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Breaking Down Barriers

Dec. 21, 2007
Bruce Vernyi Editor-in-Chief [email protected] American Machinist hosted its first Machine Shop Workshop in early November – a two-day event that was less about cutting metal than about running a metal-cutting business. When ...
Bruce Vernyi Editor-in-Chief [email protected]

American Machinist hosted its first Machine Shop Workshop in early November – a two-day event that was less about cutting metal than about running a metal-cutting business.

When we started planning the event, we were determined that it would be something different. We envisioned a gathering of business owners who aren’t afraid to put real problems out on the table for discussion with peers and friends; and who will offer help from their own hard-won experience.

People warned us that it couldn’t be done. We heard that:

• People are too busy to spend two days talking about business;
• Nobody is really going to open up and share their problems;
• Anyone who is successful isn’t going to divulge their secrets for success.

Ultimately, though, just over 100 people decided that you’re never too busy to work on the business. And after the first tentative conversations at an opening cocktail party, they did start sharing their problems and offering solutions.

There is a well-known image of work, in which everybody comes to the plant in their own silo – formed of experiences and lessons that determine what they do well. But those silos quickly become more than a way to direct effort – more than a way, for instance, of keeping the guy who knows how to keep the books from trying to run a machining center. Instead, they become a barrier from anything that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable, like building an apprenticeship program from the ground up because you can’t find workers who can meet your needs.

If you’re going to improve, these barriers have to come down. And there’s nothing better for that sitting in a room with people whose businesses are just like yours – and hearing them admit that they don’t have all the answers either.

In the middle of one working session on finding skilled workers, one attendee blurted out, “You have that problem? I thought only I had that problem.” There is something powerful about being in the company of people who face the same challenges.

Admittedly, solutions don’t always exist. For instance, skilled machinists are hard to find, and all of us – attendees, speakers and organizers – had to agree that the Machine Shop Workshop didn’t result in any silver bullets to solve that problem.

But there were plenty of other ideas – for reorganizing work cells; how to drum up new business; even the value of having a 24/7 webcam overlooking the plant floor. They passed from hand to hand and seemed to multiply as the event went on. Industry leaders, shop owners and consultants all did exactly what we were told they wouldn’t do: They talked about the challenges they face daily, and offered each other ideas to confront them.

So while the workshop was organized around specific topics that are common to all machine shops – customer service, operations, finance, human resources – it became a much larger forum in which solutions to many practical problems were dealt with in an atmosphere of mutual assistance.

“It’s a relief,” one attendee said, “to be able to discuss the business side of what we do.”

Maybe some of the attendees do compete directly with each other. If so, it never seemed to come up, and it certainly didn’t overshadow the recognition that – even if we compete with each other – we’re all in this business together.

As a highlight of the Workshop, we honored this year’s 10 Best Machine Shops (as featured in the November issue of American Machinist). Among them was Fred Young, president and owner of Forest City Gear, in Roscoe, Ill.

Near the end of the event, Young stood up and extended an open invitation for anyone at the Workshop to visit his plant. He said he is ready and willing to show anyone how his shop works, to open his books and customer list for examination, and to share ideas about becoming more competitive every day.

Like at least 100 other people at the Workshop, Young knows there is far more to gain than to lose from such an attitude.

Perhaps next November, when we hold the Workshop again, you’ll be there too.