To stay competitive in the 1990s, Whirlpool Corp. became an early adopter of lean manufacturing principles. An aggressive growth spurt, increasing foreign competition and changing consumer attitudes forced the company to manufacture a more diverse array of products than ever. Whirlpool needed to eliminate waste, boost its production flexibility and reduce product cycle times.

Flexibility and just-in-time production were key components of the Factory Master Plan launched in 1992. It was part of Whirlpool’s Dominant Consumer Franchise (DCF) initiative that “gives reasons beyond price for consumers to purchase our products. DCF delivers products that delight consumers and meet their needs fully.”

The three goals of DCF were to improve total cost productivity, reduce warranty problems, and improve logistics. “One major piece of the strategy is to reduce product cycle time,” Stephen Holmes, Whirlpool’s vice president of manufacturing, told Appliance Manufacturer (ASSEMBLY’s “sister” publication) in a May 1994 article. “We intend to move our great ideas to market quickly.

“To serve more consumer segments, we not only need more SKUs per day, but a greater variety,” added Holmes. “Our goal is to triple by 1997 the number of SKUs we build within a given day across all plants.”

The effort called for a “greater dedication to statistical process control” in Whirlpool’s factories. Teams comprised of manufacturing engineers, design engineers and supplier engineers were tasked with the job of restructuring each supplier’s facility for greater efficiency.

To reduce waste and cycle times even further, Whirlpool embarked on a Customer Centered Manufacturing (CCM) initiative at the four-year-old Tulsa, OK, gas and electric range plant. It integrated the Whirlpool Production System, a pull system driven by customer demand and based on simplification and flexibility. The goal of CCM was to create manufacturing flexibility that would allow Whirlpool to bring new appliances to market in half the traditional time required.

Whirlpool’s archrival, Maytag Co. (acquired by Whirlpool in 2006), embarked on a similar lean manufacturing journey in the late 1990s. “The initiative is being practiced throughout all the Maytag operations, including Jackson, TN, where an 18-month effort transformed a half-mile long continuous-line dishwasher assembly operation into seven assembly cells capable of a wide range of product-mix capabilities,” explained an article in the November 2001 issue of Appliance Manufacturer.

The transformation freed up 43,000 square feet of manufacturing space, improved productivity by 15 percent, improved quality by 55 percent, increased assembly capacity by 50 percent and reduced work-in-process by 60 percent.

By November 2005, when an article about the plant appeared in ASSEMBLY, the impressive statistics kept piling up. For instance, the facility had reduced OSHA-recordable injury rates by 64 percent while improving first-pass quality yields by 84 percent.

The 13-year-old plant had also reduced its internal defect rate by 32 percent and lowered hours per unit by 27 percent. Assemblers built more than 100 dishwasher models daily, with brands including Amana, Jenn-Air and Maytag.

“Our goal is to deliver the right product at the right time,” said Terry Spalding, director of manufacturing. “We have the flexibility in our facility to immediately respond to customer demand. Teams can adjust assembly cells with minimal notice to changes in the schedule. Through the use of our lean manufacturing principles, we have the ability to produce any model dishwasher at any hour of the day.”