How to Get a Skilled Workforce

Image Courtesy of Gualberto107/

Image Courtesy of Gualberto107/

Right now we have a shortage of skilled labor in the manufacturing environment.  It is my observation that this shortage comes from three main areas: retirement of experience, educational demands, and an emphasis on college degrees.  But regardless of the reasons (and we will delve into that) I think I have come up with a solution.

So stop whining, roll up your sleeves, and let’s get to work.

The Reasons…

Loss of Experience

The Baby-Boomers are retiring.  This restless, workaholic generation is getting to the age where they can enjoy the golden years.  The baby-boomers were born from 1946 to 1964, putting the oldest of this group at age 68 and the youngest at age 50.  Many of those from this generation started working right out of high school with a company and, in the age of benefits and pensions, stayed with that company for the required 25 years before they could start drawing on their retirement funds.  That means that the earliest of the baby-boomers started retiring in the early 1970’s!  We have seen a decline in capabilities ever since.

Educational Demands

Not only have vocational training options been in a decline over the last several decades, but the technological requirements have been climbing exponentially.  Now, for a mechanic, not only does he need to understand how to turn a wrench, but also how to lock out equipment, interface with pneumatics, hydraulics, and even PLCs and light ladder-logic programming.

Electricians have seen their trade go from simple dry contacts and relay-logic to smart instruments, networking (Ethernet, ModBus, Profibus, DeviceNet), and a dominating world of micro controllers and systems such that even the simplest of machines have to communicate to another controller.

Machine operators are expected to understand how to work with HMIs (Human-Machine Interfaces) that are increasingly complex.  They have to troubleshoot on a daily basis with equipment that is both mechanically and electrically more complex than ever before.  Additionally, companies are trying to run leaner and have reduced technical support functions to a minimum, requiring that operators know more about how their equipment works and how to fix it for simple repairs.

Everyone has to go to College

Only 62% of college graduates are actually working at their education level.  Only 27% of grads are working in a field of their degrees.  So why is there such an emphasis on college?

We have been conditioned in my generation that we must go to college if we want to have a successful life.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a big proponent of education.  But I feel that our educational system is broken as well as overstated.  We are being educated in the wrong things.  Some people are just going to college to get the degree.  I know of several people (and maybe you are one of them) that went to college before they knew what they wanted to do for a living.  Most people don’t even figure it out until they graduate.

However, college tuition is getting to a point that the average student will pay over $120,000 after 4-years (this is from the University of Illinois for Resident).  If that is taken out in a student loan and paid back over 10 years it will require a monthly payment of over $1,300 (from  The recommended annual salary to pay back this loan is over $100,000.  As a matter of fact, you have to extend the term to 30 years to get below a $100,000 annual salary.  Really?  Is this realistic?

The Solution?

Get your company to do some research on how you can tap into government funds.  There should be some options with your local government or state that can help you offset some of these costs.

Look into apprenticeship programs.  The oldie is a goodie.  You can pay a smaller wage to the inexperienced and incentivize them to take classes and perform onsite qualifier tests to move to the next wage bracket.  Get back to building your own trained workforce.

Develop your own training programs.  Stop trying to hire them in with the technical skills.  Teach them yourself.  Create a training program that is supplemented with community college programs.  You can even bring back that retired expert part-time as a trainer so that he can teach your young folks how to work on your specific equipment.

Talk to your community colleges about adding vocational studies.  Partnering with these schools can help to get your costs down and provides you access to additional resources.

In short, stop expecting to find the right person off of the street.  It is probably not going to happen.  Instead, stop complaining and make something happen.  Create your own talented workforce.


The End of Winter…Perhaps? A Lesson in Extremes

Image courtesy of dan/

Image courtesy of dan/

I live in the Chicago area, which means that along with corrupt politicians I am plagued with cold winters, hot summers, and not much time in between.  For those of you that have been keeping up with the national weather this winter you have noticed that the entire United States has been through quite a bit of a cold snap.  Chicago had to deal with actual temperatures of -20 degrees Fahrenheit (I didn’t make a mistake, that is a negative sign).  It the summer we will undoubtedly have a week of highs that will reach, if not breach, triple digits.  That is a 120 degree swing!

We can cope with these changes because they are gradual.  Yesterday was 50 degrees and it felt like a wonderful summer day to me.  Everything is relative.  If you peppered 100-degree days in with -20-degree days it would be miserable (not that they aren’t by themselves).  However, the gradual changes makes for a more tolerable extreme.

The caution I am giving here is the analogy of the frog in the pot of boiling water: put a frog in boiling water and he will jump out, but put him in warm water and slowly boil it and he will stay in and not notice the difference.

If you are in a working environment where the pot has slowly started to boil, how can you tell?  Have you ever worked with the people that say “we have always done it like that”?  Those are the folks that started in cool water and have reached a boil and don’t know it.  Extremes can sneak up on us if the change is slow.   And these extremes aren’t limited to processes or equipment, they can be related to culture and working relationships as well.

So how can you make sure you are not in hot water?

  1. Benchmarking.  If you can, benchmark your industry and see where you sit.  Don’t give yourself excuses either, if you are at the bottom, so be it.  Get better.
  2. Long-term trending.  See if you can get trends from the last decade.  Don’t look at the last few years as they may be too small of a sample size (Have you seen the stock market daily chart versus the 3-year?  One is not necessarily and indicator of the other.)
  3. New-hire assessments.  Use your new people as thermometers to gauge your water temperature.  Have them write honest one-month, three-month and six-month essays about your organization.  Make them anonymous so that they can be completely truthful.  They are the frogs that just entered the pot.  They can tell you if the water is too hot.
  4. The Right KPIs.  Make sure they are the right KPIs (read here).  It is not always easy to tell if you have the right one, but looking at these trends versus your standard can help.  You should always evaluate your standard, too.

Those 50-degree days seem great in the winter, but they seem downright cold in the summer.  Make sure you are using the right thermometer when you gauge the temperature.  A point-of-reference is necessary to understand your true situation.

Justifying Your Rebuilds – How to talk to Accountants


Equipment rebuilds can be expensive.  However, that is a cost of doing business.  Sometimes they can be capitalized and other times they can’t, it depends on your accounting rules and whether or not you are increasing the life of the machine beyond its original design.  If the rebuilds are routine maintenance, you generally have to expense those items, and that can be hard to put in the budget.  If the rebuild will increase the machine life and you can capitalize it, it always helps to show a savings or increase in performance to help get the capital approved.  Either way, it is valuable to show people what you save when you complete a rebuild.

The other consideration is to determine if the rebuild is worth the money.  If you don’t see any significant improvement in the machine after the rebuild and the machine cost isn’t considerably high, why rebuild it?  Just replace it.  That can be the solution sometimes.

I have attached a worksheet that takes into account some of the simple things that can be used to calculate the value of a rebuild.  Often times we forget to include the labor portion of downtime or even the additional income that can be generated on the machine if it is capacity constrained.  Those are some of the things considered in this worksheet.

Rebuild Justification

I haven’t locked it, so feel free to modify the worksheet for your own use.  I would be interested in the feedback of anyone that tries this out.  I am always open for suggestions and improvements.  If anyone has created something similar or has a different resource, please feel free to comment with those as well.

Leading Operational Change



I read an interesting post on about change management and reactive vs proactive maintenance.  The article, by Ricky Smith, was thought-provoking.  He talks about culture change in the organization and how to determine if you are in a reactive or proactive organization.

As leaders, regardless of department or function, it is our duty to create and build the right culture.  Below are 5 tips on how to do this in an operational setting.

  1. Set the expectation.  It seems easy, but it isn’t.  Expectations must be realistic.  That is not so simple.  It takes a bit of educated guessing and self-temperment.  Often, as leaders, we expect others to be as capable or more so than ourselves.  That is not always the case.  Don’t underestimate the ability of people, but don’t set the bar so high as to create discouragement.  Remember that there is a limiting factor to the progress that can be made, find that and then set the pace.
  2. Create the game plan.  Here is strategy.  Don’t confuse strategy with goals.  Strategy is the route that you plan to get to the destination.  Jim Collins has had some great books and one of the lines that has stuck with me is the “20-Mile March” from his book Great by Choice.  Pick your march.
  3. Don’t be a flavor of the month.  You can’t be a fad (read more here).  Once this happens you lose all credibility.  Trying to recover from a lackluster start is just as bad as never starting.  Don’t let up and keep your strategy in view.  Even when times get rough, continue your march to make sure that you can gain what is needed.  If you said you would shut down the line once a week for maintenance, do it…even if the schedule is tight.  It will be worth it in the long run.
  4. Get the team on board.  Make sure your teams are supporting the change.  There can’t be any undercutting of the program behind closed doors.  Encourage your team to vent to you if they are frustrated with where the change is going, but make sure they don’t vent to anyone else.  The team must have a united front everywhere in the organization.  If not, this is poison to the change process.  It is painful to do it, but you may have to cut loose those that aren’t supporting your culture change.  One rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch.
  5. Celebrate success.  Celebrate your accomplishments.  As milestones are achieved, make sure that people know you are proud of them.  Don’t celebrate if you don’t succeed something, that makes it superficial when you do celebrate for just cause.  Culture change is a long road and these celebrations keep people motivated along the way.

Change is never easy.  In any organization where deadlines and customer demands are put before everything else, you can never accomplish your own goals.  We tell people that they need time for themselves, so do companies.  Treat your company right and your customers will notice.

Survival of the Most Adaptable

be like water

I read an interesting blog post about the responsibilities of companies to change their views of the phrase “survival of the fittest”.  This article is about corporate social responsibility and the ways that we interact with nature.  While I think it is a great post, I would like to talk about the same concept, but on a level that is more for the manufacturing middle-management folks.

Let’s interpret the phrase “survival of the fittest” to be “the best at adapting”.  In business that means flexibility, versatility, and nimbleness.  But how can we influence these factors when we are a cog in the big business machine?

  1. Strategic development of a process model that allows for smaller runs and higher flexibility.  As an Operations Leader, you have the ability to influence how you design your department.  Most companies are looking for the big runs, fewer changeovers, and highest volume.  But what if you could create a section of your department that is specialized at small runs, reduced inventory, and high-speed turnaround?  Could you provide a service to customers at a premium?  Could you handle frequent changeovers as a matter of course?  Check out QRM.  This methodology might be able to help you get started with something.
  2. Stop focusing on reducing changeover time and start focusing on eliminating minor stops.  Let’s look at a typical production line.  If you run a product for 16 hours with equipment speeds of 20 cases/minute you should see 19,200 cases at the end of that time.  But it takes you 20 hours to run that amount.  Then you have to perform a 2-hour changeover to the next product.  Most companies want to reduce changeover time because that is downtime where you are making zero units.  But the changeover has to happen.  Even if you cut the changeover time in half you only saved 1 hour.  But it took you an extra 4 hours to run the product.  Cut that in half and you save 2 hours.  Minor stops on a line can result in huge hits on efficiency.  Quicker runs equal more capacity for new volume.
  3. Slow down to speed up.  It sounds like taboo, but Maintenance groups will tell you that if you run your car at 9000 rpm you won’t get as far as if you run it at 3000 rpm.  But that is exactly what we do to our production equipment.  We run it to the max and shorten its life and Mean-Time Between Failure (MTBF).  This not only increases downtime and Maintenance costs, but it also reduces the machine’s availability for more volume.  Conduct a constraint analysis on your line and set the limiting machine to at least 10% below its maximum rate.  You will see a smoother run and a more predictable life of the equipment.  Remember, it is about cases out of the door, not units per minute off of the filler.
  4. Set goals for management and supervisors that reward flexibility.  It is a difficult thing to do, but try setting department KPIs around how you manage the department, not how much volume you push through the door.  You may have to create a set of KPIs that you track internally and still publish the ones that upper management wants to see.  Think about how the behaviors of your team will benefit your business and create metrics around those behaviors.  It will take some thought, but you will have a better performing system out of the deal.

Technical Creativity


Don’t discount creative thinkers in technical roles.  Also, don’t discount technical thinkers in creative roles.  We use both our left and right brains every day.  Granted, some people are prone to use one side over the other, but that doesn’t mean they can’t reach into and borrow from the recessive hemisphere.

When you look at history, many of the great scientists were also artists, and vice-versa.  The best example I can think of is Leonardo da Vinci.  The man could do just about everything and is known for his contributions in both art and science.

When you consider the imagination it takes to build bridges, skyscrapers, chemical processes, medical devices and more, it is easy to see how creativity must lead design.  A prime example is how science fiction becomes science fact.  Imagination is ingenuity.

Some ways to foster imagination and technical accuracy…

1)      Get out of your comfort zone.

2)      Change your perspective.

3)      Play games at work and at home.

4)      Become a student of many disciplines.

5)      Take on new hobbies that work your recessive side.

6)      Encourage others to join you.

Being one way is not better than the other.  We often discount the arts in business.  But the arts are what keep us building new things.  Cultivate both minds, and you will see exponential results.

Maintenance for Small Business

There is a lot of information out there for growing a Maintenance organization and improving systems.  Maintenance has become an ever-expanding field of science and engineering.  And that makes sense.  We are dealing with equipment here, and equipment (even though we often personify it) is predictable.  Those “mood swings” that the air compressor goes through are symptoms of a problem that we haven’t been able to figure out, yet.

So what happens if you are a small company and you don’t know how to build your Maintenance organization, let alone grow it with your business?  The problem with all of the information out there is that it assumes you have a CMMS (Computerized Maintenance Management System) and many times that is not available for a smaller organization that is simply worried about the cash flow needed to make it to next month.

Well, good news.  The simple fact is that if you do some relatively easy things you can help to improve that cash flow by reducing unnecessary maintenance expenses and increasing equipment availability (the ultimate goal of a Maintenance program).

1)     Make Lists – A CMMS is a fancy spreadsheet with reminders.  Excel and Outlook can be combined to do almost the same thing.  Start by making lists of your equipment and what you do on a regular basis.  This will get you started.

2)     Call your OEM – The Original Equipment Manufacturer can give you the recommendations for the work needed on your equipment.  It may not be exactly right for your application or use, but it gets you started.

3)     Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – Start off with the big items; the items that make your business money.  What is unique to your operation?  What can I not live without?  What has big costs and expensive downtime?  These are leading questions to get you to start focusing on the right things.

4)     Hire the Talent – People are what run a Maintenance program.  Yes, systems are important, but people make it happen.  A knowledgeable mechanic is more valuable than any software system.  If you can’t hire people directly, look for contractors that can support you.

5)     Build Relationships – Part of any good program is good leadership.  Make sure that you can count on your people and that they can count on you.  Also work on building relationships with local suppliers and contractors that can support your business.

6)     Get Ready to Grow – Always think of expansion and bolting-on whenever you build a system.  Your Maintenance program is no different.  You will need to make sure that what you are working with will be able to support your growth.

Finding Your Way



We all need a map (yes fellas, even you).  Maps are tools to navigate in areas that are unfamiliar.  They hold immense amounts of information in very simple forms.  Maps help us to remember where we have been and how to get to where we are going. 

We navigate in unfamiliar media every day.   The trick is to know how to make a map when there isn’t one around.  Below are some basic ideas on how to make a map of a project, a development plan, or a strategy.  Let me know your thoughts.

  1. Start with an idea.  Vague is okay when starting the process.  You may not know where you will end up, but have an idea of the outcome.
  2. Lay down the rough lines.  Outlining is useful and so is creating nested topics.  If working a project, think about significant milestones that have to happen to reach the end.
  3. Start to fill in the detail.  This step is progressive and iterative.  Once you start filling in details you will have to refine other parts of your map and revise.  This leads to more detail.
  4. Think of different ways to deliver information.  Maps use symbols, lines, numbers, legends, etc.  Think of how you might incorporate the same into your map.  Using different colors or thicker lines to demonstrate impact or size is a simple way to add information (large cities have a different symbol and are usually in bold type on a map).
  5. Proofread.  Have someone else try to navigate using your map.  That is the ultimate test.  Can he get from here to there?  This is useful for strategies, procedures, presentations.
  6. Make it easy to read.  You don’t want people to have to stare at your map for days before they know how to use it.  But don’t forget that people need to be trained on how to read maps.  You didn’t know how to use a map before you were taught and you probably haven’t seen a map like the picture above unless you are a pilot.

Maps can be graphical, linear, or simply post-it notes on a wall with string.  It’s about organizing the information and making it available to others.  These are skills any leader or project manager must have to be successful.

How have you used maps in your life?

Knowledge is NOT Power


image source:

At some point you have heard the quote “Knowledge is Power”.  I think we have all taken this to be the motivation for education.  Get smart, be powerful.  After all, the person credited with the quote, Sir Francis Bacon, is one of the fathers of the scientific method.

Knowledge is power.

―Francis Bacon

While I don’t necessarily disagree with the statement above, I do think that it is incomplete.  I would like to add a few words to create my own statement: The proper application of knowledge yields power.  Let me explain.

Knowledge in itself is useless

Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be.

―Albert Einstein

Approximately 14 people die each day at work (United States Department of Labor, 2013).  It’s a horrible thing to think that 14 people go to work every day to earn for a family and then never get to go home to them again.  Knowing this, does it give you power?  If you didn’t know this already before reading this page, did I just make you more powerful?  I don’t think that I did.  Let’s face it; most of you may not even let this knowledge affect the way you behave at your job.  It may not influence the decisions you make about your employees.  If not, you have not gained any power from this knowledge.  But, there is hope.  There is potential.

The more knowledge you have, the more options you have.  The better informed that you are, the better decisions that you can make.  But we all know people (or we are those people ourselves) that have made decisions counter to what our knowledge advised us to do.  Therefore, that knowledge was useless (or the knowledge was fine, but we were useless).  If that is true, then knowledge itself cannot be power.

Making knowledge useful

Personally, I don’t like knowledge being useless.  It’s wasteful.  So what can we do to make knowledge useful?  Simple; apply it!  That is science; that is leadership; that is simply being a good citizen.  Applying knowledge is what creates change.  And change is what drives improvement, innovation and invention.

But applying knowledge is not quite enough.  Remember our phrase states that it requires the proper application of knowledge.  For example, if I know that reducing inventory in our maintenance department will save the company the associated carrying costs, the application of that knowledge would be to reduce the inventory.  However, if I simply reduce inventory and don’t do it the right way, I will still achieve the goal of saving the carrying costs, but I will create additional costs in excess equipment downtime due to not having parts in stock, expediting orders on purchases, wasted mechanical labor on pursuing work that doesn’t have items in stock and more.  These costs will surely offset the savings that comes from my application of knowledge.  The result will be a loss of respect from my maintenance staff, an upset manager at my inability to meet the budget, upset production peers for causing additional downtime on their equipment, frustrated customers for late deliveries or extended lead times; the list goes on.  This actually resulted in a loss of power.

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

―Abraham Lincoln

So the proper application of knowledge requires even more knowledge.  How, should we reduce inventory to gain power?  Depending on the process there are several ways, vendor managed inventories, consignment agreements, ABC prioritizing, new ordering methods.  So knowing this knowledge it again needs to be applied.  But this needs to be applied properly by including the right people.  If we try to do reduce inventory in a vacuum we will surely alienate others and again lose power, not gain it.

This could be an endless cycle of exploration and obtaining knowledge.  One must be careful because trying to pursue all of the knowledge to apply it all perfectly can lead to hesitation and stagnation.  Use a mini risk assessment to decide if you have enough knowledge on what to do and how to apply it.  If the reward outweighs the risk, take action and apply the knowledge you have.  If you didn’t get it all right, you can adjust along the way and make corrections for the new knowledge you gain as you progress.

So what do i do with this power anyway

I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.
                                   ―Thomas Jefferson

Congratulations, you gained knowledge, applied it properly and now you have power!  Now what?  We all seem to want more power.  But once we have it, we need to know what to do with it.  There are a lot of things that we can do with power once we have it.  Since we are the ones with the power, it is up to us to decide what to do with it.  Most people don’t really know how to wield the power that they have and it is simply wasted or used for selfish gain.

I think that the most effective use of power is to give it away and teach others how to do the same. By giving away power you effectively increase your own.  Power given away is exponential power.  John C. Maxwell wrote “A key to empowering others is high belief in people.” You have to believe in the power of other people and help them to achieve it.


How have you seen knowledge wasted?

Building Something Amazing Takes Time


I’m not a patient person. I want results now. But no matter how much I want those results now I still have to wait for them. The bigger the result, the longer I have to wait.

Building a System
When we put together programs and systems it takes a very long time not only because systems are typically complex, having to consider and negotiate inherent exceptions to the rule, but also because it takes people to run these programs and helping them accept change takes considerable thought, planning and time. Whether managing a project where a new program is being constructed or implementing a new CMMS where it takes months of collecting and inputting data, these systems test our patience.

Building a Culture
Culture can happen organically or it can be directed and focused. Ideally, it is the latter, whereby we set guiding values and bring in people that embody those values while shaping the behaviors within our groups to demonstrate our commitment to them. This is deliberate and time consuming. Considering that the topography of our personnel landscape is constantly changing, it means that this is a never-ending job to manage and can create tedious pressures that demand the most of us.

Forging the Way
Major initiatives don’t happen over a single night. It takes a lot of strategy, typically years of it, and it requires vision into the future. Gaining the right knowledge and creating the plans are only the beginning of blazing the trails to new horizons. The less traveled the road, the longer it will take to get to the destination.

Keeping the Motivation

  1. Understand your goal. Know the payoff that will come with the patience you need. Envision all of the ways this undertaking will benefit you and others. Think of the intangible benefits as well.
  2. Build a support team. Create the passion for the goal in others and get them to buy in to the program. With others having passion for the goal it will keep you on task and help you to endure the time it takes to achieve it.
  3. Count the hours. If your goal is truly time-based, mark down the calendar. You will see a physical change and look forward to crossing the days off of the list.
  4. Create milestones. Set smaller, step-wise accomplishments that are necessary to achieve the overall goal. Celebrate making the milestones and keep up the morale of you and your team.
  5. Practice makes perfect. Be willing to keep adding goals that are further and further into the future. The more you exercise patience, the easier it will come for you.

In our society of short-term gains it is important to understand that long-term payoff is usually much larger and more significant. That 1-year payback is nothing compared to the ten things that you can create over ten years that will payback tenfold.

How else can you practice patience?