Sometimes the Tail Wags the Dog

Turning Point


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Distractions are all around us. Trying to get a job done, be it writing about technology as I try to do or making quality parts at a profit while satisfying a customer, is your primary charge.

My guess is I am not alone in noticing that our businesses have become more complex over the years. Being just a good metalworker, while vitally important for precision manufacturing, increasingly is insufficient to operate, and in many cases, participate in a successful business. There are many more hats on the rack in today’s shop.

Obviously, none of us know everything about business. We need to rely on experts to support the infrastructure of a manufacturing enterprise. Accounting, IT, human resources, billing, insurance, regulatory compliance are some of the ancillary functions that are part of the business environment that can be classified as indirect costs; necessary, but not directly involved in the shop’s primary function of selling, making and delivering good parts to the customer.

In my mind, I compare these indirect and direct functions with a tail and a dog. Of course, I’m referring to the adage of “the tail wagging the dog.”

My question is, how many of your company’s activities are led by the dog and how many are dictated by the dog’s tail. I ask this because, while many of the indirect people know their jobs, many do not understand the business, yet may exert a disproportional influence within their area of expertise.

I’m not advocating a hierarchy of importance here. On the contrary, I see these different functions as opportunities to strengthen the overall organization by educating employees about how each function fits into the overall picture.

One might call it leveling, cross-training or simply communicating. I am reminded of a time when design for manufacturability wasn’t a widespread concept.

Design engineers worked in their world, and once their job was done, they would figuratively and literally toss the job over a wall for the manufacturing people to make it. In those days it was bad form for the shop floor to suggest changes that might make a better part for less money.

Enlightened companies eventually figured out what President Reagan said in Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Today, like united Germany, most companies have torn down the wall between design and manufacturing, and the resulting open communication channels have proven to be a huge benefit.

And in many cases, this back and forth extends to the customer, as well. Shops that once wouldn’t consider going back to a customer with manufacturability suggestions routinely prove their mettle and value by saving the customer money while delivering better parts. For many vendor/customer relationships, it’s become a win-win scenario where the key is communication and earned trust.

 Recently, I received a new computer with upgraded software. My IT guys swooped in and set it up. I didn’t ask for the computer, but it’s a company-wide upgrade, so my turn in line came up.

A change in such a tool, critical for my job function, is not something I take lightly. My generation uses these tools, but unlike my young IT folks, we tend to see them as a means to an end, not the end itself.

I remember the last time I had new software “given” to me—it was tortuous. The main reason was that I failed to tell my IT folks what I needed. At the time, I had no idea what I needed. IT simply installed it, and default became my new normal.

This time, I asked them to upload a bunch of things that I had labored to learn and learned to use for more efficiency (such as shortcuts to important files and address directories). Last time, it took me months to recreate my contacts list.

It turned out that they were more than happy to accommodate my requests. I was assured that the settings I needed and wanted would be there. Sure, many of the buttons were in different places (Microsoft loves to do that), but my important things were right where I left them. It’s been a very smooth transition.

My point is that by communicating with my IT group, they were able to help me transition to a new computer and software suite. However, since they can’t read my mind I had to let them know what was on it.

Sometimes the dog needs to chase its tail.