What we went through with Enterprise Minnesota taught us a number of things about how the whole ISO process works, and how we should run it. It used to be something that [we] thought we had to push over to the quality manager to run — that we needed to do sales or marketing or strategy and all of that. With Enterprise Minnesota’s help, we realize that this is something that comes from the top. You have to take that ownership and be able to manage it from the top all the way down through the whole organization.
The benefit of doing the ISO certification was that we had to document every procedure, so it put employee knowledge down on paper. Now these skills aren’t limited to one person and it’s helped with cross training. We quickly discovered that this was going to greatly improve our processes.
We could not have done this effectively without the guidance and support from Enterprise Minnesota.
It was a very positive experience working with Enterprise Minnesota because they made it fun. Our consultant was engaged, he was funny, but still so experienced in a positive way that he kept staff engaged. He was out on the shop floor sorting, doing the work alongside them, instead of just telling them what to do.
I think it has been really helpful for our business to continue to do work with Enterprise Minnesota. When we have a pain point, I know who to call.
Enterprise Minnesota’s experts really helped us coordinate our value stream mapping process, which was a team effort across the company. Everyone was involved in it, and it gave everyone a chance to provide input. After the value stream map, my employees seem to be more engaged and happier. It has opened their eyes to move past “this is how we’ve always done it,” and that change can be a positive thing. When we implemented our plant layout, we were able to handle the increased volume without any expansion and it really increased our efficiencies.
The cost of healthcare has always been a top concern – is that still an issue?
“It’s still an issue. We’ve continued to see double digit increases every year. You can’t stay ahead of that without pricing yourself out of the market. It’s impacting our margins and our strategies. That’s another reason to push for more automation. The robots don’t need much insurance.”
How much will automation play into your ability to make up productivity efficiencies?
“We’re actually right in the middle of spending about $25,000 for a very minuscule automation project. But the reason we have to do that is the shortage of people.”
Is the worker shortage here to stay?
“I think so. I think we need to start thinking that way. We’re doing a lot to train from within. We’re getting qualified people with no skills, and we’re training them. If we train 10 people, that’s a lot of money. We’re not that big of a business. We have to nip away at it year by year. Our growth rate, as bringing on employees goes, does not match the growth rate potential. That will be a big problem in the long run.”
In the next 12 months, what is the biggest challenge you face?
“One major thing holding us back is finding the skilled employees we’re looking for. I think everybody’s fighting wage increases and the challenge that brings, especially if you do any long-term contract work. That is our biggest challenge. Thankfully in our industry we haven’t been hampered too much other than international shipping. We’ve had a few containers that took four months to get in, but it wasn’t a material shortage. It was just the labor shortage at the port.”
In the next 12 months, what is the biggest challenge you face?
“Supply chain security. It’s been difficult just making sure things are available. A lot of our stuff has to be made in America. The sourcing of some of those components and parts has become a little bit more of a challenge. There are other delays that come in that are directly tied to COVID and what COVID has done to certain parts of our supply chain. Our ability to get needed parts has been delayed a bit, but our purchases are not very time sensitive. We’re lucky because our customers and our client base are both very understanding. It hasn’t impeded our business yet.”
Are there opportunities to reposition your company that you didn’t foresee at the beginning of 2020?
“Well, we actually saw a little bit of a slowdown starting last fall. We thought this would be a perfect opportunity to get ISO 9001 certified. It was a very interesting process because all of our training from about March through the time we finished our certification here in August was all online, including our audit with the registrar. He was very cooperative and helped us get through that, even though we’d never met face to face.”
What was your message to nervous employees who reached back out to you?
“They couldn’t see us panic. A lot of our organization went to working remotely, which made it very challenging and difficult to do business as usual. I think we transitioned very well. I don’t have all the answers for this stuff, and I still don’t to this day. I just do what we have to do and then try to keep our employees engaged so the trust factor relationship remains the same.”
So, if you look out from the beginning of 2020 to what you’ve experienced today, has COVID impacted your bottom line or is it more about adapting your processes to circumstances?
“This has had a couple of different impacts on our business. Our leadership group took another look at our forecasting for the year. Then we got to be closer to the first part of April, and we realized that the economists we listened to weren’t right. We started to see that our business was growing at a pace that we couldn’t catch up with, and still can’t. We were planning for about a 7% growth in 2020, and right now we’re sitting at about a 33% growth, and our lead times continue to creep out on us.”
Let’s just start with the elephant in the room, which is the impact of COVID on your business. How has it impacted your ability to work profitably in 2020?
“It’s a matter of our customers canceling POs early on and extending orders. We’re working three to four days a week, depending on customers, but we’ve laid no one off and orders now seem to be holding steady.”
Our survey provides quantitative data, and the focus groups round out the survey process by gaining qualitative data about how manufacturers are navigating around business challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially identifying opportunities for the future, and sharing ideas with fellow manufacturing executives about how best to move forward.
We needed to get the different parts of our operation on the same page, making sure everything’s complete before it goes on to the next department. There was a point – probably about three-quarters of the way through our [ISO 9001:2015] training when a light came on for most of us. We realized the certification’s value when we started to understand it is more of a management tool than it is how we process things from start to finish. It’s working great now with everyone on the shop floor.