Lean manufacturing made simple

Tom Idle paid a visit office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller to find out more about its impressive new offices, built to the latest environmental standards. But, besides the shiny new building, he found a company at the leading edge of sustainable practice

Us magazine editors are used to getting the odd freebie when we visit various companies; it is seen as a token of appreciation for making the effort to visit their site and take an interest in their activities.

Usually, I get a pen (although there has been increasing awareness among corporate marketing managers to make sure these are made of recycled plastics) or an alarm clock (for reasons unknown). But the gift inside my Herman Miller press pack was a little different: a jar of honey.

The reasons why this US-based multinational office furniture company gives away pots of honey to journalists like me, as well as its clients, are not instantly clear. Until you hear the story behind it.

About ten years ago, Herman Miller, the third largest of its type of business in the world, opened a new manufacturing plant in Michigan in America. The building was dubbed the GreenHouse because of its sound environmental design. It was situated in a rolling prairie and externally landscaped with native vegetation and flowering plants.

But one spring, the local wasp population began to cause problems. Wasps eat paper (a fact new to me) and, believe it or not, they began to get aggressive towards visitors and staff at the site – eventually making their way into the building. But, because of a policy not to use pesticides, the facilities manager was obliged to find another way of getting rid of the pests. Enter the bees.

About 600,000 honeybees were brought into the vicinity, taking over the main food source and forcing the wasps to flee. And then came the honey. It’s not for sale, but makes a great souvenir. It’s a nice story and offers an insight into the way this business is run, with a strong commitment to environmental protection.

“I can promise you that we will do everything within our power to make our common habitat as sustainable, as delightful and as long lasting as possible,” says CEO Brian Walker. Nowhere is that commitment more clear than in the design, construction and operation of Herman Miller’s buildings and in particular its headquarters in Chippenham, Berkshire. Designed by architectural firm Gensler and finished in January 2006, VillageGreen (the name given to the building as a result of a staff competition) is an environmentally innovative building. At a time when the government is demanding zero-carbon commercial buildings by 2019, it is well before its time – designed to achieve the highest certification for best practice. It achieved an excellent rating for the UK BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) system. And it won a gold award under the American LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) system, led by the US Green Building Council (of which Herman Miller was a founding member). It is a standard they set for all of their buildings throughout the word. The GreenHouse in Michigan was the first building in the whole of America to achieve a gold rating.

“It’s a fantastic building, designed to arch and trace the sun,” director of international marketing, Stephen Perkins tells me.

Walking through the doors of VillageGreen is like stepping into a different world; think of the slick, modernistic production design of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (without the torture scenes, obviously). The whole office acts as a showroom for the company’s range of products and the architectural design allows for enormous amounts of natural light to blast through the huge, floor-to-ceiling windows. About 75% of spaces within the building have natural daylight, while 95% of the office has views out of the windows. There is a natural ventilation system throughout, with computerised systems to adjust the airflow. Crucially, no air conditioning is needed.

Or cooling towers. Or evaporative condensers. Or humidification systems. It’s all taken care of with natural ventilation.

All of the timber used is from Forest Stewardship Council-certified sources, and recycled aggregate building materials were sourced from within 20 miles. Even the carpets are recyclable. Waterless urinals make my trip to the toilet a new experience; they only need flushing once a week, apparently. As for lighting: energy-efficient lamps are used everywhere and have automatic shut-off, using movement sensors.

It’s a fantastic building and Herman Miller can be justifiably proud of what it has strived for here. But this commitment to ensuring its sustainability credentials are upheld is not a novel concept to the company, I’m told. “Herman Miller has always done this. It’s nothing new,” says Perkins. “The difference is, we are now communicating what we are doing.” And this new communication comes in the form of Policy 53, so called because of a comment made by founder DJ De Pree in 1953 that “we will be good stewards of the environment”. But, as the policy document’s introduction section acknowledges, “behaving responsibly towards the environment should be more than just a policy”. It adds: “Sustainability and commercial success are not mutually exclusive ends; instead they should coexist in a beneficial and happy relationship.” So, how has Herman Miller actioned this and how will this ethos continue to drive the business into the future?

Like most good environmental best practice case studies, it has been a story of continuous improvement.

Back in 1989, a group of middle management staff set up the Environmental Quality Action Team. The idea was to push senior management to take a strong position on green issues and explore ways in which the words of De Pree could be supported with action. This led to the first formal environmental policy statement being created two years later and a target was set for zero landfill use.

Since then, the goals set have become tougher and progress against targets is tracked and factored into the core business model. Today, more than 400 employees across the global business work directly or indirectly on environmental initiatives.

In 2004, the company set ambitious global targets to meet by 2020. They call it, rather aptly, the Perfect Vision programme and it includes goals such as:

  • Cutting VOC emissions by 100%
  • Using 100% renewable energy (VillageGreen uses green energy but the plan is for all UK sites to use it by 2009)
  • Reducing process waste consumption by 100% (they currently recycle 95% of waste in the UK)
  • Eliminating both solid waste and hazardous waste being sent to landfill completely

The environmental management system ISO 14001 will help them achieve it and the UK’s Furniture Industry Sustainability Programme, launched in 2006 by the Furniture Industry Research Association and Office Furniture and Filing Manufacturers’ Association, will act as a tool for developing new standards within the sector.

Before production begins, the company is thinking about environmental gains at the product design stage. And it is the durability of products such as the office chairs, that the company prides itself on. Tough products are a sign of quality, but they are also environmentally good. As marketing manager Luke Dawson says: “The best form of recycling is to keep the chair’s life going.” Herman Miller’s most popular office chair, the Aeron, is commonly sold on eBay for hundreds of pounds. “When Enron crashed in the States, staff were seen walking out of the office with their Herman Miller chairs,” laughs Dawson.

But there’s a lot more to it than making sure products stand the test of time. The Design for Environment team developed a standard called the McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry’s cradle-to-cradle design protocol, which all products must adhere to. All design is evaluated to establish:

  • What chemicals are in the materials and whether they are safe
  • Whether the products can be taken apart at the end of their useful life and recycled
  • Whether the materials actually contain recycled content

The first product to follow this protocol was the Mirra office chair in 2003. It is 96% recyclable and comprised 42% recycled materials.

In the factory – a bright blue, Nicholas Grimshaw-designed building situated just five minutes walk from the VillageGreen – I witnessed one of the slickest and smallest production lines I’ve ever seen. This is the Herman Miller Production System (HMPS) in action. The HMPS is a concept nicked from car manufacturer Toyota, with whom Herman Miller worked in 1996 to learn how they go about their business.

Toyota invented the concept of lean manufacturing – understanding customers’ needs and giving them exactly what they want, when they want it, the way they want it.

According to Policy 53, the firm “train people to recognise waste and use scientific problem-solving methods to eliminate it.” As a result, the company needs less space to operate and product lead-times have been cut. Today, the business produces similar volumes of product compared with five years ago, but does it in 40% less space

“It’s all about continuous improvement,” a very enthusiastic factory operations manager called Alan tells me. Today, the 25 or so operatives are on target to build 120 Mirra office chairs per hour because “the pace of sales equals the pace of production”.

“A client can come in in the morning, see the products being assembled and they will be delivered in the afternoon,” Perkins adds.

Of course, this level of environmental commitment and attention to quality of products doesn’t come cheap. Herman Miller office furniture is some of the most expensive on the market. But the sustainability story does have an impact on how successful it has been as a business. “Herman Miller furniture is iconic. It will be here in 20 or 30 years time, says Dawson. “But we don’t do things the cheapest way.

Customers value our sustainability credentials and they want what we provide.” One such customer is the UK government. Because of its affinity to do long lifecycle assessments before making purchases, the public sector, which Dawson believes is “more enlightened”, enjoys the robustness and 12-year warranties on all products, and the sustainability of the company ticks all the right boxes on stringent government procurement policies.

I like Herman Miller: a forward-thinking manufacturer, which bases its business model on ultimate resource efficiency and looks for continuous improvement of its environmental performance across all operations. Now, where’s that honey?


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