Solving Manufacturing Problems Case Study

Working on the factory floor early in my career taught me how much typical manufacturing workers know and care about the company’s products. Consultants came from time to time, studied, rearranged, left. Not much useful happened. But the individual guys (in those days) on the line knew more about what was going on than most of the supervisors and all of management.

Therefore, an opportunity to talk with Paul Vragel, Founder and President of 4aBetterBusiness in Evanston, IL to discuss his experiences as a project engineer and integrator was too good to pass up. After all, the values he learned and still implements include these:

  • Listen to people
  • Engage employees
  • Respect
  • Ask everyone to look for problems with no fault issued
  • Assume employees have needed knowledge

Vragel told me, “My initial education and experience is in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering – that is, ship design and construction. Building a ship involves building a hotel, a restaurant, a huge warehouse and a power plant, putting them all together, putting a propeller on it and sending it out on the ocean where there are no service stations. Ship design and construction is essentially a demanding, large-scale systems engineering project.”

After graduation from Webb Institute of Naval Architecture, he worked at Newport News Shipbuilding. After a year, 2 prior graduates of Webb Institute, working for Amoco Corporation, hired him, at the age of 22, to manage ship construction programs in Spain. “A couple weeks after I was hired, I was on a plane to Spain with my instruction set being, essentially, ‘figure out what you’re supposed to do, and do that’ ”.

After a year, one of the earlier ships built in the series came in to Lisbon for its guarantee drydocking and inspection. When we opened one of the crankshaft bearings of the 30,000 hp main diesel engine, we saw the bearing material, which was supposed to be in the bearing, was lying on the crankshaft journal, in pieces.

Talk about a complex situation—the ship was built by a company controlled by the Spanish Government. They were the holder of the guarantee. The engine was built by a different company, also controlled by the Spanish Government. Amoco had a contract with the shipyard, not the engine builder. And the engine was built under license from a company in Denmark.

Vragel was there as an observer for the new construction department. The ship was under the control of the operations department. I had no authority and no staff reporting to me. “I had no technical knowledge of poured metal bearings in high-powered diesel engines, I didn’t speak Portuguese or Spanish, I was 23 years old, and the instruction from my boss was very simple: ‘Fix It!’ To add to the urgency of the ship being out of service, the shipyard in Lisbon, where the ship was located, was charging $30,000/day (about $250,000 in today’s dollars), just for being there.”

Vragel went to the engine builder in Spain who said, “We don’t think we have a problem – we think the Danes have a problem. They designed the engine, we just built it according to their instructions.”

Figuring that getting the Danish engineers down to Spain for a meeting wouldn’t be productive, he decided the only thing to do was to go into the plant and talk to the people who made the bearings. One problem – they only spoke Spanish, and he only spoke English. But there are lots of ways to communicate if you really want to. “I observed what they were doing, pointed, asked a lot of questions – they learned a little English, I learned a little Spanish – and we sketched out how the bearings were made.”

After a couple of days, he thought he had figured out the cause of the problem, but “I had the good sense to shut up. While our communication had become pretty good, I was sure that there were other parts of the process they knew about that we hadn’t touched on that might be part of the problem or solution. If I just told them what I thought, everything would stop there without awareness of those elements and we wouldn’t get an effective solution. But if I could work with them through the process so they saw the issues, the employees would bring those additional elements to the table. We would have a full understanding of the system, the employees would be part of the solution. In this way, employees would have ownership in the results.”

“And that’s exactly what happened. With a little more effort we found and fixed the causes of the problem (which was causing porosity in the bearing).”

I had no authority, no technical expertise, no staff, I was 23 years old, I didn’t speak Portuguese or Spanish, and in a few days, working cross language and cross culture in an overseas plant I had never seen in a technology in which I had no experience, we together achieved a solution that permanently raised their manufacturing capability – that they owned.

This key formative experience led to the beliefs on which 4aBetter Business was founded:

  • We believe that employees are the world’s experts at knowing what they actually do every day – their local systems
  • We believe that 90% of the issues in a company are embedded in the way these local systems work and work together

This lesson applies to 22-year-olds and 52-year-olds alike. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own ideas that we overlook an obvious source of great expertise.

Industry Conferences

The latest Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast featured Sangram Vajre, co-founder and chief evangelist of startup company Terminus. That company specializes in B2B marketing.

Vajre talked about several things the company’s founders did at startup.

They wrote a book. They autographed 1,000 copies and sent to executives at prospective clients. Instant credibility.

They put together a conference. Many industry influencers were invited to speak. Terminus had a booth. Competitors were also invited to have a booth. The conference was not branded for Terminus, rather Flip My Funnel. There was no keynote from Terminus promoting the company. It was an “Industry Conference.”

Made me pause and think about our market, or industry. Perhaps the closest we have to and industry conference is ARC Industry Forum. Except that it is really about ARC and its clients. Many companies (almost all?) run conference for its customers and prospects. A couple of magazines run conferences. They are mostly centered on advertisers. Speakers are either conference sponsors or a customer of a sponsor. That doesn’t mean in any of those cases the speakers will simply give sales pitches. But it’s not the same as having independent influencers as speakers. Maybe we just don’t have enough of us?

I would do an independent industry conference, but there is only one of me.

Back to Vajre. He developed the PEAK methodology. From the show notes:

  • P – Picture of Success: The image of the collective win that rallies the community
  • E – Extreme Focus: Identifying the one thing your business focuses on
  • A – Authenticity: Being true to your word, revealing your motives and demonstrating that youcan be trusted by your employees and customers
  • K – Kindness: Caring for your team and community and keeping your customers in focus insuch a way that everyone on your team sees and feels how they contribute to the win

Leadership

Here is a look at where leadership can take you. This features Pat Gelsinger, new CEO of Intel. He recently left VMware to return to Intel to lead the company. Intel definitely needed new leadership. It has been dropped by Apple in favor of ARM system-on-a-chip. It has been unable to get its 10 nM manufacturing process ironed out, let alone 7 nM. It has fallen behind in the chip race.

Obviously, many things Gelsinger talks about in this message started before he got there. But a good leader brings things and people together, focuses on the essential, and can articulate the company, its mission, and its vision. The meat of the talk is about 25 minutes.

Collaboration and Access to Experts

Yesterday, I sat in on a Webinar from Honeywell about a plant optimization project with Woodside. Here are a few takeaways.

Supplier/Customer Collaboration–from the earliest phase of the project, the customer brought in experts from the supplier to assist planning, specifying, scheduling, and the like.

Planning–not a surprise to any of us who have done any project in manufacturing (or around the house) that success was correlated with good planning.

Access to remote experts–we now have good tools for bringing in experts from wherever they are to consult with the project. Video tools mean they can see and be seen. This saves time, money, headaches.

Basecamp Policy Changes Rattle Tech Industry

Jason Fried, co-founder/CEO of Basecamp a projects software company, released a blog post (the hyperlink on his name) that dumped a number of new policies on employees. He and co-founder CTO David Heinemeier Hansen (@DHH) have decided that employees at Basecamp are too worried about things other than work.

Following the lead of Bitcoin, they have banned all political and social communication on company communication tools. Employees are free to do that on their own time on their own social media platforms. But not employee-to-employee.

I have to back up a second to some of my past experience. I served eight years on a public school board. I learned that school administrators hate any public discussion and questioning of their decisions. They hate any feedback from teachers. Since principals are “part of the club”, it becomes career-limiting for a principal to question anything. I mentioned one time to the superintendent that I was advising a bunch of students on how to protest (thanks to my civil rights/hippie days). He blanched.

Similarly, Fried wrote that decisions wouldn’t be discussed. Live with it and go back to work.

They also did away with “paternalistic” policies. They had over time instituted policies and payments for wellness programs and the like. They will give employees a payment this year in lieu of the benefit, then it’s cut out. Maybe in future years a profit sharing plan will make up the difference. The rationale is that they don’t think the company should tell people what’s good for them–even if it is.

And, no more advisory committees. The person in charge makes the decision. Period. If they want feedback and information from anyone, they will ask for it.

Basecamp has been an employee-friendly company. These new policies require trust. They blew the trust by the way they rolled it out. Bitcoin lost a number of employees with its new policies. We’ll see how many Basecamp loses. And what the culture will evolve to. And whether Fried and DHH will write any more books about the right way to work.

NI Corporate Impact Strategy and Practice

ICYMI, NI (the company formerly known as National Instruments) has staked out some bold new directions. It is now called simply NI. The corporate identity also includes new logo and bold new colors.

That can be mere cosmetics. It has also just announced its 10-year corporate impact strategy, aimed at addressing some of our most pressing environmental, societal, and economic issues. The goals cover three pillars:

  • Changing the faces of engineering
  • Building a thriving and equitable society
  • Engineering a healthy planet

That could also be mere words written for a corporate annual report only to be forgotten in the quest for sales, profits, survival.

To probe more deeply, I was able to connect with Tabitha Upshaw, NI’s Head of Corporate Impact, to discuss more on these goals and what NI is actually doing. She took some time out of a busy day to brief me on the details of the goals and directions. I acknowledged that this sounds great and also within the history and culture of NI—a company I’ve followed since 1998 when it was an upstart entrepreneurial company. The refreshing part is in the details. She (and the team) has organized governance teams, working groups, reporting—all the tools of good management. I think they are actually going to follow through to make an impact.

NI Launches 10-Year Strategy and Goals for Advancing Diversity, Equity and Sustainability 

Company also makes $3.4 million commitment to advancing diversity in STEM education

February 03, 2021 09:00 AM Eastern Standard Time

NI released Engineering Hope, its 2030 Corporate Impact Strategy, outlining the company’s vision and aspirational goals for making a measurable, positive impact on society and the environment by 2030. The long-term plan to advance diversity, equity and sustainability furthers NI’s promise to Engineer Ambitiously, connecting people, ideas and technology to take on the world’s greatest challenges.

“The world is facing pressing challenges, from climate change to inequality. Engineering will play a pivotal role in confronting these issues, which is why we must collectively lead the change we hope to see in society,” said NI President and CEO Eric Starkloff. “We are focusing our efforts in areas like sustainability, diversity and equity – areas in which we can drive important, meaningful impact at NI, in the engineering field and in society at large.”

Over the next decade, NI is dedicated to creating impact in three areas by working toward a set of 15 goals and commitments, including two “moonshot” diversity goals. The strategy reflects a yearlong process to assess NI’s environmental impact and the priorities of employees, customers and other stakeholders. See the full strategy and goal list at ni.com/engineeringhope2030.

  • Changing the faces of engineering: NI is committed to increasing diversity and inclusion across its workforce and management teams and throughout the engineering industry. NI’s “moonshot” goals are based on the aspiration for its workforce to mirror society overall. With that in mind, NI has set specific 2030 goals to increase the representation of women and people of color in its workforce and in management roles, based on global and U.S. demographics.Achieving this goal, particularly in technical fields, will require focus not just within NI, but also on educational opportunities for underserved communities. NI will continue supporting the future generation of engineers by giving to and volunteering with STEM education initiatives. NI will invest $3.4 million globally over the next four years in STEM education initiatives that serve underrepresented or economically disadvantaged students. Its first grantees, Code2College and Project Lead The Way, will each receive $100,000 per year for the next four years to expand their hands-on learning programs.
  • Building a thriving and equitable society: By 2030, NI’s goal is for 16% of its suppliers to be small or diverse businesses. This is part of NI’s commitment to increasing equity and well-being among its employees and in the communities where they live and work. The company will also work toward achieving pay equity, advancing comprehensive well-being programs and supporting economic opportunity initiatives through giving and volunteering.
  • Engineering a healthy planet: By 2030, NI’s goal is to achieve Zero Waste at NI-owned buildings and reduce waste at leased facilities worldwide. The company will also work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve resources and design all new buildings to LEED and WELL standards. NI will also pursue circular design improvements to its products and packaging and donate or discount NI products to organizations developing green technologies.

To further progress toward these goals, NI has issued a 2+1 Giving Pledge: By 2030, the company will increase giving from 1% to 2% of annual, pre-tax profits in the form of monetary and product donations. And NI employees will have the opportunity to spend 1% of their work hours volunteering in their communities.

“This strategy builds upon NI’s culture of caring and long legacy of corporate citizenship,” said NI Head of Corporate Impact Tabitha Upshaw. “At the same time, it goes beyond philanthropy to integrate corporate impact into most every aspect of our business, especially the way we empower our customers, educators and innovators to use NI products for good.”

The strategy is also designed to be iterative, and NI may scale its commitments and goals as its programs evolve and mature. NI will publish an annual corporate impact report that measures against its 2019 baseline data.

About NI

At NI, we bring together the people, ideas and technology so forward thinkers and creative problem solvers can take on humanity’s biggest challenges. From data and automation to research and validation, we provide the tailored, software-connected systems engineers and enterprises need to Engineer Ambitiously every day.