Cutting Costs or Slow-Motion Suicide

January 28, 2010

What factors cause business failure? Certainly there are many external burdens such as our draconian corporate taxes and regulation that depresses American companies against foreign competitors who pay little or no taxes.  But beyond that, America has a wildly popular and successful internal business management recipe for putting our own companies out of business: shift focus from getting more profitable, to “cutting costs”.

It’s a subtle yet critical difference.  “Cutting costs” seems harmless and sounds sooo responsible.  But it tends to ignore the value and necessity of essential core technical expertise and instead mislabels them as financial liabilities that could be trimmed.  Is it a matter of ignoring, or of ignorance?  Instead of pressing groups for ideas and project execution to improve profits, they press for input on which essential business functions to cut. The mantra is usually “we all hate to do this, but we don’t have any choice.”  The result of this lose-lose is a painful decision to eliminate the very expertise that drives the effectiveness of Continuous Improvement, visionary process quoting, training, process stability, IT systems, and much more.  In short, it creates a top-down management culture of plant-closing through “slow-motion-suicide”.

In a superb article, noted industry expert and author  Bob Sproull summarized it like this: “It was also evident that operating expense had a functional lower limit, and once you hit it, you could actually do more harm than good to the organization by reducing it further.”

I’m not talking about whether you can trim your controls engineers from four to three positions.  I’m talking about trimming from two to one, or even eliminating the position completely – without any analysis of the ROI of value-added cost-reduction projects, or of the critical production support roles that could double or triple downtime and late shipments because of the six dozen automated systems out there on the plant floor. Sounds crazy because it is, but some company executives are crazy enough to do it.

Unfortunately, if you embrace a path that cuts the costs of the assets that produce income, you are essentially downsizing the future profitability of the company.  Cutting profit-generators will make it impossible to remain competitive: the company will  go out of business.  I hope my thoughts can spark a good discussion and some effective ways to recognize and resist these suicidal business practices in your company.

One example of this is the trend I’ve noticed toward trying to hire “jack-of-all-trades” engineers.  They want a trained engineer who works like a tech (“hands on”, “bias toward action”) and yet can do CAD drafting, IE functions, Six Sigma, Lean, PLC programming, robot programming, welding systems, program launch management, capital appropriations requests, and executive powerpoint presentations.  Apparently they want to hire a messiah like this (for the pay of a mediocre one-discipline engineer) to handle their 80-robot process automation and launches, because they don’t have quality or control or welding or maintenance engineers to do the work and can’t get approval to hire them. They might as well post for an engineer who walks on water and has a standard 12/6 work-week. What will it take for them to realize that while they can hire someone who lies about having all those skillsets, the extremely rare one who actually might is either being paid $85k+ (USD) as an engineering manager, or has started his own systems design and integration company?

Ken Payne of The Columbus Group recently pointed out to me that while classic Industrial Engineering (IE) breaks everything into the Man, Machine, and Material categories, most companies have lost sight of a simple overarching fact: everything in a company – including Machine and Material – is driven by the Man factor. Payne and Demming both point out that manpower is the source of all value streams.  So the value streams are ultimately driven by the human energy in the form of work, passion, expertise, inventiveness, entrepreneurial drive, and cohesive teamwork of the company’s manpower.  That manpower is a combination of individual expertise and passion, and company culture.

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The Fall Guys

January 7, 2010

Scapegoating – the practice of selecting a “fall guy” to take the blame, thus deflecting deserved outrage away from those at fault, and saddling the (mostly) innocent with undeserved suffering, penalties, and a mud-smeared reputation.

When it’s more fully defined like that, hinting at some of the abusive downside, it’s easier to see how damaging this ignoble practice really is.  Of course the most dastardly versions of scapegoating fire the fall-guy so that they can’t defend themselves or correct the concocted stories.  And if his boss is too noble to go along with the ploy, well, you have to fire him too.  But one of the most neglected aspects is illustrating the penalties and costs paid by the people still at the company… however long it might survive its’ management malpractices before workers are laid off or plants close.

Last year (not long ago), a consulting engineer mentioned to me that he had lost track of how many times executive staff had used him as a scapegoat.  And not long ago, I was inspired to write a poem that I suspect many can relate to.  I’ve decided to publish it here, as my tip of the hat to all those talented, honest and dedicated engineers who have suddenly found themselves struggling for breath and blinking at the sky as the Fall Guys.  May it inspire better decisions, greater boldness, more nobility, and a more wisely wary outlook for all.

The Manufacturing Company

There was a certain company, that welded many things,

and yet their questions rarely held an engineering ring.

Customers often urged them – hire a welding engineer.

But those sciences and physics were shunned without a fear.

.

Yet eventually the time would come from management-ly choices,

when a string of poor decisions drowned the ignorant wise voices.

These two sharp guys will likely do, from MIT and LeTourneau too.

We’ll hire them to do some magic, wait briefly for a furry rabbit.

.

This might be hopeless, it’s certainly bleak –

How long do we need an engineer you think?

When customers grow too irate, let’s fire the engineers we hired of late,

and hide our failures as their missed dates.

.

Ignorant of the lurking plan, yet alarmed at how the meetings ran,

the engineers were disturbed to find the obvious needs dismissed.

Then grave alarm set in, when contract terms were pushed aside

and executives announced a plan to sell their customers a lie.

.

Shouldn’t it be obvious – the deeper hole they dug

Was more desperate and impossible than fibbing with a shrug?

Why not face the growing stench of putrefied decisions,

And root out the unwillingness to replace fantasy with vision?

.

What do you do when you face a chasm with an uncompleted bridge?

Do you slow the train and rush ahead with the rails and spikes and girders,

Which were needed but never purchased because you gave those orders?

Or do you stoke the fire still hotter and yell ahead to hurry,

And throw off the patient bridge designers and blame them for the dirty

wreck you’ll soon be in,

When car after car goes sailing off the cliffs that you have chosen?

.

Ah, pretending all is simple and the answer’s “git ‘er done” –

Taxation’s cursed sea of MBA’s who can’t even make part one.

.

Brian Dobben – 2009

I know several people who can personally relate to that.  I’ve also met a few who claim that such unethical, abusive behavior is only wrong if you get caught.  That shouldn’t be surprising.  Harvard Business School and other “higher education” circles are reportedly gripped by moral retardation and long ago turned their “business ethics” classes into studies rationalizing how to separate low-risk fraud from high-risk fraud. The underlying assertion is that the only unethical decision is the one you publicly got caught in, which crassly ignores the penalties to the company in lost profits, missed business, and vital human talent assets jettisoned or crippled. So “wrong” and “evil” have become concepts as slippery as the meaning of “is” in the Clinton Administration, or “American citizen” or “bailout” or “terrorist” in the Obama regime.

I assert that real men are more grounded in reality than that, and that noble behavior is not dead. Even nobility like stepping up and admitting that you didn’t listen and made a poor decision, and committing to do much better.  But with nervous manufacturing staff feeling more at risk in a depression economy, has scapegoating now become a more widespread problem in engineering and management circles?

If so, what are the causes?  And how can we work to prevent or avoid such situations?

And if you’re an HR manager, or a Recruiter, or engineer that finds yourself an unwilling party to such professional abuse, what are your options?  What do you do?


How to Hire the Welding Engineer You Really Need

March 30, 2009

—  Warning —
If your company makes welded assemblies this information is worth
hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year in profits.

Searching for a welding engineer or welding engineering manager isn’t an easy task for an HR staffer or professional recruiter. For many reasons, there aren’t many of us Welding Engineers out here. And 70% of job-titled “Welding Engineers” have little or no training in the welding physics and sciences and so are largely or completely unqualified – knowing enough to enable the welding processes, but often carrying enough influence and ignorance to drive companies right out of business. But to complicate the picture, all three recognized Welding Engineering programs have very different approaches and very different ideas as to what a Welding Engineer really is and should be doing.

Caution:  Welding Engineering training and experience is mainly process-specific and/or material-specific, not industry-specific. This has broader implications, but it’s critical to understand that their skills and expertise easily transfer across completely unrelated industries. Your search can easily turn up dry if you think your competion for a welding engineer is your competitors, because it’s not.  You’re looking for process expertise, and your search competition is all industries that weld similar materials and thicknesses.

Formal education is just the beginning of the story because once they’re out in the workforce, degreed welding engineers tend to lean into different areas.  A W.E. might lean toward heavy-wall welding, meaning it’s either piping, structural, off-road heavy equipment, or pressure-vessel, and normally includes a lot of manual welding management, welder training and certifications. Or a W.E. might lean toward the thin “gauge-thickness” materials. In terms of experience, those two worlds (thick or thin) are probably the greatest differences.  Beyond that, they might have a strong affinity for manual hand-welding environments, or for welding automation, or for metallurgy, “exotic” materials, testing, training, process optimization/control or R&D work.

As a personal example, over the years I have been compelled to conclude that I have some world-class skills in an environment of welding automation on gauge-thickness materials.  In that arena, I can excel to a level that makes most welding engineers and welding equipment manufacturers seem rather incompetent – I always find myself trying to figure out who is trainable that I can develop as a welding engineer or equipment supplier.  Can I handle an exclusively manual welding environment of heavy-wall code work that can’t or doesn’t want to move any of it into welding automation?  I’ve been trained, I’ve had exposure, but exclusively manual heavy-wall code welding is not my thing.  I could eventually grow into it, but many W.E.’s are better suited and it might be a waste of my individual talents.  Why not hire the right guy and support him?

A recruiter friend of mine, Kirk Abraham, recently said or quoted “Robots are fast, accurate & stupid. Humans are slow, sloppy & brilliant.”  Too many companies either can’t see the value in having brilliant humans teach robots to be fast and accurate, or they sense wisdom in the idea but just don’t know how to get there.

Then there’s the company or client side of the picture, which frankly can be structured to make the task of filling a WE opening… impossible. There are many pitfalls. After years of watching and participating in this sometimes painful dance either personally or by proxy of fellow welding engineers, I hope my perspectives may be a dramatic help to you as you work to fill your welding engineering position. Along the way I’ll discuss experience, job title, job description, responsibilities, compensation, training skills, strategic issues, and much more.  Here we go!
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Advice for Recruiter Client’s Welding Engineer position – #2

March 7, 2009

This is the SECOND in a series of responses from my e-mail archives, which I’m publishing because the Recruiters noted them as helpful advise and perspective on their client’s Welding Engineering search. Most recruiters and even most HR Managers have little experience or exposure to the Welding Engineering segment because it’s so small. It’s my hope that these will help increase understanding of some of the realities, needs, obstacles and rewards in finding and retaining degreed welding engineers.

I read the job description you sent, and Wow. To softly summarize, your Asian-car-company client would be well advised to change their strategy on this position. Why not wisely select a Smart Welding Engineer and let them do their job?

OK, let me take the velvet gloves off for a minute. Don’t take this wrong, but after reading the job description, here’s my very blunt assessment:

“Welding Specialist” is a bad start for the job title. It might be simple ignorance, it could be an inadequate Asian cultural translation, it could be mimicking poor practices in the “Big Three”, or it could be someone’s “clever” idea to save money, but that job description is the role of a BS-degreed Welding Engineer. That’s what they are trained to do: the average BSWE (or equivalent) has 3,000 – 4,000 hours of classroom and hands-on training in the welding processes.  Filling that welding engineer role with anyone else is like taking a CFO position, relabeling it as “Financial Supervisor”, and requiring candidates to have any Bachelor of Arts degree instead of an MBA.  Yeh, a stunning cost-savings idea there.

If they don’t hire a BS-degreed Welding Engineer for this position, it will probably save them $20-40k a year and cost them a minimum $500k (if not several $M) in the first 3 months of startup alone, vs a qualified Smart Welding Engineer. But unfortunately, as that happens, there’s rarely anyone around who’s qualified enough to recognize the losses and missed opportunities and attribute them to targeting and hiring an unqualified person. Even if the “Welding Specialist” knows it, are they likely to be explaining to management that they can’t do their job justice? 

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Advice for Recruiter Client’s Welding Engineer position – #1

March 2, 2009

This is the FIRST in a series of responses from my e-mail archives, which I’m publishing because the Recruiters noted them as helpful advise and perspective on their client’s Welding Engineering positions. Most recruiters and even most HR Managers have little experience or exposure to the Welding Engineering segment because it’s so small. It’s my hope that these will help increase understanding of some of the realities, needs, obstacles and rewards in finding and retaining degreed welding engineers.

Regarding the “#41XXX Welding Engineer Position”, if I could offer some advice for your client as a degreed W.E. with 21 years experience who has interviewed roughly 200 Welding Engineers to hire about 10 W.E.’s in the last 5 years…

A salary range of $44-55k is unrealistic for a degreed Welding Engineer with 3-5 yrs experience unless their cost of living is 20-50% below the national average.

There are only three ABET accredited W.E. universities in the nation: LeTourneau University, Ferris State University, and The Ohio State University. At OSU (for example), the average starting salary is about $60k for a brand new (2008) graduate. Recent LeTourneau University graduate majors are Materials Joining Engineering instead of Welding Engineering. After 3 years experience, average 2nd position starts at about $70k. With 5 yrs experience, a good degreed W.E. with the capabilities they’re looking for is likely going to be in the $65-$80k range.

Keep in mind that there are only about 100 W.E. graduates a year, totaled from the 3 schools. That’s why about 70% of the “Welding Engineers” in industry are only titled as W.E.’s. Those 70% are people, some with other engineering degrees and some with none, who can ENABLE the welding processes. However, of the 30% of degreed Welding Engineers, only about half of them can optimize processes for excellent profitability and quality. That’s why the best W.E.’s, with experience, make $75-120k base salaries: they are the only ones who can make profitability differences measured in millions of dollars.

Most recruiters and even most HR Managers have little experience or exposure to the Welding Engineering segment because it’s so small. So I hope that helps. If you have any other W.E. position openings that could benefit from strong expertise with a history of dramatic process improvements beyond the “benchmark” performance standards, let me know…

Brian Dobben

2nd in this series:  https://weldsparks.wordpress.com/2009/03/07/advice-for-recruiter-clients-welding-engineer-position-2/