Simple Organization

Some might say I'm obsessed with it, but even something as basic as labeling tools can boost your shop’s efficiency and ultimately add to its bottom line.

I have a personal toolbox. It’s a Kennedy-brand metal box with a lower mobile cabinet finished in brown paint with a crinkled texture. As I began thinking about writing this article, I opened the top drawer and looked at the red plastic organizing trays I had purchased years ago. Some of the compartments are still labeled with embossed Dyno plastic tape, circa 1980. I realized that is how the organizing initiative at our shop began. Around that time, I had a nice little business with five employees. I worked in the shop and turned out parts like everyone else. It was in those early days that I saw the profound impact organization can have on a job, an individual and eventually a company.

Those embossed plastic labels stemmed from a day when I needed to use the shop’s 6-inch crescent wrench but couldn’t find it. After a few minutes of searching on my own, I asked one of the other employees if he had seen it. Within a few minutes, all of us were looking for that 6-inch wrench. After 10 more minutes, we finally found it. It had been left outside its usual place. Lying in bed that night, I reviewed this experience. Although I wanted to account for every minute of labor spent on the job for which that wrench was needed, I could not in good conscience charge the customer for the time it took all of us to find that tool. And if I did so, we would be at a distinct pricing disadvantage against other shops who always knew where their wrenches were. 

In the years since that day, I’ve purchased a dozen upright cabinets with dividers and plastic bins. Not only have I made sure that everything is labeled, I also have created an index of all tools in the shop and their locations. Everything has a place, and every tool is expected to be returned to that place after it is used. That was my expectation then, and it has remained so ever since.

After my revelation those years ago, I began labeling virtually everything. At home, I labeled the refrigerator bins and my closet (shirts were arranged according to whether they were short-sleeved, long-sleeved, a T, or for work or dress). My relatives teased me about this. One day, my cousins snuck upstairs and rearranged all my clothes. Another time, my oldest daughter labeled the handles of the toilets in the house with the word “flush.” Funny, I guess, but I was not deterred. I upgraded my label maker to a Brother model and acquired a selection of different tapes in different sizes. Friends of mine used to laugh at my passion for organization. Others mocked me for it. At work, however, the idea began to catch on, and those around me eventually warmed to the idea. I bought another label maker. I labeled drawers, bins, shelves, calculators and staplers—all sorts of things. And soon I wasn’t the only one. I purchased more label makers. At last count, our shop has 10 that are used among 25 people, and I have three more at home. I’ve given label makers as gifts to my daughters and to friends. Sure, I hear the talk: ”He’s obsessed!” I’m OK with that.

Our shop’s organizing efforts didn’t stop at labeling; it continued with standardization. I bought calculators for everyone and/or every area. I labeled them, of course, so that misplaced calculators could be returned to the rightful owner or location. I also suggested that a value of 1 mm be assigned to each calculator’s M3 function so that no matter which calculator an employee picked up, that standard could be quickly accessed. It may not sound like much of a standardization, but this small action helped simplify our work life.

We took a similar approach with hex key (allen) wrenches. One operator in particular previously would keep and sort through a pile of these tools to find the right size every time he needed one. For better access and efficiency, I purchased multiple sets of allen wrenches and placed them wherever they might be needed. All the inch-size wrenches are black and the metric ones gold colored, which has helped cut down a great deal of the confusion. We also added magnetic bars at the points of use from which to hang the hex wrenches to further organize. These actions may seem rather trivial when looked at individually, but this type of thinking can pay dividends going forward. 

Did we invent 5S workplace organization? Of course not. But when I first heard the term 5S, the idea wasn’t novel to me. Our shop recognized the value of organization long ago; we simply applied a philosophy that we thought made sense. As we became a more organized company, I felt better about charging customers for every work hour of every day, because I knew that more and more of our time was being spent adding value to their products. Customers aren’t paying us to look for inserts or track down raw materials. Time wasted by disorganization comes off our bottom line. Efficiency is the name of the game in our business, and being efficient starts with being organized. Organized thoughts, processes, shop layout, equipment, tools and people make up the strong foundation on which our company stands.

It’s been a long journey since that first Dyno labeling unit. I wonder what label my kids will put on my headstone someday.

Anthony Staub is president of Staub Machine Company, which he started in his garage with a single lathe. Some 40 years later, the Western New York shop has grown to two facilities that provide precision machining for a range of manufacturers. More at staubinc.com.