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Manufacturing is the engine that made America prosperous.

Modern manufacturing will play a pivotal role in our long-term economic vitality.

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STIHL Incorporated: Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing


After touring modern manufacturing facilities, visitors are often surprised not only by how efficient and clean the plants are, but also by the laser-like commitment that so many manufacturers make to continual improvement of their operations and products.

One such Great Manufacturing Story comes from Virginia Beach, where nearly 1,700 employees work at the U.S. headquarters of STIHL Inc., a manufacturer of hand-held outdoor power equipment, such as chain saws, blowers and brush cutters. The employees work in a variety of manufacturing, assembly, quality-control, engineering, sales, logistics, and management capacities.

This company was founded in Switzerland in 1896. Today, it employs 12,000 people worldwide, and sells its products through 40,000 dealers, many of whom are also authorized service providers for their products.

STIHL began manufacturing in the U.S. in 1974, and by 1986, it had already produced its one millionth 1120-series chain saw in Virginia. The Virginia Beach plant is comprised of 2.1 million square feet of manufacturing, office, and warehouse space.

Continual improvement is part of the company’s culture, by design. In 2013, the Virginia Beach plant received a coveted honor from the Association for Manufacturing Excellence. The assessment team from AME observed, “The Virginia Beach facility has made strides toward the establishment of a continuous improvement system, focusing on the implementation of advanced technology, integration of automation, data systems, work instructions, kanban and steps toward the establishment of flow.”

The evaluators called special attention to outstanding practices in terms of total-cost thinking for new product and process development projects, and the use of inventory flywheels to balance high-service levels and low-cost production linearity goals.

Another characteristic about STIHL Inc. is that it remains family owned. Its leaders say the company values its independence, emphasizing that they can focus on investing for the future without being distracted by shorter-term considerations. 

Their commitment to continual improvement is not something new. The Virginia Beach facility is also a past winner of the Virginia Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award and the inaugural Virginia Shingo Prize by the Virginia Manufacturers Association. More broadly, the company has established a world-wide employee feedback and suggestion system that allows employees to share in any cost savings or new revenue that their suggestion might generate. 

As the U.S. strives to be the best place in the world to do business and make products, companies like STIHL that focus on continuous improvement will be a big part of America’s manufacturing story.