Transforming The Manufacturing Process.

By Larry Nagengast

Founded in 1869 as a small plumbing and steam-fitting shop, the Speakman Co. has become a manufacturer whose reach literally extends around the world. The shower head in your home may well be a Speakman product; the showers and faucets at the next hotel you visit might carry the Speakman name. Speakman also makes specialty showers for the U.S. Navy’s fleet (a timed shutoff reduces waste of water), safety showers used in manufacturing plants, and commercial grade faucets and valves found in janitors’ closets in New York City public schools and hundreds of other locations across the nation.

For a family business with modest beginnings in northeast Wilmington, the company has grown in ways that founders Allen and Joseph Speakman could never have imagined.

A Speakman employee works on a showerhead. Shower Products account for about 40 percent of annual revenues. Photo courtesy of Speakman Co.

A Speakman employee works on a showerhead. Shower Products account for about 40 percent of annual revenues. Photo courtesy of Speakman Co.

Morphing into a plumbing supply business and then into a manufacturer, Speakman grew steadily in the first half of the 20th century. Sales took off after World War II with its entry into the safety equipment field by manufacturing emergency showers for industrial plants.

In 2001, Speakman reorganized into three autonomous business units. Plumbing Solutions supplies drinking faucets, metering faucets and showers, primarily to the commercial market. Safety Equipment supplies emergency eyewashes and showers and combination faucet-eyewash products. Shower Products offers a wide range of showerheads, hand-held showers and accessories for residential, hotel and commercial markets. Recently, the company added a fourth unit, CRS (for clean, renewable, sustainable) Air Conditioning; that product line is manufactured in India.

In 2003, after 96 years in Wilmington, Speakman moved into a new facility in the Twin Spans Industrial Park in New Castle. The move, in many respects, represented a new beginning.

A Balancing Act

The balance among Speakman’s product lines provides the company with some built-in stability. Shower Products account for about 40 percent of annual revenues. Plumbing Solutions and Safety Equipment average about 30 percent each, says Mark Puzzo, the company’s supply chain manager.

But there’s plenty of competition from Moen and WaterPik for shower products, Bradley for safety equipment and Chicago Faucet for plumbing solutions, Puzzo says.

And, with a supply chain that extends not only cross-country but far into Asia, it takes astute planning to order the right parts two or three months ahead of time so finished products are ready when distributors and retailers want them.

As an example, Puzzo holds up a two-headed shower assembly. Its brass exterior and handles, the ball nut, the shank and the manifold all come from Asia, while the internal plastic components are made in the United States.

“If Wal-Mart wants a new showerhead, you can’t tell them you need three months to retool,” he says. “If you get a great new item, show it around, and someone says we need 10,000 of them right away, you can’t say we’re not ready yet.”

“DEMEP showed us how to get the most out of cellular manufacturing. Cells give us the flexibility to adjust. It’s easier to keep the product moving, and it drives more efficiencies.” — Mark Puzzo, Speakman Co. supply chain manager

“DEMEP showed us how to get the most out of cellular manufacturing. Cells give us the flexibility to adjust. It’s easier to keep the product moving, and it drives more efficiencies.”
— Mark Puzzo, Speakman Co. supply chain manager

Internally, Speakman faced its own challenges. Not only had it abandoned an aging 210,000-square-foot factory for a more compact 65,000-square-foot facility, prompting a shift from the traditional assembly-line system to modular cell-based manufacturing, but it had to implement the changes within a union environment, requiring management to negotiate the changes in work procedures with the leadership of Local 8184 of the United Steelworkers.

Navigating change can be difficult when employees have been doing things the same way for so long. “After 25 years, when somebody says, ‘hey, there’s a better way,’ you think they’re saying that ‘for 25 years you’ve been doing it wrong.’ But really, it’s just that things have changed,” Puzzo says.

What Speakman needed was, he says, “a total retraining.”

Evolutionary Change

Speakman recognized the importance of getting good advice on how to transform its manufacturing processes, so it turned to the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership (DEMEP), and discussed its plans with DEMEP Executive Director Steve Quindlen and Manufacturing Specialist John Barone.

Barone recognized that change would not occur overnight. The pace, he says, would be “evolutionary, not revolutionary.”

The DEMEP training started with a Principles of Lean program to get key people “up to speed on what Lean is all about and why they should care,” Barone says.

Some workers were suspicious. “When you say ‘Lean,’ workers may think layoffs. But we’re not trying to do the same with fewer people, we’re trying to do more with the same number of people,” Puzzo explains.

Next came an intensive Kaizen (or continuous improvement) event, designed to introduce the concepts of cell manufacturing, a process in which workers are organized into teams of two or three people performing a specific function. Using groups of small cells rather than one long assembly line gives Speakman added flexibility in product assembly.

In a traditional process, it would take a full line of six or more people, each performing a specific task, to assemble a shower head – and Speakman makes at least four different types for residential and hotel use. With cells, a two-person team performs most assembly steps for a particular type of shower head; then the assembled heads are moved along to another cell for packaging.

The cell system also helps overcome downtime related to employee absenteeism; if a couple of people are out, it might shut down a cell, but it won’t cripple the entire assembly process, Puzzo says.


Even with these changes, productivity didn’t reach desired levels right away. Two years after the move into the new plant, Speakman called on DEMEP again, this time to help with realigning the warehousing and manufacturing areas of the plant to create a U-shaped product flow. Parts are kept on one side of the U; at the base of the U are three groups of manufacturing cells (one each for showerheads, safety and plumbing solutions). On the other side of the U are packaging and shipping areas.

Assembly workers in their cells concentrate on putting units together; they notify workers in the warehouse area when more parts are needed for their cells. All the materials needed for packaging are kept along the wall behind the packaging workers.

“We’ve eliminated a lot of personnel movement, and a lot of unnecessary product movement,” Puzzo says.

Some of the issues Speakman faced involved dealing with suppliers. “Our purchasing parameters weren’t very sophisticated,” Puzzo says. DEMEP helped Speakman assess its purchasing practices and offered training in meeting ISO 9001 quality standards, DEMEP trainer Barone says.

Two improvements resulted: excess inventory has been reduced and workers have been trained to tell managers when they find parts that don’t meet specifications. Reducing inventory has improved cash flow and demanding that parts suppliers meet quality standards has increased production and reduced waste, Puzzo says.

Lean Pays Off

Gross revenues at Speakman have increased by 75 percent since the implementation of Lean techniques. For example, a Value Stream Mapping exercise paid immediate dividends in improving the assembly procedures for industrial safety showers. Instead of making one or two a day, output now reaches eight to 10 units daily. With various models selling for $3,000 to $12,000 each, the value of quadrupled output ranges from $18,000 to $72,000 a day. And, because orders are processed more rapidly, Speakman can keep a smaller inventory and workers can make other products when they’re caught up on shower orders.