"We grew so fast, it was all we could do to keep up with demand," says Julie Moorehead, director of corporate communications.
So the company launched a three-year project to revamp its entire manufacturing system. Today, it still makes baskets by hand, but every other facet of the production process has changed. Not a single aspect was considered sacred -- bar the hand-crafting -- or left untouched by employee teams tasked with the goal of making better baskets, and making them faster.
Company President and CEO Tami Longaberger learned from her father and company founder Dave Longaberger that the best place to initiate change is at the employee level.
"If management had tried to push changes onto employees, the recommended changes probably would have been met with resistance," says Longaberger. "We relied on a lesson my father taught us. He said, 'Talk to the people who do the job. They know how to improve the processes best.'"
It turns out he was right.
Longaberger and the management team set the vision and goals for change, then stepped back and gave employee teams the freedom to explore ideas to make those visions a reality. Having employees lead change was an adjustment for company supervisors, but it worked out well.
"In the old environment the supervisor was the problem-solver and made decisions," says vice president of manufacturing and human resources Jim Gimeson. "Now the supervisor is more like a mentor or coach. It took some adjustment."
Longaberger says that led to more sweeping changes than management had expected. And after the second year of the three-year process and a $20 million capital investment, the company is seeing results -- the first new workshop shaved days off its production rate, improved the quality of the product and resulted in less waste and increased productivity.
Give them an inch ...
Longaberger knew that utilizing employee involvement to create change would be effective, and she had no trouble getting senior management buy-in.
"The idea received tremendous support from senior management," she says.
Still, no one -- not even Longaberger -- anticipated a complete system overhaul.
"When we introduced the idea of employees leading this project, we asked for volunteers," she says. "We had more than 900 employees volunteer for the 60 positions available on the Employee Involvement Team."
Two groups -- the ergonomic team and the SCOUT (Self-Contained Operation Utilizing Teamwork) team [referred to by Longaberger as the Employee Involvement Team] -- formed to revamp the production process and the work stations. More than 1,400 employees volunteered to participate in the two groups, and instead of management picking from that list, teams were randomly selected.
Seven employees were nominated to form the ergonomic team. And 60 were split into six teams, each analyzing and recommending changes for one of the unique facets of the production process: team design, data collection, communications, scheduling, supply team, and flow and layout.
Barb Fox, senior manager of employee involvement, says a management steering committee set expectations for the teams, and each had a project sponsor who met with them biweekly.
"The teams developed their own mission statements," says Fox. "Management's role was to make sure they stayed focused and to provide the teams with the resources they needed to accomplish their goals."
Teams also sent biweekly reports to Longaberger and Gimeson.
"The Employee Involvement Team led the effort, but I was their biggest fan and supporter," Longaberger says.
She and the management team were pleased with the teams' progress and pleased to discover the talent of the employees -- nearly half of those serving as employee team leaders are now in management positions.
"We didn't realize how much potential they had," says Fox.
Before and after
The employee-initiated transformation started with a total reorganization of the manufacturing division. In the old system, almost each step of the production process -- staining, drying and quality inspections -- was its own department, which operated independently. In some cases, departments weren't even housed in the same building.
Now, instead of separate departments, there will be 10 self-contained workshops that operate like individual companies, each making different baskets, segregated by size. Originally Dave Longaberger's idea, the workshop structure was revisited by the Employee Involvement Team, and enthusiastically supported by Tami Longaberger and management.
Each workshop will house about 150 employees -- supervisors, basket-makers and quality performance specialists (QPS).
Formerly, each QPS employee was in one department only, focusing on one specific task. Under the new model, they are cross-trained to perform each other's jobs, from staining to quality inspection.
"Before, some departments were overworked, while others were not busy at all," says Andy Godfrey, a workshop area supervisor at the company's Frazeysburg facility. "Now the employees can go where the work is. And they like the variety."
Previously, many processes, such as assigning work and creating a supply list, were handwritten, which could take up nearly half a supervisor's day. And baskets were transported in shopping carts.
In the new workshop design, it takes minutes with a hand-held computer to assign work and create a supply list, and baskets are transported on an electronic conveyor belt, reducing the number of hands that touch them and the amount of damage and waste.
"Before, a basket was touched by 15 people from start to finish," says Godfrey. "Now it's down to four or five, depending on the operations it goes through."
Another major improvement was the introduction of drying machines. Drying the baskets is the most delicate part of the process. The new machines dry baskets in a fraction of the time it took to air-dry them, with very little damage. Not only do they save time, they also save space. Before, baskets were spread throughout the factory to air-dry. In the workshop, they hang on hooks on a conveyor belt that takes them through the machines.
This new model has drastically reduced production time.
"The old production process took anywhere from 14 to 28 days. Now it takes under two days," says Gimeson.
The new process has also increased employee communication and involvement.
"It's hard to feel you're part of something when you're one of 2,000," he says. "But the new model fosters team spirit."
The basket-making workstation also underwent a transformation. The ergonomic team worked with outside expert, consultant and engineer Charles Mauro to develop a station that was more versatile and comfortable and allows employees to improve the quality of their products.
The result is a new horse -- the machine the basket sits on while it is being made -- and table and chair that are electronically adjustable to accommodate employees of different sizes. It takes right and left handedness into consideration and gives the basket-maker the option of sitting or standing.
"With the old horse, you had to stand to work," says Line Support Supervisor Debbie Ianniello. "If you broke your leg, you couldn't work. Or if you were pregnant and needed to stay off your feet," it was impossible.
And since the new horse's parts take less effort to move, employees are less tired at the end of the day.
"Before you could tell my first basket of the day was better than the last," says Ianniello. "Now you can't tell the difference."
All dressed up and nowhere to go?
While the changes have been positive, they may have been made at the wrong time.
"With the new model, we're really positioned to handle growth," says Gimeson.
But sales have been below expectations the last two years due to poor economic conditions, Moorehead says. On May 6, the company laid off 461 factory positions, 7 percent of its employees.
The company plans to revitalize sales by helping its sales associates recruit new associates.
"We've launched an aggressive recruiting incentive," says Moorehead. "If the new associate makes her goal in six months, her sales kit is free."
The sales kit, which new associates are required to purchase, includes training materials, marketing literature, an assortment of Longaberger baskets and pottery and order forms. The company is also putting a lot of effort into its yearly "Longaberger Bee," the company's national sales meeting. It is offering incentives -- such as the "Sponsor Three And Go To The Bee Free" program -- to entice more sales consultants to attend.
And, according to Moorehead, there is a lot of room for growth.
"Our target market is women, usually age 25 to 45, with higher than average income and education," says Moorehead. "And we estimate that we have only tapped 8 percent of the market."
When growth comes, the company will be ready to meet it.
"These changes are investments in our future," says Longaberger. "Customers want great quality and excellent service. These investments will improve both, as well as create a better work environment for our employees."
After all, says Longaberger, that's what it's all about.
"When you have satisfied customers and satisfied employees, you will see positive results on the bottom line," she says. How to reach: The Longaberger Company, (740) 322-5900 or www.longaberger.com