When Couches Fly

Rowe Furniture Inc. vows not to fall to imports. All it needs is a faster way to make sofas and chairs.

For Bruce Birnbach, the dining room may be the scariest part of the house.

It's not that he's insecure about his table manners. It's just that for Birnbach, the president and COO of Rowe Furniture Inc., the dining room represents a vision of a future he's struggling desperately to avoid. Since January 2001, at least 49 U.S. plants specializing in wood furniture — think dining tables and bedroom sets — have closed. Imports have seized 52% of the market.

Fortunately, Rowe makes upholstered furniture — sofas, ottomans, and such. Because these can come in so many styles and fabrics, they've proven tougher for exporters like China to reproduce in bulk. Still, trouble is looming: Imports have snagged about 16% of this market, compared with 9% five years ago. Birnbach is determined not to cede the living room to foreign producers. He's determined not to close 58-year-old Rowe's factories, and he's determined to keep its 1,464 production jobs here in the United States. The only way to do that, Birnbach believes, is to offer more styles and fabrics, and better quality. But above all, Rowe desperately needs a 10-day sofa.

If you've ever ordered furniture, you know that interplanetary missions have been planned and launched in less time than it takes to produce a made-to-order armchair or sofa. Before 1983, Rowe could take up to six weeks to produce and deliver a sofa. By 1987, Rowe had trimmed that to 30 days, increasing revenue from $60 million to $90 million. Now Rowe, which generates $176 million in annual sales, aims to slash turnaround by two-thirds over the next year, becoming as efficient at making furniture as Toyota is at making cars. "I want to show American manufacturers that there are other ways to compete than letting manufacturing go," Birnbach says.

For a manufacturing operation as antediluvian as Rowe's, the 10-day sofa is an audacious goal. The Virginia-based company supplies midlevel furniture in more than 600 fabrics to about 1,500 retailers across the country, including Storehouse, a chain owned by its parent, the Rowe Companies. It specializes in batch manufacturing: Cutting, sewing, framing, and upholstering are dispersed throughout a plant with minimal interaction among departments. The goal is to have the maximum amount of work in progress, with batches of inventory for other departments. That keeps everyone busy and creates impressive-looking mountains of arm coverings and frames, but it also causes a host of problems. Overdue orders are held back to create a batch, then mixed with new orders, increasing the likelihood that they'll be even later. Materials are easily lost amid the messy stacks of inventory. Fred Stanley, who once oversaw six upholstery lines at Rowe's Elliston, Virginia, plant, would spend hours crisscrossing the enormous factory looking for missing supplies. "When you're searching," he says, "you're not making furniture." Mistakes would be put aside to be repaired later, littering the factory floor with incomplete furniture. It would take 27.5 hours for a cushion that required just 10 minutes to stitch to make it to stuffing, the next spot on the production line.

Despite all the inefficiency, management demands high productivity, and that means Rowe is a tough place to work. Notwithstanding its spacious new factory, gym, video store, and staff concierge, Rowe "was a sweatshop," says Stanley, 45, one of many second-generation employees.

Rowe's transformation began last year after Birnbach concluded that 10-day delivery would give the company a big edge. Mike Boggins, the vice president of engineering, and his staff researched lean manufacturing and came across a step-by-step guide called Fast Track to Waste-Free Manufacturing: Straight Talk From a Plant Manager (Productivity Press, 1999). The author, John W. Davis, had rescued a factory he managed by making the sort of radical changes that Rowe needed. Rowe began putting his ideas into practice with two new production lines, one in Elliston and another in its plant in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

The new lines, dubbed "focus factories" because they're meant to be self-contained within the larger plant, eliminate wasted floor space and greatly reduce unnecessary walking and material handling. Cutters, sewers, framers, and upholsterers sit together, roughly in production sequence, close enough to hand some pieces to one another. Most are cross-trained so they can help each other out when needed.

The line is designed for continuous work flow within each department and between departments. Typically seated in a U-shaped station, surrounded by three types of machines, a sewer can reach for supplies and perform different operations in one place rather than walking to separate machines. That allows her to complete a single piece and pass it down the line. Piles, or work in progress, are kept to a minimum. Such measures dramatically reduce inventory, which Rowe expects will ultimately clear about 80,000 square feet of floor space in Elliston, making room for more lines.

The company sets the basic outlines of a focus factory, then the employees work with staff engineers to decide what goes where. Once the line is up and running, they're expected to continuously improve the operation. Stanley, who supervises the original focus factory in Elliston, gives a different team member a legal pad each week. The assignment: "Tell me five things we're doing right and five things we're doing wrong."

Giving feedback is a new experience for frontline workers at Rowe. "[The managers] make you feel you're important to this company," says Rhonda Melton, a lead sewer and dispatcher. "They want your opinions."

Early on, though, Boggins and his engineering staff faced resistance. Some workers were scared to try something new. Longtime employees in particular were skeptical, having seen previous attempts at change flop. And, of course, there were those who worried that becoming lean was a prelude to layoffs. Birnbach vowed that wasn't the case. True, the idea was to use fewer employees on the line, he said, but no one would be laid off. The staff would be trimmed over time through attrition.

Besides making a 10-day couch, Elliston's first focus factory produces 5% more furniture, 100 or more pieces a day, with 10% fewer workers. Because work gets inspected and repaired immediately, the error rate is 0.1%, compared with 3% plantwide. Quality is up in general, too: Because workers who sew arm pieces can now see firsthand how the upholsterers attach them to frames, for example, they recognized the need for a precise half-inch seam to make a snug fit.

Despite the increased productivity, the atmosphere in the focus factories is considerably less stressful. Absenteeism is nearly half what it is elsewhere in the plant. Employees feel a greater sense of job satisfaction. And there are other incentives. Each morning, the line is assigned a set number of pieces for that day. If it finishes the order early, everyone goes home early, but they still get paid for a full day. Eventually, each focus factory will operate like its own business; if it gets the job done with 50 employees instead of 56, some of the savings will get passed on to the team members.

Rowe expects to offer 10-day delivery to all of its retailers next year. For now, as it converts one line at a time, it's testing out the program with a few customers, about 10% of total output.

Occasionally, as he describes how far Rowe has come, Birnbach's eyes well up. He blushes. He can't help it. He has known some of his employees for 25 years, since he started at Rowe the summers during college. "This is emotional for me," he says. "We have employees who have been here 20 and 30 years who are adapting to the changes. We have an obligation to them. I tell them we're not walking away from you or anybody else. Here's what we need to survive."

Fast Take: Sofa, So Good

Here's how Rowe Furniture is transforming itself into a lean, mean sofa-making machine.

  • Flexibility The new production lines aren't carbon copies. Working with engineers, employees configure each line according to the type of furniture made and their specific needs.
  • Transparency The lines are located in the main plant, not hidden away. Everything from absenteeism to output gets posted.
  • Versatility Employees learn the jobs closest to them so they can pitch in when the work flow is out of balance.
  • Unity Employees sign an agreement when they join a new line. It underscores the shift to team goals, and says they're committed to helping colleagues and treating them with respect.

Chuck Salter is a Fast Company senior writer based in Chicago.

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