Ask Critical Questions About How Your Shop Runs

'Machining: Impossible.' Sounds like a fantastic TV program. Maybe we shouldn't wait for the pilot to air before starring in our own version in our shop.


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For reasons far from understood, my kids love reality television. Our DVR abounds with episodes of metal detector brandishing lunatics going berserk when they find an old penny; seemingly normal guys from Iowa driving throughout the countryside in a white Sprinter van picking through other people’s junk; and poor souls pawning family heirlooms to a portly Gen X’er named Chumlee in exchange for Vegas gambling money. And yes, it does make me uncomfortable when my 11 year old innocently utters the words “Pawn Stars.”

But if a television producer can find a way to marry the charm of “Antiques Roadshow” with the suspense of “Deal or No Deal,” somehow it winds up on the television screen in our family room.

So it came as little surprise when a program called “Restaurant: Impossible” found its way onto our Recorded Series list. If you’re not familiar, each episode features muscle-bound Englishman Robert Irvine taking on the challenge of turning around a different struggling dining establishment by tapping into his knowledge of the restaurant business, and utilizing equal parts of sheer will and awkward confrontations, all the while expending a budget of only $10,000.

Telling a restaurant’s proprietor whose passion is preparing his generational family barbeque recipe that “your passion sucks” isn’t exactly a style that appeals to me. But his show is entertaining, and it got me to wondering whether there’s room on cable for “Machining: Impossible,” a sort of combination of “The Apprentice” and “How it’s Made.”

And, action—We’re here with Paul Johnson and his son Steven who represents the third generation of AAA Machining, a family-owned contract machining company that has called the Midwest its home for more than 50 years.

But the last decade has not been a good one for AAA. Several years ago its two largest customers moved substantial manufacturing operations overseas—and AAA’s work along with it. Things got worse a few years later when the general economy crashed down around the housing bubble. Now, though customers have bounced back, the company faces a tighter labor market than ever before. Skilled machinists and CNC operators are seemingly impossible to find, and those that can be hired often lack the requisite work ethic or are snatched up by competitors offering higher wage rates or better work hours.

With cash reserves waning and their banker looming in the background, this father and son resort to their last hope—”Machining: Impossible.”

Think of all of the scenarios that could be included in the show. We could start by observing Paul and Steven. How much time do they actually spend behind the desk versus on the floor where value is created and improvement opportunities often hide? What is their product mix? Each requires its own marketing, production and pricing strategies.

We could walk an order through the entire value stream, looking for more efficient methods of production or information flow. Better yet, draw a value stream map and engage the shopfloor employees to offer improvement suggestions. How long does it take to change-over from one job to another, and how could we reduce the time needed to perform this non-value added task? Are we carrying too much inventory? How much of the steel on the racks has been sitting for years and may not be used for several more, if ever? Should we be turning that inventory into cash that can be reinvested in the business?

How are materials and supply agreements managed? What opportunities exist to consolidate suppliers and drive down materials costs? Are best practices in the areas of employee training, customer service, information technology and lean tools evident in the business model? If they are not, what easy-to-implement changes could have a significant impact on performance.

We would be almost all the way through the episode before even raising questions of marketing, sales strategy, sales team skills. In the end, I bet we could find enough improvement opportunities to put the Johnsons back on the road to prosperity.

“Machining: Impossible?” Sounds like a fantastic television program. Maybe we shouldn’t wait for the pilot to air before starring in our own version right in our own shop.