“Thou Shalt Not Park Here,” reads a sign posted in the parking lot of Keystone’s Montana plant in Goshen, Ind. It’s our first cautionary warning of the day as we begin a tour of the factory that gives birth to the RV industry’s best selling fifth wheel. We’ve entered Keystone’s national headquarters. What the modest offices within the main building lack in posh decor are more than made up for in energy and spirit in a telling sign of what lies ahead on the assembly floor.
“Don’t get run over.” The day’s second piece of advice comes from the last office on the left before we enter the assembly line. Its author picks his head up from his computer long enough to send a knowing grin in our direction as the doors to the factory open and welcome us into chaos.
We cross the threshold from office to factory and within seconds are swept up in a typhoon of laborious activity whose frenetic pace is unlike any we’ve seen to this point in our tour of manufacturing facilities. A cacophonous symphony of industrious metal bombards my auditory senses, instantly transforming the world into a moving picture of momentary silence. I pan my head from left to right to take in the scene and orient myself. To the left are the chassis. Somewhere down the line on the right must be the finished product. An order of method slowly becomes apparent as sound returns to the moment at hand.
“Coming through!” The day’s third piece of advice arrives with a shout. I turn around just in time to side step two passing factory workers handling an over-sized sheet of aluminum. Chaos, I think to myself. Then it occurs to me that this may be what it looks like when supply attempts to keep up with demand.
Mark Krol is Keystone’s direct sales director and our guide for the day. He hails from Chicago and looks like he would be perfectly at home in the nose-bleed section at Soldier Field on a wind-chilled, playoff Sunday with a beer in one hand and a bratwurst in the other. I ask him if this hyperspeed pace is the status-quo. “It’s a go-go pace,” he says as he shepherds us to a place we can talk out of intensity’s way. “Our products don’t have engines, which allows for the line to move faster than you might have seen at motorhome factories.” Krol points out that the plant we’re in is focused solely on making Montanas, Keystone’s flagship product and top selling fifth wheel in the RV industry. “On a good day we can make 18 Montana trailers.” Krol can see the awe in my face and offers me what he feels is no secret to the success of Keystone’s productivity. “Teamwork,” he says like a young Vince Lombardi, though he might hate on principle, as any true Chicago Bears fan would, being compared to anyone from Green Bay.
“Watch the line and notice how they all work together.” Krol’s suggestion (the day’s fourth piece of advice) is the primer that unlocks the kinetic mayhem of the Montana assembly line. It becomes obvious. Each individual’s laborious effort is committed in tandem with another. No one is on an island. No one works alone. The assembly line moves and breathes as a unit with each worker in perpetual motion while never wasting a step. “The Montana factory,” explains Krol, “is structured so that each team, whether it be plumbing or roofing, framing, shelling or electrical, works together to get the units out the door correctly on a daily basis.”
Once an outsider acclimates to the speed of the assembly line, the faces of the workers come into focus revealing not only a sense of pride in craftsmanship, but also a certain morale that spreads its way throughout the plant, engulfing it in a blanket of positive energy.
Teamwork, Krol explains from inside the living room of a freshly completed and ready-to-be-shipped to a dealership 2011 Montana, is the driving force of Keystone’s manufacturing philosophy and a fundamental principle that sustained the company during the recession. “The downturn of the last few years was tough,” says Krol, “At Keystone we learned how to increase our efficiency by doing more with less. We became stronger by getting back to our core values.”
A close relationship with its customers has endured as one of the most sacred of values for Keystone and one on which much of its success and rise to prominence in the RV industry was built. “We never lost faith in each other and we never lost touch with the customer,” says Krol, “Their ideas help shape our innovation as a company. Many of the features of the Montana came about due to suggestions made by our customers. Now that we’ve weathered the storm and are here on the other side of the recession, we look forward to exceeding our customers’ expectations. We look forward to a great 2011.”
Read about Tiffin Motorhomes' Factory