Beginning on page 34, we continue examining results from our benchmarking study of the American machine tool industry, with a report on shop operations and how machine shops are using the best practices available make themselves competitive and economically viable. Our analysis this month can be divided roughly into two segments: human resources and shop operations.

For many of the shops surveyed, competitiveness comes down to a simple formula of treating employees with respect, and empowering employees to have a feeling of ownership over the jobs they perform. The concept often sounds easy, but in reality becomes one of the most challenging tasks for a shop owner or manager

Surrendering the power of authority—especially when you have the responsibility for the success of the enterprise—is not an uncomplicated proposition. However, as this study (and others) has shown, the empowerment that owners and managers gave to employees invariably contributed to greater employee satisfaction, a betterrun shop and more profits. Almost every shop that we spoke with to compile this report has developed its own methods, its own style of giving power to its employees. Each of their techniques are creative and unique, but the results were the same. Several of the owners and mangers with whom we talked said they believed that work at their shops is fun, and they could refer to shop employees who agree. Additionally, the fun didn't have as much to with dress-down Fridays or popcorn breaks on the shop floor, but rather from the satisfaction of contributing to a viable organization, and being recognized and rewarded for the contribution. Shop owners and managers who provide a well-run place for people to work establish such a work environment, and other results of our survey show that that type of environment often provides more of an incentive for employees than direct compensation.

In shop operations, the owners and managers of the most successful machine shops said they have had to dramatically change the way they have done business over the past 10 years, just to stay in business. There's not much that is new to that: Change in business always can be counted on, and if you don't change you can't survive.

Again, however, creativity and individualism play an important role in what's being done.

The best shops have adopted, in some fashion, lean-manufacturing principles, applied in ways that are meaningful to their distinctive operations.

In adapting lean manufacturing to their machine shops, owners and managers have focused on reducing machine-cycle times and set-up times, and increasing machine up time. Planned, regular machine maintenance that might put a specific machine tool out of action for several hours or days often is a step that the best-run shops take so that they aren't surprised by a machine failure that incurs weeks of unplanned down time. That, simply, is putting to work the old adage about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure.

While it's convenient to divide the human resources and the operational side of a machining business, it quickly becomes evident in speaking with owners and managers that the relationship between all of an enterprise's components have to be coordinated carefully to guarantee a shop's success.