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Hickory Chair Factory Tour: Day One

The most fun part of visting Hickory Chair were the factory tours which we quickly learned were as much about the people who make the furniture as it was the furniture being made. More than 10 years ago, Hickory Chair switched it's manufacturing philosophy to lean manufacturing which "calls for a series of adjacent workstations, balanced and synchronized to leave no inventory between stations." More importantly, the employees are encouraged to work as a team and to contribute ideas and make changes that can improve the process. As I mentioned yesterday, this method doesn't lessen quality and in fact, it actually improves it.

The culture of continuous improvement is referred to as EDGE - Employees Dedicated to Growth and Excellence and as we walked through the factory, we saw evidence and heard stories that supported this practice. As the President Jay Reardon pointed out, Hickory Chair isn't Disneyland. They don't change anything just because a tour is coming through and so we got to see the production just as it is every other day. They didn't hide anything from us.

One of the other important aspects to Hickory Chair is that they are always thinking about their customers and how they can better serve them and because of their lean manufacturing process, they have been not had to raise prices in years.

Our tour began with the casegoods factory and I think everyone on the tour will agree that we learned more about wood and veneers that we ever could have in school! Veneer gets a bad wrap but veneers and inlays have always been used in making fine furniture to add movement and beauty especially to drawer fronts. Above are examples of different types of veneer grains. Just as no two people are a like, no two trees are a like and therefore, each piece of furniture will be unique and special. Veneers are also much more stable and better made than most people realize and won't ever peel.

Even simple ideas like a shadow tool board remind employees to return tools to their proper location so they can be found easily the next day. Organization is the key to any business.

Here is an example of beautiful inlaid veneer boards that will probably become table or dresser tops.

This photo reminds me of Santa's Workshop which could be a good nickname for Hickory Chair!

There are bulletin boards with reminders and helpful hints in every section of the factory. There are also no visible managers since there are processes in place that allow the employees to quickly see if they are on target to make their daily goals. There is no one breathing down their neck.

Unlike most factories, Hickory Chair has windows and lots of light which enable the workers to better see what they are doing and improves quality. It was over 80 degrees the day we visited by the temperature inside remained very comfortable too.

This table has holes in the top which suck any dust away from the workers.

As someone pointed out, the employees need to see photos of the furniture that is scheduled to be made that week and without them it would be like putting a puzzle together without a photo.

Something else that everyone noticed was how clean the factory looked. One person joked that it looked clean enough to eat off of or at least to observe the five second rule! A clean work space and floor also helps prevent accidents which is obviously very important.

Everything is well organized and labeled so new employees can easily find what they need.

Since almost all employees are cross trained, they are able to help out in other areas. If one person is caught up on their work, they can help someone else who is behind which prevents the line from backing up. An employee was out sick this day so someone else was able to step in and hand apply the inlays to these legs.

As everyone knows, finding the right antique for a client can be like finding a needle in a hay stack. It's very rare that you can find the exact right size or shape or something that's not ridiculously expensive. Hickory Chair reproduces many antique furniture styles and also employees the same techniques such as English dove tail joints which make sure that drawers remain strong for the life of the piece. They also have improved on many of the processes for making antique furniture so they are much better made than the originals and will last longer.

You can see the dove tail joints on these drawers. Hickory Chair also makes sure that the inside of their pieces look as good as the outside.

These Murano Chests are waiting to be taken to the finishing room which is actual on the floor above. In order to reduce the movement of the furniture and thus possible damage, a lift was built to move the furniture between the floors.

Here an employee tapes the drawers sides so that the finish is only applied to the drawer fronts.

This desk was spray finished and is now waiting for it's hardware.

I don't think most people realize how much hand work goes into making each piece of furniture. In this day when many things can be made cheaply in other countries, it's a point of pride that Hickory Chair is made with love in America.

Most people probably think of Hickory Chair as a place for traditional furniture but just as you can add custom details to a piece, you can also subtract them. If you remove the pediment on this cabinet, it would be clean lined and modern.

You can see the beautiful wood grain of the veneer on the front of this unfinished chest.

More pieces waiting to be finished are lined up and stacked.

This chest is having it's finished buffed by hand.

This Milo table was custom finished in gold leaf and even has the red undertones of gilt.

You can also request antique mirror to any casegood which helps make them look as good as real antiques.

After the tour, we were all asked what we were most impressed by and most everyone mentioned the cross training, the family atmosphere and the pride all of the employees take in their work. This is not mindless factory work and since they can produce furniture in small batches, it means that the employees do not get bored and the quality of their work improves.

I was also impressed that President Jay Reardon isn't sitting up in his office directing the operations from above. He walks the factory floor and knows all the employees by name and what hobbies they enjoy. The company also takes care of it's employees. They have a doctor come in twice a week since most visits to a doctor's office can take hours and here they can take 15 minutes. They have a mammogram truck that stops by and they also help employees earn their GED degrees. You can tell that everyone is happy to come to work because they are valued and respected and if they make a suggestion on Friday to improve a process, it could be in place by Monday.

What I really loved is that there is not the mentality of "this is how we have always done things so that's the way it is and we're not changing it." In this economy, it is only the companies that embrace change and look for opportunities to improve the way they do things who will survive. I think we can all learn something from Hickory Chair! Check back soon for the upholstery factory tour where I like to say the magic happens!


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