Cutting Tool Engineering
October 2013 / Volume 65 / Issue 10

Shifting gears to manage crises

By Keith Jennings

I’m a big a supporter of my local community college’s machining programs. However, classrooms aren’t the real world. In a classroom, students commonly hear about industry standards, production theories, programming techniques, machining operations, blueprint reading and other relevant topics. There’s one facet of machine shop management a classroom can’t prepare a student for, though: the constant, yet unexpected, gear shifting that goes on when you’re running a shop.

If there’s one thing that becomes obvious after owning or managing a machine shop, it’s that many customers will use your shop to fix problems they can’t solve, meaning their problem project becomes your headache. Understanding this scenario and adapting to it without going crazy is crucial to running a successful operation. If a shop runs repetitive, production work, maybe this isn’t much of a problem. But for our company, it’s an issue. The following is my latest example.

After a few busy days spent in the office renewing insurance policies, informing employees of their medical premium increases and dealing with the fallout after a key employee left the company, I decided to stay away from the office for a while and work on tasks from home. Just when I was getting comfortable and making progress, I received an e-mail from one of my salesmen about a key customer that rejected some parts because they were out of conformance. After reading the details about what occurred, stress and frustration enveloped me. Making it worse was the fact we had discussed the particulars with the customer prior to making the parts, knowing it was a challenging part to produce.

Whether scenarios like this one are planned or not, I’m expected to deal with them. My first thought was to respond to the e-mail in a terse and threatening tone as a way of scaring the employees into submission and getting their attention. While that was tempting, it’s important to remember that “stuff happens” and there’s usually more to the story than meets the eye.

After dwelling on it for a while, I couldn’t help but drop everything and get to the shop ASAP. On the way, many thoughts were running through my head about what to say, how to say it and how to impress upon those responsible my disappointment without being unfair or unrealistic.

As embarrassing as the scenario was, the customer returned the rejected parts and we fixed them in a day. While the customer wasn’t happy with the added delay, our efforts to address the matter were appreciated. Ultimately, our relationship with one of our top three customers remained intact, but not without spending half a day correcting a situation that shouldn’t have occurred in the first place.

It was a stressful day that didn’t go as planned, but it’s an example of how the world of machining and fabricating really works. Why? Like the shops they work with, buyers of machined parts are also dealing with leaner budgets, fewer employees and stiffer competition. Whether reasonable or not, customers expect you to solve their problems immediately—shifting gears and dealing with their turmoil, if necessary.

To those who can shift gears, deal with such headaches and make customers look good, congratulations: The future is bright.

Whether they operate small or large shops, successful owners and managers must deal with such days and handle them calmly. To excel and have any hope of making a good living, understand your task list will often change without warning. 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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