By Tim Heston
Measurement and manufacturing go hand in hand. You measure the part count, the bend angle, the tolerances, on-time
delivery, machine cycle times, sales growth, machine downtime, maintenance activity, and more.
But whenever I ask managers about their greatest
challenges, the conversation inevitably goes back
to finding good people.
What attracts good people? Money’s part of it,
but people also talk about company culture. If you
have a good culture, you can attract good people,
develop and document better processes, train staff,
increase capacity, attract more customers, build
market share, make more money, pay people more,
improve culture, hire more talent, and the virtuous
cycle continues. In the real world, the “attract new
customers” link in the cycle isn’t a guarantee, particularly if the larger economy falters. But if the virtuous cycle becomes entrenched, external factors
like a weak economy could be a mere bump in the
road instead of a looming roadblock.
Of all the terms in that virtuous cycle, “culture”
is the toughest one to define. I view “good culture”
in the broadest sense as a place where people care
and share similar values. Put another way, people
get along and engage easily in the company’s work
environment, whatever that may be. It could be a
command-and-control environment, though I don’t
see this in many shops these days. Instead, I hear a
lot about ideas coming from those inspecting parts,
welding, and operating machines—those who do
the actual work of fabricating products.
So how does bad culture fester in custom fabrica-
tion? Every situation is different, but here’s a hypo-
thetical one to consider:
The issue starts with high revenue concentration,
so high that losing just one major customer puts a
shop in a world of hurt. Layoffs follow, which trig-
gers mistrust. Those remaining go on a quest to be-
come (at least from their perspective) as indispens-
able as possible.
A press brake operator with decades of experience doesn’t share much, and who could blame
him? His knowledge kept him employed during the
last recession, so it probably will do the same for the
next. He doesn’t teach rookies the ropes, doesn’t do
much of anything except continue to produce perfect parts. No one in the brake department learns
from him; everyone just tries to get by.
Employees remain disengaged. They’re not learning. They just churn out parts. Leaders can’t afford
to invest in the business, so the shop floor is full of
old, tired machines. Employee turnover rises as the
economy gets better and people leave for greener
pastures. Then the recession comes, people lose
their jobs, and the cycle starts again.
How did this cycle start? You could argue that it
started with that major customer pulling its business. But why did the customer pull its business?
More than that, why did the fabricator have so few
customers? And why was one pulling its business so
It turns out that the fabricator had a hard time
landing new business simply because it couldn’t
meet its delivery promises. Those large legacy customers were always given priority, so winning and
sustaining new customers always was an uphill
Gregg Lederman can probably relate to this story.
Years ago he worked for an advertising and marketing agency. He wasn’t happy. “He didn’t like communicating marketing messages, and then finding out that his clients really weren’t delivering on
them,” said Linda Piontek, vice president of client
services for Rochester, N.Y.-based Brand Integrity.
“They weren’t delivering on their brand promises.”
Customers weren’t happy, and neither were the
companies’ employees—and here Lederman saw a
connection. A company with happy customers usually has happy, engaged employees.
Read more from Tim Heston at www.thefabricator.com/author/tim-heston
Eventually Lederman, along with business partners Patrick Ahern and Doug Bennett, launched
Brand Integrity, a company that uses software to
measure what businesses, including manufacturers, often think is impossible to measure. They measure culture.
The service includes carefully worded surveys for
both employees and customers, web-based message boards where people can give feedback, and
(most important) training on how to use it all. Survey results show managers so-called “engagement
trends.” Would employees recommend the workplace to others? Would they take a similar job at another company for slightly higher pay? How are co-workers living up to the company brand? Answers to
these questions and more are tracked over time, as
are answers to customer surveys.
All this information helps solve a basic mystery
in business. As Piontek asked, “Does the customer
experience match what employees think they’re
delivering? Not only that, can you use that informa-
tion to have conversations with customers that help
strengthen the relationship?”
Regarding those messaging systems, employees
post compliments, but they also write narratives
about exactly what that employee did that stood
out, perhaps a new idea that made his life easier.
Piontek referred to some recent entries from
Waukesha, Wis.-based MetalTek International, a
diversified metal manufacturer and casting company that’s a Brand Integrity client. The narratives
told stories of small improvements made in specific
areas in specific plants, all with appropriate “thank
yous” and other appreciations. The stories not only
helped people feel good, they helped spread process improvement throughout the organization.
Piontek added that, to improve culture, a com-
pany needs to have solid processes in place. “When
we’re working with companies to change culture,
and if they don’t address bad processes, they’re go-
ing to have a real problem changing their culture.”
If processes are undocumented or nonexistent,
dysfunction rules, and people take any “culture
change initiative” as just another flavor of the
month. Meanwhile, people like that skilled press
brake operator keep their knowledge to themselves,
a temple of order amid the chaos around them.
Alternatively, if people feel like they have the power to change things, change may well happen. Perhaps methods employed by companies like Metal Tek
spur communication and trust, which act as kindling
for process development and improvement, which
in turn improves culture, attracts talent, improves
productivity and quality, attracts new customers …
and the virtuous cycle continues.
Senior Editor Tim Heston can be reached at
Brand Integrity, 585-442-5404, www.brandintegrity.com
How a good company culture
spurs a virtuous cycle
Good culture requires good processes
If people feel like they have
the power to change things,
change may well happen.