Shops And Presidents

Sometimes the most constructive way to deal with difficult times is by making a change. For a manufacturing business, that may mean a change in the process or a change in the sorts of customers the company pursues.

Columns From: 2/5/2002 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Peter Zelinski

Sometimes the most constructive way to deal with difficult times is by making a change. For a manufacturing business, that may mean a change in the process or a change in the sorts of customers the company pursues. Difficult times make changes like these easier to implement. In a machine shop, for example, a slowdown in orders frees capacity and frees up some of the attention of employees. These become resources that can be devoted to the change.

This month, an otherwise forgettable holiday—Presidents' Day—has something to say about adapting during adverse times. The two men it honors led successfully during times of adversity. In fact, all of the men most often considered our great presidents share this much in common: They responded to circumstances much different from those they had prepared themselves to meet. Consider:

Lincoln, a lawyer, was called upon to oversee a great war. FDR had domestic aims, but he led the country against foreign threats.

Jefferson was the closest we have come to a libertarian president. Yet for reasons related to national security, he undertook the Louisiana Purchase—a massive big-government program.

Washington went even farther from what he imagined himself to be. A farmer by inclination, he left his fields first to serve the revolution and then to serve as president when he was asked to invent this new role.

Shops too can transform. Successful companies I've encountered seem to have similar stories to tell about changes made during past down periods that set the stage for greater success later on. In one case, a contract shop began making and marketing its own product when the contract work declined. In another, a former large-batch manufacturer reconfigured its process for lean production.

Even the design of the modern machine tool owes itself to a difficult period. Ballscrews replaced hydraulic actuation in part because of high oil prices.

All of this is not to say that change is necessarily the best course. Perseverance may be a better course; the conditions of a particular business are too complex for any pat answer.

However, the increased freedom to make important changes is an upside to down periods that should not be overlooked. When the true genius of a person or an organization lies along a different track from the one followed so far, that fact sometimes becomes clear as a result of difficult times.

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