Cutting Tool Engineering
July 2012 / Volume 64 / Issue 7

Throwing curveballs to the team

By Keith Jennings

Although I wasn’t trained as a hands-on machinist, I understand the profession after having been in the biz for 20 years. Even so, I still depend on my team for advice about whether certain jobs should be pursued or not. Because they’re performing the actual work, it’s obviously logical to rely on their insight and wisdom.

However, as a good reader of attitudes and emotions, there are occasions when I don’t listen to their advice. If I did, numerous prospects would never have been added to our customer list. That’s because when the shop is busy, the team’s desire to swing at new pitches isn’t so great. Some shop workers may even try to avoid bringing in new work by padding quote run times to make the job appear inordinately costly or overdramatize what’s involved.

As an owner or manager, you have the authority to challenge your team—whether they understand it or not. Due to my network of business associates, companies contact me seeking machining and fabrication services. I evaluate whether it’s a worthwhile pursuit and, if so, ask my engineering and machining staff to quote accordingly. The quote is sometimes unrealistic simply because they don’t want to deal with a curveball being thrown at them.

When appropriate, astute managers will override these kinds of recommendations because they have intimate knowledge of the job that employees don’t. This situation also creates an opportunity to test the employees and see what they’re capable of accomplishing when tackling the unfamiliar. But it’s human nature to follow the safe route and doing so doesn’t mean they’re not good employees.

Without a doubt, our employees are more skilled as a result of being challenged. It forces them to troubleshoot and program at a higher level and perform tasks they originally said couldn’t be done. I’ve made it clear they will be challenged—have curveballs thrown their way—and expected to find a solution. If it can’t be done, so be it, but they’d better not provide unrealistic figures as a means to forego the challenge.

These scenarios not only improve employees’ skills, but make managers and owners better. As your experience level increases, you should become more adept at discerning worthwhile opportunities. A smart consultant once told me, “Business is about your risk tolerance.” Taking those risks can take your shop to the next level or, perhaps, drag it down. Knowing when to throw a risky curveball is the prerogative of an owner or manager and, hopefully, your team respects that.

After running a job my lead machinist recommended against because he feared swinging and missing, he admitted taking the job was the right decision. We made a new customer happy and they’ve followed up with a sizable amount of repeat business. He considered it a stressful situation and something that could jeopardize other jobs. I had a hunch it would work out, and we hit the curveball out of the park.

Like my coach used to tell me, “Son, you won’t hit the ball if you don’t take a swing!” It’s amazing how those lessons from the ball field apply in business. If you believe your shop may reap benefits from swinging at a curveball, swing hard! You may whiff, but at least you’ll know weren’t caught looking. CTE

About the Author: Keith Jennings is president of Crow Corp., Tomball, Texas, a family-owned company focusing on machining, metal fabrication and metal stamping. Contact him at
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