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Posted Date: 11/1/2003

Simms Fishing Products: Keeping it Lean

By  Gene Barbee, Special to Apparel

Finding the most effective approach to keeping costs competitive and maintaining jobs are two challenges facing many companies in the apparel industry. Bozeman, MT-based Simms Fishing Products was no different. Re-engineering and lean manufacturing initiatives topped its action list, helping the company to cash in on a booming market for fly-fishing waders and related apparel and accessories.

Re-engineering Simms

Under the leadership of K.C. Walsh, president, along with Robert Gibson, director of operations overseeing manufacturing, Simms has gone through a successful re-engineering program over the past two years.

One key achievement for Simms was the ability to improve its manufacturing efficiency, which was accomplished by setting up all departments on a daily labor analysis that enabled an analytical comparison between earned minutes and work minutes. This was critical in identifying the cost of excesses. Each department head now measures and monitors his or her departmental efficiencies and is keenly aware of performance and the need to take immediate corrective action whenever necessary.

As part of the re-engineering program, the following changes were made to ensure that work-in-process (WIP) and throughput times stay low, and that costs and quantity of units produced remain on budget.

Sewing is now composed of teams working on small bundles (ten units) on an individual incentive basis for pay.

All production departments are operating at a 100-percent-plus efficiency level.

The boot attachment operators work standing up, in teams and on a team-incentive system.

100 percent of waders are tested. Water testing and packaging (after sewing and boot attachment is completed) are performed by operators on an individual-incentive basis.

Production flows from water testing to packaging and to inventory.

The packaging operators also stock the inventory bins.

Shipping, composed of order picking, packing and processing, is not on incentive but is measured. Methods have been refined and goals set.

The implementation of the re-engineering program resulted in a 35 percent reduction in labor costs, a 30 percent reduction in WIP and the capability to produce many styles of the wader line at a cost that is 9 percent less than the U.S. landed cost of waders made in Asia.

The Lean Initiative

After realizing substantial gains in manufacturing efficiency, Simms embarked on a lean manufacturing program, directed internally by Tim Malyurek, in an effort to reduce manufacturing cycle time and increase inventory turns without sacrificing customer fill rates and response times.

Al Deibert of the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center worked closely with Simms during the introduction of the lean program, and noted that it "dovetailed nicely with the re-engineering program - a perfect match of systems and goals."

Lean manufacturing is a continuous flow of products through the manufacturing operation. Inventory is seen as a hindrance to be avoided. The more inventory you have, the more any item must wait to work its way through the system. Lean manufacturing produces more with your existing resources by eliminating waste, or non-value activities, such as transporting WIP, repairs, waiting time, extra handling and over production.

As a starting point for the lean manufacturing initiative, the company used historical inventory levels to determine how much inventory to stock in the shipping department, by stock location, or bin (each of which holds one SKU). As shipping draws down the inventory level in a bin, a Kanban card is sent to the sewing department to request replenishment, and a WIP magnetic card is affixed to the inventory bin to indicate that the Kanban card has been issued. Subsequently, sewing draws from the cutting "supermarket" and puts small batches (10-piece bundles) into production. The cutting department monitors the bins, and as they become depleted, will request a cut to replenish those bins.

It sounds simple, but a lot of effort and discipline were required to make this process work, and the results have been highly encouraging. In addition to the reduction in throughput time - which fell from 17 days to two to three days, from the cutting supermarket to the finished goods inventory bins in shipping - earnings have risen well above average in the community. So has morale.

There were some key ingredients to achieving such positive results. These included a willingness to examine company processes, the ability to recognize what changes were needed, proper leadership that receives full support from senior management and, last but not least, an understanding among employees that their efforts are not only highly valued, but also critical to the overall success of a company.

In the final analysis, it is important to reiterate that a manufacturing environment must continuously improve to be competitive. At Simms, the company has continued to research and implement solutions for improving all of its manufacturing processes, and it has continued to achieve measurable results.

GENE BARBEE is a registered professional engineer, a graduate and visiting lecturer of North Carolina State University, College of Textiles, and has served as a consultant to the international sewn products industry for more than 25 years. He specializes in installing production improvement programs with special emphasis on product costing (activity-based costing), introduction of new technology and implementation of re-engineering and lean programs. Barbee can be reached at tel.: 910-215-0995, or in Canada at tel.: 204-943-6232, or by e-mail: gbarbee@aol.com.

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