How soft skills make a shop successful

When hiring, Wisconsin fabricator looks for problem solvers

May 1, 2012
By: Tim Heston

When hiring, Jay Manufacturing Oshkosh managers don't look for technical skills first. Instead, they concentrate on elements that are difficult to teach--that is, the soft skills.

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Figure 1: Chris Boycks, Jay Manufacturing’s director of quality and process improvement, works with staff members during a kaizen event.

If managers at Jay Manufacturing Oshkosh Inc. hired people based solely on their technical expertise, the company probably wouldn’t have a rotary-axis laser, or a robotic welding cell, or flexible welding fixtures for both its manual and robotic operations. It would also still take much too long to return a quote or process an order.

If the firm did hire based only on technical talent, managers probably wouldn’t have a difficult time finding people. The contract fabricator is after all, as its name implies, in Oshkosh, Wis., an epicenter of metal fabrication. But as Jay Manufacturing’s managers see it, technical know-how can be taught. It’s the difficult-to-teach soft skills that managers look for. Is the job candidate inquisitive? Does he think about the entire manufacturing process, not just the cutting, bending, or welding job in front of him? Most important, does that person question the status quo (see Figure 1)?

If employees merely focused on their own jobs, workcell, or fabrication technology, Jay’s managers contend that the company probably wouldn’t have grown like it has. The fabricator has continued to hire during the past five years, even throughout the Great Recession.

After a recent building expansion (see Figures 2 and 3), the company now has 113,000 square feet of manufacturing space. Bread-and-butter work comes from the transportation, energy, and defense industries. Quick response is paramount.

“We are a contract manufacturer, so maintaining a consistent flow of work always drives us,” explained Tony Robinson, vice president of manufacturing. “Many clients have forecasts that are somewhat fluid, so we have to be able to react to very short lead-times.” In the 1980s and early 1990s, Jay Manufacturing operated with about eight weeks of lead-time, typical for the day. Now turnaround time for a new part is one to two weeks—sometimes longer and sometimes shorter—even same-day, depending on the part.

The fabricator’s story reflects how this industry has evolved over half a century, from craftcentric to business- and technology-focused. David D. Jameson worked at another small fabricator in Osh-kosh before launching his own company in 1955. Initially all manufacturing took place in one room, while another room stored punching templates, so integral during those pre-CNC days. Like many contract fabricators, Jay is a multigenerational family business. In 1997 the founder’s son, David L. Jameson, purchased the business, and in 2005 the founder’s grandson, Matt Jameson, joined the company. The youngest Jameson became chief operating officer in 2007.

But continual growth, even during the recession, does set the company apart. Managers attribute this growth in part to its customer base, including its defense and transportation industry customers. Even in 2009, logistics hubs needed conveyors to transport products to the right place. Rather than buy new, many ordered replacement parts, which Jay Manufacturing was happy to fabricate.

But managers also attribute the success to the fabricator’s management philosophy. As Matt Jameson explained, this philosophy aligns everyone’s thought processes with the customer’s. Customers are most concerned about getting a good part when and where they need it, for a good price. If this requires significant changes at Jay Manufacturing, employees don’t hesitate to question the current state of affairs, analyze processes, and help initiate such changes. As managers explained, those soft skills help them do just that.

The Improvement Process

“Getting ISO 9001-certified, and when we brought Six Sigma methodology and the green belts on staff—those initiatives helped us break our dependence on the old ways,” Jameson said.

For ISO certification, employees helped develop procedures that not only detailed corrective but also preventive actions. “If employees don’t feel empowered or they can’t explain processes well, or they feel that they can’t approach management, then we’re not going to get those preventive-action ideas,” Robinson said.

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Figure 2: Jay Manufacturing recently built another 53,000 sq. ft. onto its existing facility, shown here in early spring, just before machines were put into place.

As sources explained, Six Sigma and the DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control, then replicate) practice used to reduce manufacturing variability in high-volume environments can be adapted to contract fabrication. A fabricator’s machines may cut, bend, and weld different parts every day, even every hour. But the top-level machine setup processes repeat over and over. How, employees continually ask, can these processes be perfected?

There’s a cost to innovation. A large cost can involve, say, purchasing new equipment. “But there’s a huge cost to implementing a process change that isn’t the proper solution,” Jameson said, adding that implementing Six Sigma and, especially, the DMAIC process has helped Jay avoid those costs.

For instance, in recent years customers requested more structural parts, including C-channels and tubing, all of which required intricate cutting. To fabricate these, workers carried parts to separate sawing, drilling, and coping machines. So many steps introduced a lot of variability and chances for error.

So Jay’s workers questioned the status quo. Why not cut these geometries on a laser? To test the concept, they built fixtures on an older 2-D laser machine. However crude, the tube and channel cutting setup on the laser reduced fabrication time significantly. Because employees questioned the status quo, a new Amada rotary-axis tube laser (see Figure 4), which can cut tube, channel, angle, as well as flat sheet, now sits on Jay Manufacturing’s shop floor.

“You can hire guys who can run a laser, but if they don’t have those analytical thinking skills, and don’t take it upon themselves to solve a problem, all you’re going to have is a very good laser cutting machine operator,” said John Bores, the shop’s director of client services. “In this case, the guys did have those problem-solving skills. And most important, they knew they had the backing of management to try something new.”

Jameson added, “Were it not for those employees taking that initiative and showing the rest of us what could be done on a laser with material that wasn’t flat, we probably wouldn’t have even considered purchasing a rotary laser. Not only was it good for our current clients, but it also helped us open up an entirely new revenue channel.” This fulfilled that final step in the DMAIC process—replicate the improvement.

“And it all comes from those soft skills,” Robinson said.

The same problem solving played out several years ago in the welding department. Today, like most contract fabricators, Jay Manufacturing has a row of welding booths, but it also has a Panasonic robotic welding cell—with multiple robots—not incredibly rare in the job shop arena, especially if a shop has a high-volume repeat or blanket order. But here again, employees thought broadly. They didn’t think about it as a “welding problem” but instead as a “speed of fabrication” problem. Manual welding wasn’t the only way to go.

The component in question had several joints that were difficult for a manual welder to access efficiently, and the assemblies needed to be sent to a painting shop that required a shorter lead-time. The welding robot could access all joints in one setup, and this (among many other things) helped reduce lead-time for this part by more than 60 percent (see Figure 5).

What about fixturing costs? The costs of developing a fixture for each new part can add up—a fact that often prevents a high-mix, low-volume shop from delving too deeply into robotic welding. In this case, the company adopted some flexible fixturing technologies, including the Bluco fixturing system, which workers also use for manual welding. This helped employees develop robotic welding processes for other parts—in Six Sigma parlance, replicating the improvement made possible with DMAIC.

How soft skills make a shop successful -

Figure 3: Jay installed this new material handling tower and automated laser cutting system in its new space, which at this writing was slated to be operational in April.

Inventory and Contract Fabrication

The company keeps a certain amount of finished-goods inventory at an assembly and logistics facility about a mile away from the main plant. That facility, managers said, exemplifies the company philosophy.

Customers want to reduce that inventory, and as Jay’s managers see it, they can help. “If our customers need to reduce inventory, then we may carry a little bit more so we can meet their needs in a timely fashion,” Jameson said. “We almost view ourselves as another department of our customer. While we have had some inventory reduction on our end, our main focus still is to help our clients with their inventory reduction program.”

Managers conceded that this shifts more risk toward Jay Manufacturing. After all, a design change at an OEM could leave Jay holding a finished-goods inventory of now useless, out-of-date parts. But as sources explained, communication between customers and the contract fabricator ensures this rarely occurs. It still can happen, of course, but that risk is far outweighed by the benefits. When customers place certain repeat orders, they can get parts immediately.

As Jameson explained, “Part of being in this type of manufacturing—contract manufacturing—is that you are going to take a few risks. Sometimes a situation won’t pan out exactly the way you want. Perhaps there will be an unplanned design change. But in the long run, meeting the needs of customers, you become their reliable supplier. That’s far more beneficial than having to throw away a few [out-of-date] parts here and there.”

Jay may have vendor-managed inventory (VMI) agreements that require the company to keep a certain level of finished-goods inventory for customers, but it also has arrangements with its metal suppliers. If Jay commits to a certain amount of metal, it has the metal service center ship, say, 10 or 20 sheets multiple times a week, instead of hundreds of sheets just once a week, reducing needed floor space for raw stock.

And, of course, the company doesn’t need to keep a finished-goods inventory of every part. “We’ve also been involved with new-product development and prototyping work with many of our customers,” Bores said. “Working with our clients, we came up with ways we could work together to streamline the fabrication process, so we could do next-day and some cases same-day turnaround on some parts.”

Streamlining the Front End

When brainstorming about cutting structural channels and tubes, shop employees thought about combining operations like sawing and drilling. In recent years front-office employees also began to do the same thing for quoting, engineering, scheduling, and purchasing functions. They developed a value-stream map that illustrated the order-processing procedure. Why, they thought, were there so many steps to send a purchase order to the manufacturing floor?

“There were too many people involved in the process,” said Robinson, “and we weren’t using technology as much as we could have. We found that a lot of steps just didn’t need to be there.”

The company upgraded its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system so that it could combine various front-office duties into one function. Before, a purchase order would come from the salesperson and land on a desk for data entry; then on someone else’s desk to ensure material was available for that order; then on yet another desk for scheduling; then back to purchasing to order components; and finally back to another order-entry process where someone entered the job into the system. After all that, sheet metal cutting machine programmers finally could print out a list of parts on the docket.

Now many of these elements are combined in the new ERP system (MAS 200 from Sage Software), which manages an order based on one electronic file. For instance, certain quoting, order-processing, and routine purchasing functions now occur in one step.

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Figure 4: Without employees who questioned the status quo, Jay Manufacturing probably wouldn’t have a rotary-axis laser on the floor today.

“Now, when we’re quoting projects, the quoting department will secure the material and make sure it’s available. They attach all the information needed to that quote, so that when the order does come, it is automatically sent to our purchasing department. We no longer go out, look for material, make a purchase order, confirm pricing—all that information is set up at the beginning of the process,” Bores said.

How Soft Skills Drive Business

According to sources, all these changes come from those soft skills. Without them, Jay probably would be operating much the same as it did decades ago—with two- to three-month lead-times, a turnaround that just wouldn’t be acceptable for most customers today.

“There are certain skills a person now must have to make it in this world,” Jameson said. “You need analytical thinking and problem-solving skills. You need relationship-building skills. You need to be willing to learn, to share what you know. But more important to us are those soft skills, to be able to motivate, inspire, and train people.

“A person can be taught the hard skills. You can teach manufacturing processes. But those other soft skills—being a team player, a leader, a mentor—by a certain time in a person’s life, you just can’t teach that. Either you have it, or you don’t.”

Interviewing for Soft Skills

Jay Manufacturing’s managers value the soft skills—teamwork, communication, leadership, an inquisitive mind. That’s all well and good, but how does a company identify those attributes when interviewing a potential hire?

As Chief Operating Officer Matt Jameson explained, the company interviews everyone, even temporary employees who’ve been screened by an agency. “The interviewing process uses questions we’ve designed to get at what type of personality the person has. It’s not a full Myers-Briggs profile or anything like that, but we know what we’re looking for. And it will be different for somebody working on the laser versus working in a grinding booth versus working as a salesperson. We need to determine how they will fit in with the team. It’s an extensive interviewing process, and we do it whether that person will be here two weeks or a lifetime. What happens in a two-week span can make or break a company.”

He added that how a person answers a question can be as important as the answer itself. Is the answer too short or too long? Will this person do a lot of talking and not a lot of listening? “When we ask about a previous experience or challenge at a prior employer, the way they talk about how they handle it tells us whether this person is decisive, or detail-oriented, or if this person just wants people to get along and doesn’t really get to the root cause of the problem. We try to bring out their past experiences and listen to how they solve problems. We know, for certain jobs in our shop—like a press brake operator—you need to be detail-oriented. Some other jobs, such as supervisory roles, we may look for more decisive people.”

The company rarely advertises for open positions. Most new hires are recommended by existing employees. “This tells us our employees are happy working here; otherwise they wouldn’t want their friends to work here,” Jameson said. “People here have good soft skills, and they know what it takes. If they recommend someone to us, they probably know that person would be a good fit.”

How soft skills make a shop successful -

Figure 5: Converting to robotic welding helped reduce one part’s lead-time by more than 60 percent.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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