Mar 19 2017

Custom Sheet Metal Fabricator Process Improvement Strategy

We All Have Tough Days—It Is How We Handle Them That Makes the Difference

One particular day last week, we had a really tough day. One employee gave us quick notice that he was taking vacation and, tragically, another employee lost his brother in a car accident. Already down two people, material we ordered from a supplier that required laser paper, did not come in as ordered.Custom Sheet Metal Fabricator.jpg

A special louver tool we bought from Amada was starting to wear after only a few thousand punches, and needs to be returned. As a result, that job was put on hold. Another customer requested a certain part number and revision, but their purchase order asked for the same part and revision—with different dimensions! And finally, after building components to print, we discovered that the parts cannot be assembled together as required by the customer. What a day!

Making Choices

Custom sheet metal fabricator or not, my bet is that while the details may differ for you, the same situation happens to all of us from time to time. Some people give up in frustration and take a break. Other people get angry and take their anger out on someone or something. I have found that the difference is in whether you feel like a victim of circumstance or take responsibility despite the details of the event. Both may be true, but we all have a choice in how we react, and that makes the difference in these situations. As a victim, the situation(s) are out of our control and all we can do is react. Typically, we’re in a bad mood and our reaction reflects that. If we take responsibility (even if it is not our fault), our mood shifts and we can generally remain centered and calm and think proactively and creatively on how to solve the problem(s). We begin to own the solution and can take pride in recovering from a bad situation.

Our Strategy: A Process Helps

As a custom sheet metal fabricator that experiences these types of issues all the time, we’ve developed a process that helps us own the situation and fix the root cause. This strategy requires a few steps: 

  • First, we define the what, where, when, and who of the problem. This is important, as we’ve found that it is really easy to mislabel the problem.
  • Once, we’ve clearly identified the problem, to avoid jumping to the “obvious” cause that might not be the real cause, we brainstorm possible causes of the problem and categorize them by:
    1. man
    2. machine
    3. management
    4. method
    5. material, or
    6. milieu (environment)
  • The top 1-3 causes get further refined by walking through 5 why questions. (i.e., “Why did this happen?” “Because of A.” “Why did A happen?” “Because of B.” And so on.)
  • Once we get to the root of the issue, we can finally come up with a series of actions that can prevent this, and many other issues, from happening again (because often during this process, we discover peripheral concerns that need addressing or uncover other opportunities for improvement). What really makes this work is checking to make sure the actions worked or didn’t. If not, we go back to work on fixing the root cause. An added benefit is that we can establish functional protocols that can be used when similar unforeseen situations arise or the same circumstances repeat.

The Reality

Sometimes this process can be exhausting and, frankly, we give up—overwhelm can do that. Other times, we are operating in overdrive mode, in a hurry reacting to real-time demands, and don’t follow the process completely. We do know that when we are persistent and follow the process, good things happen. And when we don’t follow the process completely? You guessed it—bad things happen. Christine Murner, our VP of Sales, has a saying, “When you want things bad, you get things bad.” Translation: if you rush, poor quality will follow. The good news is, whether or not we employ this process each time, the principles of it live within our collective psyche at ETM and we are always analyzing our operation through this process-improvement lens. Having already created transferable contingency plans or establishing actionable processes for commonly occurring challenges (not just reacting in challenging situations) shores us up operationally and emotionally when these tough days hit hard. A day in the life of a custom sheet metal fabricator can be smooth sailing or eventful for all the wrong reasons. Remaining reasonable in the heat of the fray helps us keep our cool every time.

One really good day, we received word that EMC wanted to partner with us to create on-the-fly production of customized sheet metal electronic housings for a global initiative. Having a strategy in place and following the process above helped us keep up with the demands of this project while maintaining all our other concurrent custom sheet metal fabrication orders. Read this case study to find out how we did it for EMC, and how we can help you with your next project.

Download Our Late Point Identification Case Study

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