Go away. Don't visit. Don't call. Don't write. Forget us. That's not how you would expect a manufacturer to treat some of its key people, but that is exactly what KraftMaid Cabinetry Inc. does. Not every day, of course. However, as part of its continuous-improvement efforts, this build-to-order maker of semicustom cabinets tells its people to hit the road -- and learn. And not simply for a day or a week. "Total immersion" might best describe the educational opportunity KraftMaid President Tom Chieffe employs to bring best practices to the three manufacturing facilities that comprise Middlefield, Ohio-based KraftMaid, a division of consumer products maker Masco Corp. He plucks key people from their regular jobs and sends them on journeys of many months to many facilities in several countries to learn new approaches, raise their awareness of what the remainder of the world is up to, and bring those experiences back to improve their organization. "I want them to eat, breathe and sleep it," Chieffe says. To the "students," he says, "Cut the ties; don't call in. You have to focus on the task of learning as much as you can learn." Chieffe has sent two employees on these sabbaticals, with a third person -- and the first not from manufacturing -- slated to make a trip soon. Steve Blackburn has taken such a sabbatical. There are many methods by which to learn about manufacturing practices, notes the KraftMaid vice president of continuous improvement. But "going out and bumping elbows with those who have been through the wars, and seeing it in action -- it brings it to life," he explains. Blackburn returned in January 2003 from a nine-month trip that saw him visit about two plants per month. In some instances he participated in improvement projects; others involved more traditional benchmarking, such as plant tours and observation. Among the industries he visited were plumbing fixtures, air conditioning, telecommunications and automotive. In addition to U.S. plants, he also went to Japan. In that time, he visited the office just once, to meet with Chieffe. "It's too easy to get wrapped up in daily things or fire fighting," if you make contact too frequently, explains Blackburn. Which raises the question, how can a company afford to lose top people for such lengths of time? "How can you not," responds Chieffe easily. "I look at it as cost savings for a lifetime." These learning experiences have helped bear fruit. The firm embarked on a drive toward lean manufacturing when Chieffe, who hails from the automotive industry, came on board seven years ago. Since that time KraftMaid has, among its accomplishments, slashed manufacturing cycle time from three weeks to one; changed from a batch mode of production to one-piece flow; and cut in half the time it takes to bring new product introductions to market. Chieffe is not aware of other companies that have taken the immersion approach KraftMaid has adopted. "I like to try new things," he says. "The risk level of it not working is low as long as somebody gets some education." Send submissions for Best Practices to Editorial Research Director David Drickhamer at [email protected].