The Way Life Should Be – At L.L. Bean & Other Manufacturers

Mark’s Note: I asked Paul Critchley to blog about this article from The Atlantic that I read recently: “Why L.L. Bean’s Boots Keep Selling Out.” You might want to read that first. Here’s Paul’s post:

Paul Critchley

Paul Critchley

As a New Englander (and native Mainer) L.L. Bean holds a special place in my heart. For many, L.L. Bean represents everything that Maine stands for: the native outdoors enjoyed in a comfortable, easy-going way. For some of us, though, it’s become something different over the years.

The last few decades have been hard on my home state, just as it has been for many across our country during this time. Manufacturing plants have floundered and eventually moved operations to offshore, “low cost” areas. The jobs left along with the work, and the impact to the local economies was devastating.

Once a giant in paper-making and textile manufacture, Maine now struggles to attract businesses that can sustain the state’s population outside of the “tourist season” that runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. As an example, this past summer a paper mill in Bucksport was finally shut down after struggling through multiple owners for decades in favor of operations overseas. The new owners bought it, literally, for scrap metal. The demolition is now underway, and the town government is struggling to figure out what to do next for their tax base and for their population. This mill employed at least one parent of almost every kid in my elementary school class, and even a couple of my friends during summers in high school. Seeing pictures of it being hit by a wrecking ball is heartbreaking.

L.L. Bean BootsThroughout this “offshoring” activity of many Maine manufacturing operations, L.L. Bean has purposefully kept their shoe-making business local. “Bean boots” (as they’ve become to be known) are what initially made the company famous, and as a symbol of craftsmanship and quality Bean boots have increased in popularity to the point that operations cannot keep up with orders.

This is nothing new; a quick online search shows that this has been commonplace for at least the last year or so. So the question begs to be answered: why can’t a company with a large pool of potential employees make the changes necessary to meet customer demand?

Although there could be (and probably are) many reasons why this is so, a quote by Royce Haines, senior manufacturing manager at the L.L. Bean plant, caught my eye. Speaking with a reporter who had asked about increasing the workforce to meet the demand, Haines replied:

“We’re building our own strength up with the resources that we have, so we’re really sensitive to opening up, starting up something that doesn’t have a lot of stability attached to it.”

In essence, he was saying that he didn’t want to hire a bunch of people to meet a demand that could wane and then have to lay folks off – folks he had spent upwards of 6 months training to be shoemakers.

I can understand Haines’ trepidation. He, like I, has seen the impact lost jobs can have on the small, local economies of rural Maine, and he’s probably not looking to be the guy that lays people off only to wind up seeing them at the local gas station or supermarket sometime in the future. I’ve been there, and it’s not fun.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Lean techniques can be employed to solve this problem without lengthy training programs and risky hiring & firing cycles.

For instance, have the workstations been effectively designed and appropriately 5S’ed? Is part presentation to the worker in their ergonomic strike zone? Are tools and fixtures designed so employees can use both hands to assemble, or are they using their hands to hold their work? Are tools clearly marked and within reach, ready to go?

Along the same vein, I would ask if parts follow a one-piece flow or batch model? Do workers perform all tasks, from start to finish, at a single workstation in piles, or does a team rotate through different workstations that all perform a specific work scope within a balanced overall process?

Haines also references a lack of skilled labor in the region as a reason why it is difficult to easily flex to meet demand. He states that it takes about six months to teach folks how to be shoemakers, by which time the demand may be gone, and therefore it may not make sense to hire and train new employees.

The alternative is what L.L.Bean has continued to do since mid-2014; carry a backlog. A backlog isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as it is communicated and managed, but a large, multi-year overdue no doubt has resulted in lost sales. That, of course, is never a good thing.

Again, Lean has tools that we can employ to aid in this struggle.

Has standard work been developed for each operation to make it easy for a “newbie” to come on board and learn quickly? Are new employees teamed with a mentor and provided clear and consistent feedback while on-the-job? Is there a strong culture present for kaizen, where employees can make changes themselves without having to submit a suggestion and wait for a manager to approve and coordinate implementation?

All of the above ideas can improve product flow and lower part cost, but the ultimate goal of Lean is about more than saving money. Yes, it’s there to help meet customer demand and maintain corporate profits, but it’s truly about improving people’s lives… and not just at work.

Many companies have enjoyed the benefits of having adopted a Lean culture, and in extreme cases, some businesses have avoided closing because they did so. In turn, the company is allowed to keep jobs where they are, and I can’t think of any better way to improve someone’s life than to provide them a job that they would have lost had it been moved elsewhere.


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Paul Critchley

Paul W. Critchley founded New England Lean Consulting after enjoying a successful career implementing Lean Principles throughout the Automotive, Medical Device and Aerospace industries. He is co-author of “The Whole Professional, A Collection of Essays to Help You Achieve a Full and Satisfying Life”. He can be reached at http://www.newenglandleanconsulting.com.

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