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America’s Oldest Bike Company Could Use Lean Manufacturing to Remain the Oldest?

Mark’s Note: Today’s post is by Andy Wagner, who contributed regularly to this blog from 2007 to 2010. This CNN video caught his eye and he couldn’t help blogging about it.

Recently, CNN ran a short piece on Worksman Cycles of New York City highlighting them as the last major bicycle manufacturer left in the United States: “Meet America’s oldest bike maker.”

The Worksman story is wonderful. Counter to the major trend in American manufacturing, Worksman has continued to make their industrial bicycles, tricycles and food carts in their humble Brooklyn factory rather than chasing low labor costs to China like so many others. Family owned and operated for over one hundred years, they have exhibited what Dr. Deming might call a constancy of purpose – and they stayed steadfast in same business niche through all that the 20th Century threw at them.

Every factory that I’ve worked in has had a few Worksman tricycles kicking around, usually ridden by the skilled trades workers in maintenance. I’ve never had the privilege to ride one, but they are ubiquitous and dominant in their little niche.

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It’s a great story, and I’d like to leave it there, but instead of just reading the article, I watched the video.

To somebody with an eye for Lean and operational excellence, the CNN piece about the little bike shop in Brooklyn comes across very differently.

Safety glasses are few and far between. Workers grind, weld, and paint with little sign of simple error proofing for quality control.

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And the inventory — my goodness — the inventory; boxes and boxes stacked to the rafters cascade from the shelves. If parts aren’t lost and damaged in that mess, I’ll eat my hat.

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While so many companies, large and small have struggled to adopt a continuous improvement culture over the past three decades, eager to compete with the best in the world, the video shows a factory that time left behind.

If you want an example of a small manufacturing company that’s doing what it takes to survive in America today, you need not go much further than Mark’s Lean Podcast #178 where he interviews Drew Greenblatt, the CEO of Marlin Steel, a wire basket company based in Baltimore.

Much like Worksman, Marlin was a small US manufacturing company dedicated to a niche market and highly regarded in that market. Marlin made baskets for bagel stores until the low-carb diet craze wiped out its main customer segment. Forced to diversify, they began using continuous improvement tools to improve quality and reduce cycle time in product development so they could begin to serve a variety of higher-end customers.

If you’re looking for a feel good story, don’t watch the video. If you’re looking for inspiration on your Lean journey, check with Marlin Steel. And if you’re looking to say in business in America the next hundred years, don’t expect to do it the way you’ve operated for the last hundred years.

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mark graban lean blog Americas Oldest Bike Company Could Use Lean Manufacturing to Remain the Oldest? leanAbout LeanBlog.org: Mark Graban is a consultant, author, and speaker in the “lean healthcare” methodology. Mark is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as the new Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. Mark is also the VP of Customer Success for the technology company KaiNexus.

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1 Comment on "America’s Oldest Bike Company Could Use Lean Manufacturing to Remain the Oldest?"

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  1. Great story! Clearly, lean manufacturing emphasizes flexibility and throughput, with total order-to-delivery cycle time reduced to the bare minimum. As a consequence, more far-reaching processes and cultural changes are needed for successful implementation of a lean process. This is necessary because substantial redesign of a number of business processes is needed; not just “some” improvement of, say, inventory planning, but changes in the entire order-to-delivery flow of information and material.

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