– NORRIDGEWOCK – As U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman toured the New Balance factory floor Monday, amid the din of the machines, there was little talk among the members of the female-dominated workforce, where the workers ranged in age from recent high school graduates to white-haired grandparents.
Each person, wearing safety goggles, earplugs and casual clothing, stood on a rubber mat at a work station, rapidly and expertly performing one of the hundreds of repetitive tasks that go into making a shoe. Many would take a piece of material and use a machine to either cut, sew, stamp, or steam it before passing it along to the next worker.
Near the end of the process, a man used a machine called a flash activator, which looked vaguely like a souped-up toaster oven, to heat a shoe sole before it was fitted onto the upper part of the shoe by another worker.
Each workstation was equipped with a digital display that established a pace by letting workers know how many units they should have processed, how many they had actually done and the deviation — how far off the target they were. Most workstations were one or two units ahead or behind the pace.
Other workers pushed carts loaded with piles of shoe parts between rows of machines, guided by a bar-code scanning system that logged the carts into the proper workstation.
During a four-time-a-day mandated stretching exercise, a pair of women said they rotate among stations, which helps to alleviate the tedium and reduces chances of injury caused by repetitive motion.
Many stations had poster board-sized worksheets on display, filled out with markers, as workers tried to meet a new goal or solve a problem.
On one, a goal had been established to reduce the time taken to process each shoe tongue. It was taking 27 seconds per tongue, rather than the desired time of 22.05 seconds. After watching the workflow, employees filled out the cause analysis, where they noted that people were having trouble managing the stack of tongues, which were difficult to keep in a tidy pile.
The solution was to add supports to the pile of tongues, which reduced the amount of time employees needed to process them.
Records of similar problems and solutions were at other stations, showing how workers solved the problem of button laces hitting the floor or color bleeding in the materials.
When the employees gathered in a conference room to discuss foreign trade negotiations that could disadvantage American-made shoes, Froman talked about the work ethic he saw and joked that it made him anxious to think of the target numbers climbing on the displays while the employees were away from their station.
“I hope I haven’t ruined your productivity for the day,” he said.
— Matt Hongoltz-Hetling