The soft skills of precision manufacturing

July 16, 2012
By: Tim Heston

In early 2010 I attended an event hosted by plasma cutting systems maker ITT Kaliburn, near Charleston, S.C. That's when I met Joe McNamara. He had led ITT heat transfer unit's plant near Buffalo, N.Y., through a major lean manufacturing transformation.

A few weeks ago I caught up with McNamara, who has since moved on to other areas of the company; the Buffalo heat exchanger manufacturing plant now is operated by Xylem Inc. Throughout our chat, I kept asking about the typical lean stuff: How did the company's 5S program go? What value streams did you identify? What was the challenge of adapting your custom, made-to-order manufacturing operation to the tenets of lean manufacturing?

He obliged me with the details, but then kept coming back to one element he felt made the whole transformation possible: good communication, not only between shop floor workers but also (or perhaps especially) front-office personnel. They did it by tearing down barriers to communication, both literally and figuratively. They removed walls (again, literally and figuratively) between engineering, factory managers, purchasing, and quality.

“We knocked down walls constantly,” McNamara said. “We got to the point where we were functionally structured along value streams, so out on the factory floor we literally built enclosed rooms.” Those rooms were strategically placed only steps away from specific value streams on the floor.

Each focused factory had its factory manager, purchaser, planner, manufacturing engineer, and quality engineer working in close proximity. If a customer called and had a question about production, the engineer didn't have to transfer the call to anyone. He'd simply walk a few steps, talk to the front-line supervisors themselves, walk back and answer the customer's question—all in less than a minute.

“The level of emails back and forth, and the level of nonsense overall, really, dropped by 90 percent,” McNamara said.

Since the recession, I've talked with more shops who stress the importance of accurate, effective communication, be it between employees or employees and customers. Managers at companies like Horton Emergency Vehicles in Columbus, Ohio, and Micron Metalworks in Ham Lake, Minn., have told me they've changed how front office personnel work together. Offices are closer. Walls are moved or removed entirely. The thinking goes that no matter how quickly the shop floor can make good parts, all that efficiency is for naught if workers have incorrect or incomplete information.

And the communication needs to go both ways. Shop floor personnel need to communicate problems as or (ideally) before they happen. If they discover a better way to get a job done, they need a way to spread the word and document those changes clearly and concisely. Surveys from the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association as well as other organizations (including one reported this week by this newspaper in Oregon) all highlight the importance of those soft skills.

At many shops, good communication skills trump everything else. Consider Jameson Manufacturing Oshkosh Inc. There, good communication is part of the environment because workers need good communication skills to get in the door. Technical knowledge is sought after, of course. But if knowledgeable, experienced people aren't good communicators, they probably won't get a job at this Oshkosh, Wis.-based fabricator.

Technical skills come from work experience, but the soft skills come from life experience. That's probably why it's relatively straightforward to teach those technical skills. But good soft skills—including a solid work ethic and engagement—aren't so easy to convey.

As proven in recent years, U.S. manufacturers can compete globally with better quality and quick delivery. But all this wouldn't be possible without hard-working people who know how to communicate. That's why this soft-skill conundrum will be the industry's greatest challenge in the years to come.
Tim Heston

Tim Heston

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

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