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Successful Implementations in Lean

Lean is "In the Cards" for Checkerboard Ltd.

By Karen Myhaver, Outreach Specialist, MassMEP

"Checkerboard is in the specialty greeting card and invitation business. Our competition is going overseas, but, doing this takes away their ability to be creative and agile and to do specialty work. They can only get large shipments (from overseas) and this limits variety, smaller quantities, and uniqueness. Checkerboard is doing well because we work in small batches and can react to customer demand quickly."
— Micah Chase, President, Checkerboard Ltd.

With 15-30% growth annually over the past decade, obviously Checkerboard was making good decisions. They knew that in order to accommodate continuous growth, seasonal spikes in business, and remain competitive, they needed to increase production speed and improve quality. To separate themselves further from the mass-produced products of overseas competitors, Checkerboard chose to make high-end custom orders and innovative designs their niche, while continuing to focus on delivery and customer satisfaction. They realized the need to learn to operate more efficiently and "grow well" with quality processes in place.

Micah Chase, Checkerboard’s President, chose Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP) to assist them in making this happen. James Gusha, a MassMEP Lead Project Manager assisted Checkerboard in applying for WTF (Workforce Training Fund) grants . Then over the next few years, project manager Kevin Smith, a MassMEP Project Manager, and some of his colleagues worked with Checkerboard to teach them about the tools and methodologies of Lean Manufacturing. 

Stick With It, Learn From It
Every Checkerboard team member received a basic overview of Lean by participating in Time Wise LE101 training. Then employee teams were formed to learn additional Lean Techniques and spearhead work throughout different areas of the company. Value Stream Mapping (VSM) helped determine areas of waste and inefficiency in manufacturing, new product development/converting, catalog-making, and order processing/customer service. Kaizen events were held to help focus on flow in all the value streams and on any areas of waste.

Work included 5S to clean and organize the stock room and other locations throughout the business, form work cells, and implement more visual signals and tools. In new product development a process was introduced to improve information management and eliminate excessive waiting time from initial design through converting. The catalog-making process was improved by introducing visual signals, reducing batch size, and creating better flow. Prepress customer service/billing/typesetting, saw increased efficiency and speed through the formation of work cells with teams of cross-trained members. These agile teams can meet the three day delivery goal.

Batching was eliminated using standardized work, first in first out (FIFO), and more visual cues. The work cells have improved communication between employees and with clients. Micah believes that "having some success internally for employees to see, helped immensely. It shows them that they have to struggle through changes and that sometimes there will even be failures, but that you still have to stick with it and learn from it."

Committed Leadership
There have been struggles and cultural issues with long time employees who were resistant to change. But Micah was committed to the process and said that Lean is what they were doing and there was no choice in the matter. He knew that this was the path that Checkerboard needed to take to stay in the game. His commitment has made a huge difference because he is helping to drive the change internally. Micah has been involved with nearly every Lean activity that has taken place at Checkerboard and is very open to suggestions and ideas from his employees and the MassMEP staff. The results are impressive:

  • From Two Days to Two Hours
    The Top Customer Cell in Prepress has proofs to the client in two hours as opposed to 1 or 2 days. They respond to e-mails within an hour. This has helped manufacturing hit their 3 day delivery goalSales have gone up – dealer sales are increasing and the clients are voicing their satisfaction. At a recent National Stationery Show in New York they had great feedback and numerous orders for catalogs. Checkerboard is now considered one of the top three in their industry and is known as the reliable one!

  • Increased Capacity, Decreased Space
    Due to the Lean work done throughout manufacturing Checkerboard is producing more in less space. As a result, Catalog-printing was moved to the main manufacturing floor. By relocating and adopting other improvements, material travel distance was reduced from about 1553 feet per page to 82 feet during the catalog making process.

  • Scalable Work Cells
    The Cellular Flow system has allowed Checkerboard to do a larger volume of business in a smaller space, to give better service, and meet client demand. Checkerboard teams continued to change and improve the cells. They can address the quality issues faster and are working to perfect processes and remove problems. Quality is easier to control when inspection is done at the source. The cellular structure is scalable according to need/volume and is working well for the company since their work is so varied.

  • Meeting 3-Day Delivery Goal
    The delivery goal is 3 days. Before their work with MassMEP, on time delivery was around 90% falling to about 70% during the busy season. Now shipments are 98-100% on time per month. The 3-day delivery goal was even met during the holiday season when volume is three times normal. They credit this success to the formation of the work cells. Reprints are down, too. Micah believes this is due to improved communication between departments. People are working together and feeling good about what they do. Leaders are emerging. There has been a cultural change.

  • Employment and Sales Revenue Up
    In the past few years employee numbers have increased at Checkerboard from 104 to 154 and sales revenue has grown 20-30% per year. Employees are received well-rounded training and better pay and are more motivated and educated. There has been upward movement within the company. There is greater job security because people are cross-trained to do many jobs. Now the company is less vulnerable and more robust.

"Lean has helped with employee retention and in getting new employees," says Micah Chase. "You know you are doing something right when employees bring their family members in to work at Checkerboard. It is a testament to how good a place it is to work."

"Anything we have done so far has more than paid for itself"
"Anyone who thinks two years is all it takes to ‘do Lean’ is crazy!" says Micah. "But anything we have done so far has more than paid for itself. We have so many tools and improvements. People now attack problems using the lean tools. We have created capacity and we are growing so we may actually use that extra warehouse space. That our business has grown and is scalable is the strongest statement in a contracting industry that is going overseas. We are growing rapidly and doing all our manufacturing right in Massachusetts and very competitively. We can produce everything we need ourselves."

"The Lean training with the MEP gave us important tools — it taught us to fish. The clock making (Le101) showed us how to adjust our process flow and utilize problem-solving skills. The Lean concepts in general allow for the trial and error involved in getting something just right. For instance, when MEP was suggesting the benefits of utilizing work cells at Checkerboard, I visited another manufacturer that was using a cellular layout. Seeing the process work sold me on the benefit of cells. It also helped me focus on the desired outcome during unsuccessful early attempts."

"Checkerboard could not have picked a better partner than MassMEP. A huge part of our success was their willingness to work with us and to keep coming back to help. Kevin and other staff members came in before, during, and after projects and helped us tweak and rework as needed along the way. The MassMEP is always very receptive. This was very beneficial and made things much more successful. Plus, it was great that they kept in touch to make sure everything was moving along and to offer assistance and support along the way. This helped us work through any potential issues as they came up. I recommend MassMEP all the time!"

Micah Chase, President, Checkerboard Ltd.


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