Talk about gathering low-hanging fruit. With a negligible investment and without laying off any employees the American Printing House for the Blind Inc. in Louisville, Ky., turned a money-losing manufacturing venture into a money-making one, climbing steadily each year from 1996's $3.25 million loss to 2001's $1.19 million profit. In the process, the private, non-profit company that manufactures products for the blind and visually impaired created a culture of continuous improvement that promises to pay dividends far into the future. The secret weapon? The decades-old Toyota Production System (TPS), which combines a relentless attention to continuous flow production, employee empowerment and customer focus to drive efficiencies on the factory floor. It's not new, and it doesn't involve sexy technology, but it is cheap, relatively easy and nearly guaranteed to work-a quintessential best practice for capital-starved 2002. Granted, the Printing House's return on investment got a big head start with pro-bono consulting from the Toyota Supplier Support Center, a division of Toyota North America that shares the Toyota operations philosophy with certain other organizations at no charge. Still, Tuck Tinsley III, president, and Jack Decker, VP of production, are hard pressed to identify any major costs associated with the plant's transformation. "Most of the cost was what it took to move some of the equipment, which was relatively easy to move," says Decker. "One of the first things we purchased -- for less than $100 -- was a new oven." That simple purchase and moving some machines closer together, he says, enabled the Printing House to reduce the number of people printing the covers for Braille books from seven people working seven machines to one person working all seven. Even training costs were kept to a minimum, with only three people getting formal training. The plant floor employees learned on the job. "We'd get a group of them together with a consultant and we'd review a process, change it, and they'd learn by doing it," says Decker. This learn-by-doing process helped speed production of several products: In 1997, 15 people worked two and a half weeks to produce the Braille version of Readers' Digest; by 1998, five people could finish the work in only four days. An IRS publication that in 1997 required 12 people three weeks to produce needed only five people working one week in 1998. Decker also credits the TPS for helping the Printing House profitably produce small quantities of a wide variety of products to meet new customer demand. In the '40s and '50s, the printing house's customers were a few residential schools for the blind, which ordered products in large quantities. Now their customers live throughout the United States; order quantities rarely top 25 and are often for a single unit. "A big part of the TPS is to reduce set-up time," he says. "If it takes you four hours to set up a machine, you're not going to only make one of a product, you're going to want to run hundreds. But if you can reduce that to a few minutes, you can justify making only one." The company produces more than 400 products plus thousands of Braille and large-type books each year with a production staff of 160. The TPS' intense focus on process improvement at low cost -- and the success the company achieved with it -- has turned the Printing House management's thinking around. "Buying things is what we used to look at first [to improve production]," says Tinsley. "Now it's the last." Send submissions for Best Practices to Editorial Research Director David Drickhamer at [email protected].