“What will this cost?” is often the most important question in whether a project can move forward. And it is a question every custom manufacturer and job shop hates to answer. I was blissfully ignorant of the costing/quoting/pricing problem for the first eight years of my career. Then a job change dropped me right in the middle of it with no opportunity to delegate it.
Fortunately a mentor was on hand to teach me that cost and price are not the same. Price can get you an order but cost determines whether you get to stay in business. He was quick to point out that occasionally you will make mistakes and “buy” a project that you will later regret. It could be a real high wire act without a safety net if you took too many shortcuts.
The tools available to estimate cost have greatly improved over the years. For example: we no longer have to dig through stacks of charts to find appropriate machining operations; computer programs and spread sheets can simulate part machining very accurately; material and bearing prices are all available over the Internet; and CAD layouts allow us to extract, scale, and review individual parts.
Yet this all still takes time, however. And it still requires that someone pull the costs together and put a price on the project. An old boss used to say, “Whoever talks money first loses.” Watch any reality TV show with negotiating and you can see his theory in action.
Unfortunately, to get projects you have to invest the time in quoting, and you run the risk of “leaving money on the table.” And people still get fired for underestimating costs or over promising on delivery. But you can get fired for not booking work too. No wonder it is so tough to get a quote from some people.
I encourage my clients to give target prices to potential suppliers. Every project has a “no go” point on cost; why not share that information with your future partner? I say “partner” because that is what suppliers become if treated fairly. There is no point in extracting a low initial price that can’t be repeated for follow on orders.
I blogged earlier about best-selling business books trumpeting rapid growth schemes rather than sustainable performance. Building a successful business is a real challenge; growing it is another, different challenge. And then there is the challenge of maintaining excellence over the long haul.
My work as a gear engineer has required several relocations, and sometimes my wife and I wonder about what happened to places we used to frequent. Recently things worked out for us to drive through an area we moved from 29 years ago — and last visited 28 years ago. I am happy to report the communities seem to have thrived — with lots of new roads, buildings, and recreational activities.
The highlight of our tour was a favorite custard stand from all those years ago. (For those unfamiliar with custard, think the best ice cream ever and double it.) It hasn’t become a regional or national chain, just a single location at a busy, much modified intersection in the middle of town. The parking lot is a bit bigger and there is a nice outdoor seating area now. Behind the counter is another generation of well-trained, friendly young teens. And the custard is everything we remembered it to be.
I have to admire the owners for having a vision, creating it, and keeping it going over a long period of time. That intersection was probably rebuilt several times over the years, with great disruption to their business. Forty years of dealing with minimum wage help? Imagine all the schedule shuffles for dances and football games!
Then I think about my many friends in the gear business. Some of you have enjoyed leadership with the same sort of vision and determination to keep going — no matter what the challenges. Others have, unfortunately, been unable to persevere through the difficulties of a changing marketplace.
No one writes books about maintaining a business. There are no talk show appearances for people who keep family businesses going, paying good wages for interesting work — despite the business cycle.
But maybe we can learn a few things from them anyway.
In writing about unforeseen consequences there is a risk of inspiring such conservatism in design that the resulting product is no longer competitive. Henry Ford, for example hung on to cable-actuated brakes much longer than his competitors and only “converted” when it started to cost market share. As engineers we are comfortable with what we know — or think we know — and tend to avoid innovations until we have to.
In Henry’s case, “Solid steel, from pedal to wheel” was more than just an advertising slogan. His leadership in making better steel through the scientific study of alloying elements and their effect on material properties made steel a comfortable old friend. It worked well and he saw no advantage to changing. Until, of course, the force multiplication of hydraulics was demonstrated in the real world, and brake lining material improved to use that increased force. Not to mention self-adjusting brakes and vacuum power brake boosters. Improved highways made average speeds go up and Ford’s mechanical brakes couldn’t keep up.
It isn’t like hydraulic brakes were untested, either. Jimmy Murphy showed the world how good they were by beating all comers in the French Gran Prix of 1921, with a hydraulically braked Duesenberg race car. The Duesenberg Brothers had been using “juice brakes” since 1914 and were too busy to patent the concept. Imagine the riches that patent could have brought them! The innovation was rapidly adopted on production cars, but it took almost 20 years before Ford put them on its cars.
Our industry suffered through a similar story with the adoption of carburized and hardened gears. We fought a losing battle for almost 20 years by focusing on the potential problems and cost implication, while our international competitors worked diligently at understanding this “new” process and resolving the problems associated with it (e.g., heat treat distortion, low core hardness, case/core separation, scoring).
There are many applications where through-hardened gears continue to have their place. The objections raised by American manufacturers were real engineering problems at the start of the debate, but they sounded like sour grapes after 10 years or so. It is a moot point as to whether an earlier adoption of case-hardened technology might have saved American gear industry jobs as trade policy and machine tool technology were pointing towards lower head counts.
My point is simply this: Stay open to new materials, methods, and machinery. Study every bit of information you can find and don’t fall into the trap of overstating technical problems to make a commercial point.
For something that causes so much trouble for so many people, you would think there would be lots of consideration given to the unforeseen consequences of decisions. This topic came to mind after reading an article on how lucky baby boomers were to have survived to adulthood, given the dangerous behaviors we and our parents engaged in. Imagine trying to get approval to sell Lawn Jarts today!
At one time half the population smoked and they smoked everywhere. I recall people lighting up in church! Drunk driving? In my home state of Wisconsin it was almost a competitive sport. Seat belts? Who needed them!? Air bags? We don’t need no airbags! Just brace yourself against the dashboard.
I came to look for unforeseen consequences as part of my training in machine design. Assigned to “detail” custom machine parts for a crotchety old German engineer, I was expected to have a reason for every feature, dimension, and tolerance on a drawing.
Occasionally I would have to “fill in the blanks” on a section of the machine that did not interest the engineer. It might “only” be a pump drive or an access cover, but when I designed something not only did the usual drawing review questions get asked, but another level of query appeared.
And that level was “What if this happens?” We have all heard the horror stories of engine mounts needing to be disconnected to change spark plugs; my “teacher” was all over those situations — way back in 1971. Insuring maintenance access, planning for fast repairs and replacements, and anticipating operator abuse were among the things he was concerned with. Just having lifting holes, access holes, or jackscrew holes in the correct places can shave hours off critical repairs — at almost no additional cost.
I have used this multilevel questioning on myself and my “students” over the years with excellent results. Those instances where we lost focus and skipped design reviews were where we often had expensive rework to do, or spent more time in assembly and test. It is better to spend three hours in design review in an air conditioned office than a long weekend fixing something on a field service trip.
So far, I expect my ideal “leader” to have commitment and vision. A third requirement is calmness under fire. While my life has been blessedly free of actual life threatening combat, I have been around when projects stall out, take a bad piece of scrap, or an angry customer wants to strangle someone. On occasions like that, a leader who increases the stress level through yelling, screaming and threatening people’s jobs is not a plus.
If you have ever been “thrown under the bus” during one of these controversies you know where I am coming from. You also know how appreciated a voice of reason is. Even more welcome is that calming influence who can get everyone to step back from the firing line and figure out a way forward.
Reputations are quickly made — or ruined — in these situations, so a person needs to think carefully before acting. Early in my career I tried to avoid speaking up at all, but eventually I realized it was often safer to formulate a solution and be willing to explain it to the aggrieved party than to wait for others to handle things.
Did I occasionally regret “volunteering?” You betcha! Did I stop? No. Because after the initial tirade, most angry customers will give you credit for taking the call, listening to the complaint, and proposing a solution. No one respects people who shift the blame to others, waffle on the solution, or refuse to communicate at all.
While studying World War II in high school, I was very impressed by General Eisenhower taking the time to write an apology letter to be published in the event the D-Day landings were a disaster. Ike was truly a great leader, something he demonstrated over the rest of his career.
“Make no small plans” has been attributed to a variety of people over the years, but that doesn’t undermine its importance to fledgling leaders. The argument is that small plans fail to inspire, and as a result nothing gets accomplished. A corollary would be, “Aim high, because gravity will pull the arrow down.”
When ranking “great leaders,” historians frequently consider the magnitude of the undertaking — seemingly forgetting or ignoring the final outcome. Of course, world conquerors sit at the head of the class. But inventors of useful, everyday objects? Find a seat in the back. No credit is given to those who maintain anything.
If you want to write a best-selling book on “leadership,” don’t waste your time interviewing people who reliably turn a profit, regardless of the “economy.” People want to learn about movers and shakers — not consistent performers. My recent posts on the “management training” fads of the late 20th century were rooted in the canonization of people who made huge plans, executed them well for a while, and frequently left an unsustainable mess for their successor.
I file planning under “vision.” Some people study a situation and come up with a solution that no one ever thought of before — or at least that wasn’t widely known before. Despite evidence that the Vikings/Irish/Chinese/Polynesians got to North America first, Columbus gets the credit for discovering a New World. The fact that he was looking for an express lane to India is not considered important anymore.
His crew probably felt differently at the time. So do most employees when the boss’ vision doesn’t turn out as planned. Good leaders learn from small failures and tailor their next presentation accordingly. The joke in Viking history circles is that after failing to attract many buyers for the tillable real estate on Iceland, the explorers — Realtor in their blood, apparently — shrewdly renamed their next development Greenland.
Seriously, you won’t get many followers if your vision includes loads of work and discomfort — but no shared rewards. Far too many business initiatives run out of energy when they reach the stage where the end results are further away than expected, and finger pointing replaces pep talks.
The best leaders can get their team through those bleak passages. Lincoln had plenty of naysayers undermining him and urging a negotiated end to the U.S. Civil War. Why should your project be any different?
Recent posts about the management training “movement” of the late 20th century got me thinking about why those efforts — no matter how well thought out or executed — seemed to fall short of expectations. I experienced the phenomenon at three very different companies, with at least three different programs, and the results were all short-term improvements with no long-lasting changes to the culture or profitability.
In my view the failures were not for lack of effort, top management buy-in, or professional presentation. Employees and staff attended the meetings, read the books, and participated in the exercises. Company presidents, general managers, supervisors and supervised said the right things and supported the programs. Shocking amounts of money were spent on course materials, text books, and employee compensation. And yet, things didn’t change.
I have also worked at companies that did change and those changes were the result of changes in leadership. Not all those changes were for the better, but they confirm something I have come to firmly believe: You manage things — but you lead people.
Our educational system directs lots of students into supply chain management, business administration, and other programs that promise to help them run growing and profitable businesses. Precious little time is devoted to teaching people to lead once you transition out of Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. We agonize over how to measure the “intangibles” that affect a business, because our best laid plans often come up short.
The common denominator in all these failures is people. You can have great equipment, top-of-the-line tools, adequate supervision and a great design, yet produce nothing but flops. An underfunded competitor with obsolete equipment but charismatic leadership can pull off some amazing projects simply because that leadership is able to extract the utmost performance when needed.
If I knew how to develop high-quality leaders, I probably wouldn’t have time to write these blog posts. Future posts will speculate on what makes a good leader.
“Leadership is the practical application of character.”
— R. E. Meinertzhagen
As you can tell from my previous posts, history has been a lifelong interest of mine. Coming from a non-air conditioned home, this interest was nurtured in our local library on the walk home from swimming lessons. Over a few years I worked my way up to big volumes of military history and became a contrarian on many long-settled topics.
So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that I am not a fan of some of the decisions our political and business leaders have made on our behalf. Over the next few weeks my postings will be on management and leadership. It seems to me that the general public gets the two mixed up quite a bit, and society suffers as a result.
A good example is business owners running for political office promising to “run the government like a business.” They have been doing it for years and as far as I can recall, no one has actually succeeded at it. Not that this should shock anyone; in a business the boss decides and the employees follow through — or find a new job. Sometimes they get to do both. In government, “the boss” is temporary and dozens of special interest groups know they can wait out any bold action that really changes the game they are playing.
History is rife with failed businessmen becoming truly great military or political leaders. U.S. Grant got nowhere as a shopkeeper, was a great general, a very flawed President, but a decent memoir writer. Harry Truman was part of the last generation of military officers “elected” by his unit, then failed as a shopkeeper before going into politics. His resume hardly suited a man handed some of the toughest decisions in modern history, but the ex-haberdasher rose to the occasion.
I am sure there have been great businessmen who became great political leaders — I just can’t recall their names. Lots of failed generals became great businessmen; their names are on roads, bridges, and buildings all around the country. The search for clues as to why some skills transfer and others don’t is what makes reading history so much fun.
Much of what I believe about leadership I learned from the scouting program. I was a scout as a boy and when my children reached that age we enrolled them as scouts and took leadership training. The adult training programs are among the best I ever attended. Scouting gives you the opportunity to be a follower and a leader; you can learn a great deal about both in a single rainy weekend.
When NASA announced plans to go to the moon, the scouting movement saw a good way to interest boys in science. Life magazine published a big photo spread of astronauts in survival training and the next thing you knew, we were on a survival camp-out in homemade tents of thin plastic sheeting. Naturally, the sky opened up on us and we found ourselves in ankle deep mud wrapped in our tents and reflective survival blankets.
At least some of us did.
During the stormy night a few of our adult “leaders” extracted their sons from the quagmire and relocated them to regular tents or cabins. My old man, a World War II veteran, viewed the camp-out as a “character building” exercise and left his sons to sleep in the muck. In fact, he gave up his bunk in a cabin to join us in a plastic tent of his own construction that held up about as well as the kid-built ones. The “mudders” lost trust in the adult leaders who pulled their sons out of the mess and left them to get soaked. They respected my father for joining them. I know this because 25 years later they told me so at his funeral. Grown men remembered that soggy adventure like it was yesterday.
I have had the opportunity to work for both types of bosses over the years, and believe the first building block of a good leader is commitment. People want to know the boss is willing to sleep in the muck with them if that is what the mission requires. Giving the “team” an extensive task list for the weekend before leaving early on Friday simply doesn’t work. Involvement is much different than commitment. A chicken is involved in a ham and egg breakfast. A pig is committed to it.
A young engineer I know broke new ground on Face Book today by posting photos of his most recent project on the shipping dock. Anyone who has taken a concept from a plain sheet of paper to a working machine understands why someone would celebrate such an occasion in a space normally devoted to baby or pet photos. Those who are not engineers, designers, machinists, or fabricators might consider it a bit strange though.
Back in the 20th Century we suffered through new management theories every year or so. There was Management by Objectives, Management by Exceptions, and several others whose names I have long forgotten. My favorite was Management by Walking Around; it may have had a more scientific name, but the thing I latched on to was touring the shop several times a day to observe what was going on and to be available for questions from co-workers.
It was a habit that served me — and my waistline — well over the years. Very quickly I developed an appreciation for the shipping dock. A full shipping dock was usually a sign of a happy shop and full order books. An empty shipping dock at the start of the month wasn’t a big concern, but at week three it could be an indication of impending disaster. Product that stalled on the shipping dock could be a sign of botched paperwork or — worse — credit trouble.
The shipping dock was never my responsibility, but sharing my observations with others in the company helped me learn about operations, sales, and accounting. For colleagues who tended to avoid the shop floor, my casual questions often served as early warnings; as the saying goes, People want to know that you care before they care about how much you know.
My young friend has certainly demonstrated to his co-workers that he cares about seeing projects through to the very end. That is a life-skill that always pays dividends.