New Balance is well known for their focus on lean manufacturing, which has allowed them to be globally competitive from factories in the United States. We’ve written about them before, as have our friends Mark Graban at the Lean Blog and Kathleen Fasanella at Fashion-Incubator. Kathleen’s blog provides a rather unique and surprisingly intriguing (at least for those of us in the greasy and apparently knuckle-dragging manufacturing world) discussion of lean in the sewing and apparel manufacturing industry.
Yesterday Kathleen shot me a note with a link to another interesting story on New Balance, and she was so understandably excited that she didn’t want to wait for me to blog about it, so she also wrote a great post. Not only are their six U.S. factories very lean, they are now taking the best of the best to create a production line that takes lean to new extremes. They call this "Super Team 33."
What is Super Team 33? Out of the 6 New Balance factories in the USA, one of the best is located in Skowhegan, Maine – a district famous for its shoe manufacturing. From the engineers in the factory, a special production line was built, made up of the best 28 workers and 5 craftsmen (longest career 25 years, total career of 33 workers: 265.5 years). The collection made from these talented workers was named “Super Team 33″, because of its production line #33, and because of the total number of workers on the team. They value “high quality” and “aggressiveness”, and create the best quality shoes in New Balance.
This production line, which knowing a bit about New Balance is probably in the form of series of u-shaped cells, is dedicated to a collection of shoes also known as "Super Team 33." But also knowing New Balance I bet there’s a deeper purpose behind the line besides just another shoe collection.
If you understand real lean like New Balance, you also value the knowledge, creativity, and experience of your workers. When a company like New Balance creates a team comprising their best knowledge from their best plant, they want to leverage that value to the hilt. They want to turn that creativity loose to see just how good, how efficient, how waste-free a production line can be. Then they will use what they learned to train others and spread the new methods and processes to their other cells and then the other plants. Because that’s how much a real lean company values its employees. Sure they could reduce their basic hourly labor cost by 90% by going overseas, but that few bucks an hour is returning multiples in terms of new processes that keep the company competitive.
Knowledge is an asset, not a cost. Used correctly and respectfully it can create immense value. New Balance has to continually improve because their offshored competitors are also improving. We pointed this out the other day in the article on Joseph Abboud. Standing still is the kiss of death.
I have worn New Balance shoes exclusively as my sports shoe of choice since 1980. I simply liked them for their comfort and durability during the earlier years, and for the last several years I have come to respect the company as I make more and more purchasing decisions using social/moral/ethical criteria. My wife used to call me an old fart for wearing shoes that her late father loved, but the funny thing was that he was also a manufacturing and engineering dude. With all his kids being liberal arts majors and none too understanding of his passion for tinkering, he was very adamant that my wife marry me so he’d have someone he could talk to. Looking back I bet he also realized there was a deeper quality to those shoes.
And now that she is training for a marathon, she needed top quality shoes that came in very specific widths. Guess what her coaches recommended and what she bought and now loves. Yep, New Balance. Because they leveraged the knowledge of their workers to create value for their customer.