What do efficient remodeling companies have in common with paper airplanes and Toyota's manufacturing process? I found out during a recent trip to Iowa, in a class about continuous improvement held at the headquarters of Pella Corporation. The class is the lead-in to the window manufacturer's more advanced kaizen series of courses, inspired by the workplace quality and waste-elimination strategy used by Toyota and other leading companies.

On one whirlwind day, the warmth and exuberant learning in the classroom far overshadowed the blustery, zero-degree weather outside. Our day combined short bursts of learning with four longer segments based on teamwork.

ON THE FLY Specifically, our 16-person team was charged with building three models of paper airplanes, reworking a bulky and chaotic manufacturing line to one that would reliably produce a quality plane every 15 seconds.

First, we received a quick introduction to lean manufacturing based on the Toyota production system. We then made planes for 10 minutes, appointed a “manager,” brainstormed ways to improve quality and reduce waste, and observed as our manager convinced the “factory owner” to try our ideas. Not surprisingly, the owner resisted change, and the negotiations ended with permission to try some ideas but hold the line on others.

In the end, our team reconfigured the workspace and redistributed workloads to reduce inventory and fill orders — using half the staff as before. Success was ours, as planes came off the line every 15 seconds.

SOARING While Toyota's production system focuses on lean manufacturing, it follows some key principles that clearly apply to remodeling. Here are some of my takeaways from this wonderful course:

  • Look at continuous improvement as a philosophy that people at every level must fully embrace over a long period of time. Continuous improvement is not a Band-Aid solution. It must be embedded in the culture of a company and lived by every employee. The potential rewards are huge.
  • Encourage every worker to rethink, re-engineer, and improve his or her own processes with help from co-workers. In our group of 16, it was abundantly clear that each person, whether from bookkeeping or a factory floor, had great ideas to contribute as long as the environment was welcoming and safe. No ideas were off-limits. Our team's success could not have happened without input from all.
  • Make sure your suppliers and trade contractors buy into your vision for quality and efficiency and are committed to delivering on it. You are only as good as your weakest link, which may well be the plumber or the counter supplier.
  • Encourage well-considered experiments. If you want to shorten lead-to-design time, dissect the steps, redesign them, and time the new process on one job. Then consider reworking the process again, and maybe again, until you have a system that gives you the speed and quality you seek.
  • Clean and de-clutter your workspaces. This simple idea isn't new, but the result remains better focus, speed, and quality.
  • Consider layout for offices and jobsites alike. If your bookkeeper has to walk 20 feet to the file cabinet, or if the office manager's printer is across the room, money and time are seeping out of your company unnoticed.
  • Use visual read-outs and reports wherever possible, and post them for all to contemplate. Our team was highly motivated by seeing that each iteration brought improvements in at least some of the key benchmarks we had to meet.

Above all, create a supportive culture that recognizes and rewards continuous improvement. It's worth noting that Pella Corporation holds its continuous improvement classes each month and invites employees of all types and levels to participate.
—Linda Case is the founder of Remodelers Advantage in Laurel, Md., a company providing business solutions through a network of experts and peers. 301.490.5260; linda@remodelersadvantage.com;www.remodelersadvantage.com.