Quabaug Corporation has been designing and manufacturing a variety of rubber products and soling for footwear in their plant in rural North Brookfield, Massachusetts. For over 40 years, they have been under exclusive license as the manufacturer of Vibram® soles and soling products in North America. Vibram® is an Italian manufacturer of soling, known as the best in the industry. For Vibram®, Quabaug provides soles for high end work, military, and outdoor boots. There are over 300 team members at Quabaug Corporation’s North Brookfield location. One of the area’s largest employers, the business is an integral part of this small New England town.

Quabaug Corporation is driven by the desire for continued success in a very competitive environment where they are one of the only remaining manufacturers of their kind. China is now their main competition. In order to reach their goals of remaining viable, competitive, and, above all, staying in the US, Quabaug knew they had to continue to get better at what they do. They needed to level the playing field with China and this was the driving force behind their desire to improve. With the rising costs of health insurance, raw materials, and utilities, they knew they needed to continue to learn and grow and evolve, and so did their methods. 

"There were other organizations that could have assisted us with (WFT) Workforce Training grants and who offered Lean training, but Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s (MassMEP’s) Rich Emmons had the right chemistry. He has a strong background, is a local guy, and we just ‘clicked.’ After several years of working together, we have never regretted our choice," said Jim Barkoskie, Vice President of Human Resources at Quabaug Corporation.

After making his initial contact with the company, Rich was invited to spend some time at Quabaug and do a Lean Assessment of the facility and its processes. Then he provided a report of his findings and suggestions to Quabaug’s management team. Rich also worked with Jim to help the company apply for a Work Force Training Fund grant to offset costs of proposed training. "Rich was very knowledgeable about the process and the wording. He was also incredibly intuitive about what Quabaug’s specific needs were and made sure these were never lost sight of," said, Mr. Barkoskie.

Around the same time, Craig Barton, Quabaug’s General Manager, Mike Gionfriddo, President/COO, and a colleague were exposed to Lean concepts by participating in a six week Lean Certificate program hosted by Solutia, a company in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts. The series was cosponsored by AIM (Associated Industries of Massachusetts) and the MassMEP. Rich Emmons did a good deal of the training. During these sessions, participants were introduced to the Lean tools of Value Stream Mapping and Kaizen and participated in several basic Lean training events. (Time Wise Le101) Craig said that this was an eye-opening experience that truly sold them on the benefits of Lean. In fact, it made them decide that Quabaug Corporation would proceed with Lean training regardless of whether or not they received grant funding.

Demonstrating Success
As with any change to long standing practices, there was a natural reluctance or resistance by some so it was felt that demonstrating a "Quabaug" success would be more effective than reviewing non-Quabaug theory. This was accomplished by putting some of their lean education to use in the Polyurethane Department, a newer department at Quabaug. They began by mapping the current state Value Stream and doing a spaghetti diagram of the existing process from the time they began production to when product was shipped out the door. They determined what the future state would be – what did they want to see changed and what was the desired outcome? The mapping and diagramming showed that there was a lot of product staged and waiting throughout the process, approximately five and a half days of WIP (Work in Process). There was also excessive material travel. The team decided to create a cell in the area so that the work could be handed off from step to step in a one piece flow.   Showing what a huge impact such a small change could make in this department was integral to the eventual buy in to Lean training by even the staunchest critics.

The next step was to get the majority of Quabaug associates up to speed with some introductory Lean training. Several Time Wise Lean 101 events were scheduled off site, and nearly everyone, from the CEO to team leaders to hourly associates, participated. Afterwards, these associates could bring their knowledge back to their departments. The training sessions taught basic Lean concepts in a day long program of classroom work and hands-on factory simulation. The participants felt that the training presented the material successfully and they were eager to move ahead with Lean.

Reducing Inventory
Simultaneous to working on Lean with the MassMEP, Quabaug was working with a consultant who assisted them with pull scheduling. It was natural to work on the two things at once so that the processes could evolve together since they are related. The goal was to reduce inventory and costs by producing only what they needed to produce. This idea of producing to the pull of the customer clashed with the old philosophy that if machines were not running they were wasting money

As time has passed, work has continued throughout the facility and on all shifts. There were many 6s events and Set-up Reduction Kaizens. 6s is 5s with another "s" Quabaug added for safety. In this process, the work space is cleaned and organized by sorting, shining, setting things in order, standardizing, and sustaining. Kaizen events followed the Value Streams which were mapped in many departments at Quabaug. The areas of waste were identified and the necessary improvements were made during these events. Kaizen is the Japanese term meaning, "to take it apart and put back together in a better way."

Training the Trainor
Rich Emmons facilitated "Train the Trainer Sessions" to build a strong foundation to support the long term sustaining of the Lean process. This Train the Trainer process allows new associates to be brought up to speed in house and helps ensure continuous improvement. Lean processes have become almost second nature and even the hourly associates have delighted in having their suggestions taken seriously and having the necessary improvements made. Everyone gets involved to get things done.

In the Polyurethane Department, a cell project was used to reduce throughput. What used to take five and a half days for product to get through production to shipping was reduced to having product shipped "while it is still warm" from the molding process. The piece comes off the machine, is inspected, trimmed, packed, and sent to shipping. This way quality issues are recognized and addressed immediately. In fact, the production of lesser quality product or "seconds" was reduced from the 3.5 – 4% range down to 0.2 – 0.5%. Work in process inventory has been eliminated, thereby freeing up 2,000 square feet of space. This space they gained in the department has allowed Quabaug to bring in another line of equipment, basically doubling available capacity. 

Reassuring Customers with Lean Successes
Along with the wonderful success in the Polyurethane Department cell project, Quabaug has done over 60 "mini" Kaizens to date. These were all documented with before and after pictures that can be shared with clients and customers. This helps to illustrate the steps Quabaug is taking to keep their costs low and quality and efficiency high. Lean has helped Quabaug offset the significant increases they have seen in raw materials and energy costs due to climbing petrochemical prices. Adopting Lean processes has been an integral part of minimizing cost increases to the customer. The company continues to focus on making quality improvements and real time adjustments so errors are detected as they happen, saving time and money.

Recycling scrap materials from the manufacturing process has also proven to be a lucrative way to eliminate waste and increase revenue. Small rubber pieces or "chips" have become a popular ground covering for school playgrounds and child care facilities. Quabaug has also expanded to produce some new products like pet performance products, therapy tools, and rubber mats. 

Craig mentioned that Quabaug has many long time associates who are very good at what they do. Unfortunately, every one of them has a little different way of doing their job. Lean concepts such as, standardization, cross training, and formal work instructions have had a positive impact on the workforce. It has made it much easier to get new associates up to speed and to provide consistency which is not affected by someone’s vacation or absence. This formal work instructions format that Quabaug has developed is so effective that MassMEP has used it as a model with other client companies.

Improving Customer Service Through Reduced Inventory
Initiating pull systems changed the previous mind set by proving that if machines run to produce only what is needed they have the capacity to react if there is an emergency or even to take on additional or more diverse jobs. Reducing inventory actually improved their customer service and has helped keep costs down. It has allowed Quabaug to provide their associates with the means to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively and keep the customers satisfied. Associates can see that the improvements are working and now the company is enjoying the benefits.

Quabaug’s CEO, Kevin Donahue, has not only been supportive of the Lean process he has also been actively involved as a member of several 6S teams. This support has played a significant role in the overall success the company has had with Lean Implementation and Continuous Improvement.

Quabaug credits Lean with their ability to successfully integrate into their operation the additional equipment and volume resulting from the buy out of their main competitor and the subsequent relocation of that business from Mississippi to North Brookfield, Massachusetts. Now they are one of the last manufacturers of their kind still operating in the United States . They can compete with China because they produce smaller quantities, deliver top quality product when the client wants it, and can react quickly and efficiently when changes occur. They are minding their supply chain. Continuous improvement and constant communication with their customers have been key.

"To me the ‘Key’ advantage that Quabaug has realized from the relationship with MassMEP was that we were supported and assisted with identifying building blocks to improve our efficiencies and position us to be successful in a very competitive and challenging marketplace. It is all about continuous improvement — there is no end. MassMEP assisted us with developing the tools to continue to meet new challenges."

Craig Barton, General Manager

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