Opening Up as Standard Practice

How difficult would it be to offer periodic facility tours to the local public? Perhaps not difficult at all. By comparison, the rewards that might come of this could be considerable.

Manufacturing Day is—or was—October 2. By the time you read these words, it might have passed. What if it has?

The premise of Manufacturing Day is terrific. In general, manufacturers ought to open their doors to the people in their communities who are curious, showing them what goes on inside of manufacturing facilities and what the people of manufacturing do. The annual 4-year-old event (see mfgday.com) is a day to do just that.

But the limitation of Manufacturing Day is found in its very name. That is: It’s just a day—a single date. If you are an outsider curious about manufacturing, have you missed your chance to see it after the day is over? If you are a manufacturer inclined to host visitors, have you missed your chance to open up?

Of course not! In fact, how consistent is it with the aim of being visible and accessible if the facility is open like this for only one day per year? Perhaps something like Manufacturing Day (at least a smaller and simpler version of it) ought to be part of a manufacturer’s ongoing routine.

Shops reluctant to open their doors to the public generally cite three concerns: safety, confidentiality and a third concern that gets to the heart of the matter. Considering the first two:

Safety. Machine shops are far safer now than they once were. The CNC machining facility today is probably safer than the garage or basement shop in which the typical homeowner awkwardly performs home-related carpentry or repairs. Certainly not every square foot of the shop floor is this safe, but issuing eye protection and staying within the yellow lines ought to be sufficient to ensure the safety of any visitor.

Confidentiality. There is very little actionable intelligence to be obtained from just a stroll through an active shop. Most machined parts are unrecognizable in their ultimate function, and most key design or process features are obscure. Of course, logic is not the entire point of confidentiality—the point also is to be so hyper-vigilant that customers are not worried. But even so, a leader of the facility who is familiar with different customers’ sensitivities should be able to assure that the shop’s level of vigilance about secrecy is maintained even in the presence of guests. He or she could do this by strolling the shop ahead of any tour with an eye toward what ought to be moved or covered before the guests arrive.

The third concern, the one that really stops manufacturers from hosting guests, is the belief that they don’t represent manufacturing well. A seemingly disorderly area of the shop or an event like a loud tool break while guests are present would create a poor impression, defeating the purpose of the visit—or so the thinking goes. I believe that fear sells the public short. The visitors themselves will be familiar enough with workplaces to know that not everything about them is seamless or error-free. In fact, how the tour guide explains or reacts to the unexpected might reveal far more about the wit and humanity of the team in that facility than a perfect tour ever would. By contrast, without this access, the public is left with zero impression of the facility except for the mystery of a windowless building.

Here is what I am proposing: Set aside time for regular public tours. Not a lot of time—don’t let it be intrusive. But make it a part of your engagement and outreach efforts that you will conduct a 30-minute tour of your facility every month. Maybe the policy is something like this: Facility tours are available at 3:00 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month—call ahead for a reservation. Express that policy and offer that invitation on your website, on the signage in front of your facility and in ads or flyers in community papers. And task just the right person on the management team with becoming practiced and time-efficient at conducting this tour.

What will happen if your facility makes this commitment, and opens up regularly in this way? Answer: Nothing spectacular. At least, not right away. On some months, you won’t even get any takers. But over time, how many new connections in the community will you make because you practiced this openness? How many valued employees will have come to you because you first met them this way? And how will it affect your company’s perception in the community if everyone who drives by or notices your ad recognizes that your facility is so proud of what it does that it wants people to see?

The idea underlying Manufacturing Day should not be contained within an isolated date like a holiday. For the sake of the potential rewards, opening up the shop should instead be part of a manufacturer’s standard practice.