Cutting Tool Engineering
February 2010 / Volume 62 / Issue 2

A time to get personal

By Keith Jennings

Of the many things I learned after a few years in the machining and manufacturing business, one doesn’t change. Yes, CNC automation is great and we love to see unattended machines chip away at a block of material, but we still need dependable human beings to make it all work.

Increasingly, high labor costs drive automation implementation, but it will be a long time before good parts can be machined, inspected and shipped with a team of robots and a single person. Without effectively managed human capital, success will be a tortuous journey.

However, the personal problems of otherwise good employees can make for a frustrating managerial experience. Whether it’s a divorce, mean neighbors, medical problems, financial issues, too many weekend indulgences or whatever, businesses are vulnerable to the off-duty actions of employees. This is certainly the case with machine shops, which rely on the consistent attendance of and hands-on work by talented people.

Many employees expect their employer to just deal with their problems and absorb any loss in productivity. And many employees don’t give much thought to missing work for a myriad of reasons, including car problems, legal matters, pet illnesses, utility malfunctions and the kids’ school functions. While we all want to give an employee some leeway, suddenly you’re personally involved when it affects production or interferes with another employee’s work schedule.

Because many employees earn hourly wages, they’re usually not getting paid for their absence, so you’d think that would dissuade them. Unfortunately, losing money isn’t always a deterrent. I can recall a few employees who were extremely talented and capable of earning sizable incomes. Unfortunately, activities and decisions in their personal lives disrupted not only their amount of income, but their job security because they were eventually terminated. It’s occurred both with the young and newly hired and the more experienced.

I’m not saying shop owners and managers shouldn’t be sympathetic or attempt to help an employee resolve a personal problem, but neither my dad nor many of the workers from his day had to miss work for many of the reasons that are so common now. Maybe dealing with the dysfunctional personal lives of employees has always been a problem and I just haven’t been at this long enough, but there seems to be a more casual attitude now about being absent from work.

As a manager acquires more experience dealing with such matters, it becomes easier to identify a brewing problem and, hopefully, take action before being surprised with an unexpected incident or a bottle-necked production schedule due to a missing operator. I’m not aware of any foolproof method to prevent these annoyances, but I know they can be distracting. A shop needs workers who are rested and show up when expected, prepared to learn and create cool parts on amazing machines. New employees can really make a name for themselves by simply showing up and handling their private lives in a responsible manner.

Work should be a priority and not something taken lightly. When employees suck you into their private lives, consistently adhere to your policies and document the problem. Validate your management acumen by communicating with these employees and letting them know what’s reasonable and what is not. Sympathy and understanding is one thing, but, hey, we’ve got jobs to ship! CTE

About the Author: Keith Jennings is president of Crow Corp., Tomball, Texas, a family-owned company focusing on machining, laser cutting, metal fabrication and metal stamping. He can be e-mailed at

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