Take a tour of La-Z-Boy's Dayton, Tenn., facility with Continuous Improvement Manager David Robinson and be prepared for a bit of temporal distortion. For as proud as Robinson is of the facility's current operations, his heart belongs to its "future state." 

The Dayton facility produces a wide range of upholstered furniture, including the famous La-Z-Boy recliner, in a staggering variety of styles and fabrics -- 11 million possible product variations in all. The facility cuts and shapes its own wood parts, stamps and shapes metal for furniture mechanisms, and cuts polyurethane foam from large buns for cushions and padding. 

In the manufacturing cells, employees build the frames, stuff and seal the polyurethane into previously cut and sewn components and upholster each component. The finished furniture is inspected and then packed for delivery. Each cell team of six to eight employees operates on an incentive basis and is managed by a "coach" who supervises up to five teams. 

In an American furniture industry decimated by foreign competition, a determined drive for cost efficiency and continuous improvement has allowed La-Z-Boy to flourish, even during the Great Recession. "If we were doing business the same way we did in 2005, somebody else would be here because we would already be closed," Robinson observes. "We are $50 million a year better now than we were."

La-Z-Boy has taken on the competitive challenge through its people, equipment and processes. Both managers and employees have been trained in lean concepts and involved in operational improvement efforts. For example, 23 managers and engineers have been trained in Six Sigma. Cross-functional teams completed 24 kaizen events focused on safety, quality and productivity.

The plant has been investing in new equipment to boost productivity. A $500,000 bag fusion machine allows the facility to make its own bags of fiber that are inserted into upholstered backs of chairs. The machine eliminated a $2,000 per day outsourcing cost and reduced inventory for sister plants by 50%. And a Baumer foam-cutting machine not only operates faster but makes common cuts that eliminate waste.

One of the process improvements the Dayton facility has implemented is its Flawless Launch Program, designed to build quality and manufacturability into new products. A production engineer is dedicated to ensuring that products are designed for manufacturing and assembly. 

"Before the product ever makes it to manufacturing, she has been on the front end of the design," says Robinson. "When it comes to manufacturing, she knows in advance the tooling and equipment that will be needed to produce it repeatedly, building in error proofs and low cost." 

The program has facilitated great strides in reducing defects. Robinson points to the plants first effort at launching an electric lift chair. The lift chair had about a 40% failure rate in the field. But after introducing a redesigned model with the flawless launch process, he reports, "We now have a fraction of 1% failure in the field."

The Dayton facility has extended its continuous improvement efforts to its supply chain. The plant uses a supplier scorecard to evaluate performance on quality, delivery and cost. The plant established a supplier kaizen support team that travels to supplier facilities and helps identify opportunities to reduce waste. 

Other "future state" plans include building a centralized parts distribution center at the site, reconfiguring manufacturing cells, introducing iPads for the parts picking process, and manufacturing boxes and staples. They all boil down to a simple ambition, Robinson explains. "We want to be great."

For more on the 2012 Best Plants winners' amazing achievements, click here.