The sloped feeder that delivers chair bases to the worker use gravity rather than machinery to do the job--thus decreasing the breakdowns that would result from mechanizing the process.

The sloped feeder that delivers chair bases to the worker use gravity rather than machinery to do the job--thus decreasing the breakdowns that would result from mechanizing the process.

The testing plant where chairs undergo decades of wear and tear, all within the span of days and months.

The testing plant where chairs undergo decades of wear and tear, all within the span of days and months.

The testing plant where chairs undergo decades of wear and tear, all within the span of days and months.

The testing plant where chairs undergo decades of wear and tear, all within the span of days and months.

One of the sheets where workers record their ideas for improving the line.

One of the sheets where workers record their ideas for improving the line.

One of the sheets where workers record their ideas for improving the line.

One of the sheets where workers record their ideas for improving the line.

A worker assembles Herman Miller’s newest chair, the Sayl, designed by Fuseproject.

A worker assembles Herman Miller’s newest chair, the Sayl, designed by Fuseproject.

The chairs currently in production.

An American-Made Miracle: How An Aeron Chair Gets Built Every 17 Seconds

Using techniques imported from Toyota, Herman Miller has achieved stunning efficiency while empowering its workers.

Amidst all the doom-and-gloom about the death of American manufacturing, the one, simple fact that’s usually forgotten is that we’re still the world’s No. 1 manufacturer. No joke, and not a typo: We produce one fifth of the world’s total manufacturing output.

The difference between how Americans once made stuff and how that stuff is made today is that manufacturing in the U.S. has reached a stunning level of efficiency that can be hard to really comprehend. Unless, of course, you visit a factory like the one that makes Herman Miller’s Aeron chair. We recently did, and saw a process which has yielded a 500% increase in productivity and a 1,000% increase in quality since 1998, the year the chair was first produced. Those numbers sound made up, but bear with me for a second, and I’ll explain.

The Kaizen ("continual improvement") process that yielded all those results was imported directly from Toyota, in the 1990s. At the time, Herman Miller was hoping to bring down costs in order to stay competitive across the world. And Toyota was hoping to build better relationships in the U.S., as part of its effort to build more cars in America. Herman Miller’s present EVP of operations, Ken Goodson, eventually cajoled Toyota into making Herman Miller one of the first companies in a pilot program to teach American companies Japanese manufacturing techniques. Toyota eventually sent Hajime Oba, a legendary manufacturing genius, to lead the lessons. (Oba himself, humble to the end, prefers that he be called sensei or coach.)

The sloped feeder that delivers chair bases to the worker use gravity rather than machinery to do the job—thus decreasing the breakdowns.

Kaizen, as many people will tell you, isn’t about grand ideas or huge structural changes. Rather, it’s about tiny improvements that accrue over time. So for Herman Miller, these involve adjustments as minute as the placement of a bin of washers so someone has to reach over 6 inches less, or the height of an assembly line, so people don’t waste a fraction of a second bending over.

The process is as important as the results: It’s the individual employees on the line that are suggesting these improvements. At Herman Miller, they average 1,200 "plan-do-check acts"—that is, little proposed changes to the assembly process—every year. "The biggest thing is to empower people to change the work in ways that matter to them," says Eric VanDam, Herman Miller’s director of operations in seating.

All of these tiny improvements, in the course of 13 years, have meant that a new Aeron chair, which used to come off the line every 82 seconds, is now boxed and finished every 17 seconds. A decade ago, an Aeron took more than 600 seconds in total to build. Today, it’s about 340. Meanwhile, safety metrics have improved by a factor of 6. Quality metrics have improved by a factor of 10. A single Aeron takes one fifth of the labor to make that it once did. The actual factory itself is 10 times smaller.

Today, Herman Miller is doing far more with the same labor force that was once producing a sum total of five different office chairs. Today, they produce 17, using roughly the same number of people. And all the while, lead times have shrunk from two months to as little as 10 days.

You might think that all this means that Herman Miller should be running into a practical limit in how efficient they can be. But they’re still getting improvements of a quarter to a half of a second at a time, month by month. They’re on track this year to beat all their records—again.

[All images and video: Drew Anthony Smith/Fast Company]

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40 Comments

  • Quino2

    I love these stories. I´m an industrial engineer and I had worked over the years in manufacturing, in similar projects, and the mindset of the small and medium and some large companies are always: "Increase productivity, but the company won´t spend a penny on it". So nothing is never really done, and the productivity and improvement projects always die after a few months or when the company run into financial difficulties or some customer demand shorter lead times or higher volumes.

    I think the mindset need to change but the stories published about improvements  such as this one, should also include the investment companies put into these programs and the resources they utilize. I mean, managers across the board read these stories and think it was all made magically, and never realize the commitment and resources they need to put into it.

    All in all, I would love to visit one of these factories in the future.

  • John Petersohn

    The absolute awesome thing about Aeron chairs besides their comfort and lack of odor/stain absorption is that they're durable AND field serviceable. I have owned one for over 10 years. Eventually the gas cylinder fades and needs to be replaced (happened to mine about 9 years in). The OEM parts are readily available online and you can youtube a video to make the repair yourself. You can also replace the seat and back and arm rests, basically the whole chair. In a day of cheap, one use, disposable garbage, this is quite unique. Repairing a device instead of throwing all or some of it into a landfill. What could be more green?

  • Zoglog

    I just got an embody chair and I'm actually appalled at the QA and build quality. There are noticeable build flaws and they didn't even build it correctly (un fit pieces)

  • Linda L

    It seems to me that many of the comments here are merely written to discredit, or make the company seem bottom line concerned only. 

    As a consumer, I am blessed to have one of these chairs in my home office.  I say blessed because I have a twisted spine and suffer with my lower back and legs. Despite having tried many different chairs just to get a little relief from pain, the Aeron is the best. I have slept in this chair many nights as I rather stay here in my seat, then get up, go to bed and not be as comfortable.

    I don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Whether it takes 17 seconds or 17 days to make this chair, means nothing to me.  I just hope they will continue to keep making this chair for many years to come.  Thank you so much for the brilliant design of the Aeron, as nothing I know of offers such comfort.

    Thank you again, and God Bless.

  • WMarks

    The late Bill Stumph was the designer. He understood comfort better than anyone. And, he was a great guy to work with on his chairs when I was with DuPont Engineeriing Thermoplastics. Bill Marks

  • RETIREDFLUKIE

    Fluke Corporation has been for at least twenty years the only company producing Digital Voltmeters in the US, and is also the market leader and gets a premium for their products. And, yes, they did it using the Toyota methods (disguised as the Danaher Business System -DBS for short). Of course, we all know, the Toyota methods were introduced into Japan by Deming as part of the US effort to restart the Japanese industries after WWII.

  • Khürt L. Williams

    Demings work in Japan had nothing to do with US efforts to restart the Japanese economy.

  • Spencer t

    That video was a joke.  I wanted to see the chairs being made, not some music video of chairs being tested.  Its a shame that all that effort was wasted on filming casters being stress tested instead of seeing all this wonderful LEAN manufacturing in action.

  • Hirejackknight

    What's wrong with bloggers it showed a good portion? Video was a joke? Maybe if you could read it would help understand the video

  • Liam

    The fact that they've made their process so much more efficient and have yet to lower the prices.

  • Kate Mott

    Liam they are in the business to MAKE money not lose it. I am one of their biggest competitors and my hat is off to them. They are a great company and take if from someone who worked in manufacturing for 17 years, this is a never ending process and all part of the continuous improvement of the "Kaizen
    "

  • Smart Consumer

    So who exactly continues to lower their prices?  Look forward to your data.

  • jmartins

    Unfortunately, while the efficiency helps the company's bottom line it's not exactly something it should advertise. Consumers cannot help but measure an item's value by the time spent manufacturing it. 

    Many consumers would view HM's already high prices as over the top for a chair that's made every 340 seconds. In HM's price range I'd rather own something handmade without the bells and whistles.

  • jmartins

    Kate, note that I never suggested the company should charge less simply because it became more efficient. I merely suggested that perception of effort drives perception of value and HM could potentially undermine consumer perception of its value by highlighting how little time it spends making one of its chairs.

    There's plenty of research available in the field of behavioral economics to back it up. 

    As an aside, I should point out that you do not always get what you pay for. 

  • Kate Mott

    Just because they have become more efficient doesn't mean it should cost less. They are more than likely operating with less people while being more efficient. Not all of your cost is in labor, much of it is in component parts. This is not a "cheap" chair - it's high quality and you get what you pay for.

  • VinayakSuley

    Bummer, I thought I'll see some fancy footage of an Aeron being manufactured in 17 seconds! Should've known better. 340 seconds is still fantastic; but the 17 was misleading enough to spoil it for me. I wish the author had resisted from using subtle verbal trickery in the title. I'm getting more disappointed each day by the quality of the articles here. 

  • Cliff Kuang

    My notes have it that they started the Kaizen process on the aeron in 1998, though the chair was produced before that.