Technology, Process Improvement , and Management in the Woodshop

A long, rich discussion about generating and applying good ideas, motivating and organizing people, choosing and using the right equipment, and keeping things simple in cabinet and furniture production. December 14, 2005

To contributor A: Congratulations on the fine article about your company in WoodShop News! I read the story and we talked about it at my shop. I wish I had the article in front of me so that I could quote the comparison you made between the linear cause and effect of craftsmanship and the more random environment of the business side. I particularly liked your comment about how our companies need money every day and how when you get it you can't waste it. You commented on the need to amortize all the thinking that has gone into product development in order to harvest this effort for future iterations. Have you been able to inculcate this mindset into your company culture? How many people do you have in your company that understand and promote this mandate?

The front cover of the magazine is basically an advertisement for DeStaco clamps. Most of those jigs could be replaced with CNC operations but the article did not make any mention of your plans to go in this direction. I know you have thought about this a lot so I am curious about your take on technology. I know I have asked for a lot of information but if you have the time I would sure enjoy reading what you have to say.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor A:
You've asked a lot of questions, and I'll try to answer them briefly. First: regarding getting my people to think about product development - we try to encourage that as much as possible. My management philosophy is based upon the idea that there is more than one smart person in the shop on any given day, and that it's important for those in charge to actively solicit help with all of the design and production issues that come up. More minds on a given problem mean more possible solutions. How this works in reality is that some of the guys have "design" kinds of minds that constantly generate new questions and ideas, and some of the guys are more "production studs" who simply build what they are given. This is just part of people's personality. The key thing is what happens to the new ideas.

My people know that they can try new things if they like, and if they seem to be valuable then we try to implement them more widely. We find that the biggest challenge is to make sure that the finest ideas actually get put into practice by everyone in the shop - it's too easy for one of the guys to make a brilliant innovation while everyone else keeps doing things the old way. We have tried to address this by writing manuals that describe best practices for the pieces that we repeat often, but this is a very time intensive and expensive thing to do, and the wide variety of items means that we will never do this comprehensively. The other method is to assign similar jobs over and over to the same people, so that they develop a real expertise in, say, chair construction. But there still has to be some variety or the guys get bored. (Incidentally, they aren't actually all guys, but I'll call them that for brevity.) But there is always a respectful response from management to every idea. Even if we have to shoot it down, we try to explain why - generally because of cost issues that aren't apparent to the cabinetmakers.

Regarding technology - we are all for it, but we have some constraints. Our product line is so varied and our production runs so short that big CNC routers just don't seem to have a lot of use for us. After all, they don't assemble anything, and they can't sand complex assembled items. If we were making boxes all day, it would be a different story. In my opinion the foundation technology is information tech - having your designs in digital format (CAD) which allows you to easily organize, modify, and archive them. Every job should have a complete set of plans that allow the cabinetmakers to make the project from start to finish without making design decisions. That means blueprints for every component of every piece. It's a ton of work, but the more you do it, the more it pays off, as it is much easier to modify plans than to make them from scratch.

Another aspect of this is documenting all of your work. Digital photography makes this relatively cheap and easy. When you have decent photos of everything you have done, the chances that the next client will choose a modification of something you have already done is greatly increased. The second time you do something is more profitable than the first, as you have better information regarding the cost of making it and the cabinetmakers are more familiar with the piece. Using CAD also allows you to design parts and reuse them in subsequent pieces. We have a limited number of legs and doors, but the possible combinations are almost infinite. So even if a piece is totally new, it is composed of parts that are familiar. CAD makes this cheap and convenient.

On the shop floor we find that the most useful technology is digital measurement. Anything that keeps guys from taking out their tape measures is a big savings. Our Martin T73 CNC has been great, as has a TigerStop on our radial arm saw and the digital thickness readout on our newer Timesaver widebelt. Knowing that the machine will cut the same length at the same setting every day allows an entirely different workflow and makes error correction considerably easier. The more guys you have working in a shop, the more critical it is that the tools be extremely heavy duty, or else they will burn huge amounts of time checking the machine for accuracy every time they step up to it.

As for our wall of jigs - most of these are for chair designs which we rarely do. We make relatively small numbers of even our most popular designs, so again a big CNC router isn't cost efficient. Don't underestimate the bandwidth that those jigs represent. And they never need upgrades for new operating systems. But I'll repeat the key point, which is that CNC can't sand and assemble products like ours, which represents a huge percentage of the cost of production. Even if we did certain milling operations 100 times faster, it wouldn't affect the overall cost of the product nearly as much as the machinery salesmen would have you think. Some aspects of good work simply have to be performed by human hands.

From contributor B:
To the original questioner: Is this the paradigm you are relentlessly looking for? Is this mass customization? Ironically it is, without high tech.

From contributor C:
Regarding "mass customization" without the tech: I think what contributor A describes here is simply good old know-how. Not to diminish what he has accomplished or the positive impact on his operation. Granted, I'm a tech refusnik (ie: CNC Routers with CAD/CAM integration) for the diversified small shop, but what contributor A has succeeded in defining and implementing is a situation where capable people are empowered to affect their daily efforts as well as the short and long term health of the entire organization. In a small shop, with the right leadership, the efforts become obvious to all the participants.

Add to that the built up equity in the CAD drawing files, giving future flexibility, and you end up with the ability to alter the "standard" without starting over each time. This knowledge equity paired with the culture of know-how makes for a good situation bottom to top. Carefully nurtured, this will only get better. CNC dealers try to package/sell this know-how as a bunch of digits hooked up to a machine. But it is only a partial solution. Most shops tailor their work to fit the machine, instead of the opposite, and compromise that mass custom goal - or narrow it significantly.

From the original questioner:
The paradigm I am relentlessly pursuing is nothing less than the culture of continuous improvement. I am trying to create an organization that is fun to work at and makes as much money as possible. I think this is easier if everybody involved is aimed along the same trajectory and we have a common agreement on our logic. People want to have problem solving in their everyday work life. This is what makes work interesting. The best thing for the customer (and the company) is for us to focus on the problems that need to be solved. There is no reason to waste our precious resources re-inventing something we already have know-how to do.

I build kitchens. A problem that needs to be solved is a good furniture foot where an island meets the floor. This furniture foot needs to be something that can be installed on an out of level floor, something that is easy for the floor finisher to work around and something that provides a conduit for the electrician. It needs to be easy for the installer to understand. After we have designed this product we need a way to explain it to the customer.

As contributor A commented, if we do a good job of this we can probably get them to buy something we already know how to make. As soon as we get some customers ordering this product we need to have fixtures to build it and a way to train people to use those fixtures. For all of this to come together we need to have some sort of way to make it part of the company lexicon. This is the archive and retrieval system contributor A was speaking of. How we flow information forward and backward is probably the most significant investment we can make. I think we've got to fix this problem first before we can actually harvest the benefits of other technology.

From contributor B:
I found this statement interesting: "We have a limited number of legs and doors, but the possible combinations are almost infinite. So even if a piece is totally new, it is composed of parts that are familiar." That is not Henry Ford thinking. I have seen this sort of thinking used by some people I know in the clothing industry manufacturing warm up suits for sports teams. They are still here and still profitable. As far as getting your people involved and in agreement with what they are doing, I absolutely agree.

From contributor D:
Regarding the use of technology, there is a concept in management philosophy called Cost of Complexity. Richard Koch touches on it in his book, The 80/20 Principle. Basically, the more complex a system, the more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive it is. For example, if you offer 50 products for sale, you have a much higher cost of complexity than if you have 3 products for sale. This seems obvious. But the point is that cost is usually significantly more than you think it is.

Our industry, and especially a highly custom business like contributor As, is inherently complex. We manufacture complex products with many parts that need to be exactly machined. And we have all the business and infrastructure needs and challenges of any other business. I have always thought that keeping a woodshop as simple as possible would be crucial to its survival, to keep the cost of complexity down. This is where I think technology can be problematic. Yes, a CNC machine can fabricate parts with high throughput and repeatability. But the cost of complexity of this process is high. There is the learning curve of a new machine, the floor space it eats up, the new management issues, the financing, training of operators, maintenance, etc. This cost is very difficult to assign a dollar figure to, because there are so many unknown variables. For small shops like ours, this represents a significant risk.

So the trick to technology in our business, as I see it, is being able to 1) rapidly and wholeheartedly embrace the technology that simplifies business, while 2) rapidly and wholeheartedly rejecting technology that will suck your energy away from building product.

From contributor A:
To contributor D: You have hit the nail on the head. Making freestanding furniture is inherently far more complex than cabinets, so we evaluate our technology needs accordingly. We are always looking for ways to cut time out of the build process, and by keeping an open mind we have found savings in surprising places. Also, when you have 10 cabinetmakers working then the potential savings from solving a given problem is quite different from smaller shops, as small costs are greatly magnified, and more expensive solutions can be more easily justified.

To expand on something I hinted at earlier: We used to have an EMA 60" slider (for crosscutting) and a Jet cabinet saw (for ripping) as our two main saws. The EMA is a decent saw that would be fine for a one or 2 man shop, but its fence wasn't robust enough to hold adjustments when used all day. The jet is even flimsier. We knew we needed a good heavy duty slider, but which to buy and how much to spend? After spending a lot of time in the shop watching the guys work, it became apparent that, because the EMAs fence tended to drift, the guys would spend 3-6 minutes checking the square and precision of the fence before EVERY cut. The same thing happened with the Jet. Multiply that by the number of cuts per day and you find that 1-2 hours per day are going down the drain. This means: 1. a bottleneck is being created that wouldn't if the saw was more accurate, robust, and easily adjusted, 2. At our shop rate, it's costing us several hundred dollars a day in lost production. The large amount is because this is happening with 10 people - it wouldn't be nearly so expensive with one or 2. So the payback period on the super Martin T73CNC, even paid for in weak dollars, is less than 2 years. And we have gained speed, accuracy and precision from that saw that were impossible to attain from a manual fence set up.

That is the kind of technology to invest in. We identified a small but expensive problem and invested in a solution that saves us money and gives us greater capabilities without limiting the kind of product we can make. The problem I see with CNC heads is that they are only good at doing a few things, so if you use them to their full capacity your product line ends up looking like IKEA. If you use them for more complex items then you have a huge problem with how to hold the work down - and we'd probably end up with another wall of jigs and DeStacos. How does that save me money?

Every shop has a different product mix and will have to find which technology solution is appropriate. I know that for what we do, applying technology to the actions that are common to every project (plans, saw set up, measuring) is more productive than using it for milling. What I really need is a robot sander that can do what a good cabinetmaker can do - I'd be first in line to buy one. But I don't see that coming any time soon.

One other thought occurs to me is that the expense of drawing plans and programming machines probably isn't much different from the expense of training workers to the skill levels we need. We generally invest 2 to 5 years before we have someone who can build our entire line productively. As a businessman, I can see the future, although I don't like it much - partnering with a foreign shop run by someone like me, who runs a tight ship with superb craftsmen. Communication is essentially free, the only thing keeping this from happening now is the long lead times and difficulty of shipping finished pieces.

From contributor B:
To the original questioner: How do you measure the improvements? I bought into the CNC idea, because it meant we didn't have to layout by hand. This has been a huge timesaver. I see contributor As point about reusing templates. But if you are only doing one of something it saves time on template building, swinging arcs etc. If you can control the parametrics (variables), that is also a big factor. If the variables are few, customization is easy. The learning curve on CNC is not that bad at all.

Regarding work going to china - maybe on big run items but for short runs I don't think so. For repetitive work, putting a crew together is easy. For custom work I have to think the Chinese are going to have the same trouble the rest of us have. It is not just manufacturing going to China/India, but other fields as well. The point is that we have to start figuring out ways to be competitive in every field.