Making Good Decisions for Your Machine Shop

Originally titled 'Decisions, Decisions'

Reflecting on past decisions will help you learn to make better ones in the future.

How do you make decisions? What guides you? Do you have a set of principles or a trusted team that you lean on? Ethics, cost, past experience, future expectations and many more factors can be a part of every decision. Time is important too. Do we need to get a job done as quickly as possible, or do we need to prioritize the long-term impact over short-term gain? We all have a decision-making process, whether we recognize it or not. My decision-making process has changed over the years, and I’ve embraced a strategy that I’d like to share with you. Reflecting on my past decisions has helped me learn how to make better ones in the future.

In my case, I use a variety of criteria to make decisions. The final measure is deciding how I will feel about this decision once I get to my rocking chair. I’m a big proponent of the “Rocking Chair Theory.” There are different versions of this theory, and I like all of them. As I’m sitting in my chair rocking away, I like to reflect on my career and the decisions I’ve made. Not every decision ages the way we think it will—some decisions are decidedly poor, others improve over time and still others simply depend on how you look at them. Experience has shown me that a good decision is one that I can look back on with warm thoughts many years later.

For example, I bought an expensive piece of equipment a few years ago, spending $1 million dollars on a five-axis machining center. It came with a robot-loading pallet system and was new technology for us. I spent a lot of company money (really my money), and then I spent many evenings reflecting on that purchase, especially as it sat idle without a single job for months. It was two years before we landed our first substantial contract. It gave me plenty of opportunity to second-guess myself, and this one was bothering me. During those two years I asked myself, “What were you thinking?” Fast forward to today, three plus years later, and that machine is at capacity. Now when I sit in my rocking chair, I’m convinced I made a good decision (although I tell myself I never wavered). It just took some diligence to see it through.

Personnel decisions can be the most difficult of all. There is no such thing as a short-term personnel decision. I care about my employees. When I project forward to when I’m sitting in my rocking chair in retirement, I ask myself, “How did I do?” Let’s take a real example: Dave came to work for me in the ‘80s after his former employer folded. He was young and married with no kids. Now, after two kids and three decades, Dave is talking retirement. He has social security to look forward to, but he also has the benefit of a profit-sharing plan that we started in 1990. Over the years, we were able to put away a lot of money. This money was shared by every employee in the plan. It encouraged employees to remain at Staub during the vesting period and after. The contributions were based on total yearly salary and every employee received the same percentage. The contribution percentage was arbitrary. I decided the amount of contribution based on how I felt that year. It was never tied to profits even though it was called a profit-sharing plan. I’m proud to say that I contributed an average of 15% per year over a 25-year span.

Only now can I sit back in my rocking chair and reflect on these decisions. I made the five-axis decision to continue to lead in our industry, with an eye toward the future of our company. We’re now specing out another five-axis mill that will help our company continue to grow and support our employees and their families. I spent millions of dollars in profit sharing because I felt it was the right thing to do. My bank account could have been much fatter. I could have owned a giant RV and a 50-foot yacht. Wouldn’t it be great to rub elbows with the millionaires? The fact is that I neither need nor desire those things. I’m content to rock away knowing that I took care of those employees—my friends. Dave’s profit-sharing plan is still intact, and he can look forward to his retirement years with the benefit of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The rocking chair is where I like to go to reflect. I judge myself. The question I ask is, “Am I proud of the decision I made years earlier?” I’ve learned a new skill. When I make decisions now, I look ahead. I ask myself “How will I feel five years from now with the decision I’m making today?” Is it good for the company and the employees? Does it reflect my values?