Theodore Rizer is happy. When asked why, he struggles to find the words.
He knows the reason, but he has a hard time articulating it. In his previous job, he liked the work: machining. But still he came home feeling run down. At his current job at Westminster Tool, a mold maker and contract manufacturer in Plainfield, Connecticut, things are different. After a typical day spent working at this shop—work that currently consists of programming, setting up and overseeing two machining centers—he comes home feeling energized.
Mr. Rizer’s struggle to characterize this change in his emotional environment is understandable. For the most part, all of us are trained that emotions largely do not matter at work, that professionals ought to be unaffected by how they feel, and that the emotional environment of a job is an unimportant phenomenon that, if it is bad, can be muscled through.
About five years ago, Westminster Tool adopted a different view. Ray Coombs, who founded the shop in his basement in 1997, had come to understand that the emotional environment is very real. In an era when skills are hard to find and new employees must come up to speed quickly, the emotional environment would be the number-one factor that would enable or inhibit the shop’s long-term success. This realization led to a still-ongoing transition at Westminster that could provide a model for shops seeking to address their own skilled labor shortages. At the same time, the shop's story can be seen as a cautionary tale, one that demonstrates the extent of the commitment required to build a new culture, to find and retain the right kind of workforce, and to truly embrace the idea that people are a company's greatest asset.
The shop's system for imparting the necessary metalworking and moldmaking skills is called Westminster Academy. More on this below. Without a strong commitment to emotional intelligence and the resulting cultural shift, creating this system likely would have been impossible, Mr. Coombs says. Five years into this journey, benefits include:
- No skilled labor shortage. Westminster is now fully staffed with 35 employees, with scheduling, CNC programming and quality now all capably performed by people with fewer than five years of manufacturing experience.
- No potential skilled labor shortage. A pool of 13 potential employees—prospects expressing a willingness to join the company if a position opens—already have been vetted according to the personal attributes and character traits the shop has identified as key to success.
- Increased throughput per person. It took time to get to this—the gain has come only in the past two years. But within that time, throughput per person has increased to a level 60 percent greater than what it was when the shop was staffed by established toolmaking veterans.
No one at Westminster would argue that the transition is complete. What's more, many of the gains were slow to materialize. Make no mistake, Mr. Coombs says: Culture is costly, and changing a culture is difficult. It is one of the most difficult things a business owner can undertake.
At first, diverting employees to emotional intelligence training reduced throughput per person, he recalls. Staffing also dropped; a 40-percent loss of experienced staff resulted in part from established employees deciding they could not go along with the changes. In addition, the shop went all those five years without capital equipment investment. Money was spent instead on human-resources personnel to help guide and support the changes, as well as an independent consultant expert in emotional intelligence to assist with changing not only the business, but also its owner and leader, Mr. Coombs.
When the time came to find a new way forward for this shop, he was either genius enough or self-aware enough to recognize that the change would begin with him. “I had to change the way that I think, the way I look at myself, the way I look at my business as a whole,” he says. “I had to change the strategy and get my organization to buy into that strategy.”
Prone to speaking bluntly, Mr. Coombs also offers a more succint explanation of the change he needed to make. “I had to stop being such an a--hole,” he says. Because, ultimately, he knew he would be calling on his team members to commit to similar change. Testimony from the shop floor illustrates the depth of this commitment:
On the first day Modern Machine Shop visited Westminster Tool, employees were talking about the “amygdala hijack.” This term describes the moment when the defensive, primitive, emotional part of our mind takes over from the thinking, rational part of the mind in response to unwelcome news or a statement that sounds to us like an accusation. The term was in vogue at Westminster because employees had just received training in conflict management, so they were learning to integrate this idea into their understanding of their own responses and their interactions with others. Mastering this idea is valuable in many walks of life, moldmaking not the least of them.
The reason for teaching emotional intelligence in a mold shop wasn't immediately clear. Mr. Coombs first began to explore the idea five years ago, amid difficulties finding a new toolmaker. “We spent about $30,000 on recruitment over a three-month period, looking for an experienced person anywhere east of the Mississippi,” he says. “Three were retired and only looking for part-time work. The other did not want to move to Connecticut.” At that point, he was merely trying to grow his business. What would happen when he needed to sustain it? The average age of employees then was no less than 50. Fifteen years in the future, he realized, he would have practically no workforce left unless he could find a different way to staff it.
The different way would be to hire inexperienced employees. However, he would not be able to afford for them to remain inexperienced for long. He would need his shop to be a place of rapid learning, and continuous learning. He would need his shop’s culture to foster this. And that was a problem.
It was a problem because the culture at Westminster Tool was very nearly the opposite of a culture of learning. It was a culture of experts, of skilled craftsmen who had already learned. People were acclaimed and rewarded for their expertise. They won special accommodations because their expertise was so important. Mr. Coombs never consciously chose for this to be the culture, but it is the state of the culture that naturally developed—a culture of exceptions, a culture of status, a culture of being ashamed of failure or mistakes because of what the public exposure of failure or mistakes might say about one’s expertise. Having accepted that he would not find skilled help, Mr. Coombs recognized he would have to push hard in a different direction. Westminster needed a culture of helping, cooperation and clear communication. Most importantly, it needed a culture of admitting and even celebrating mistakes so the lessons of those mistakes could be openly and thoroughly learned.
The typical manufacturing environment (and the typical business environment) is dismissive or oblivious to emotional responses to cultural phenomena. The expectation is that we should not be affected by what occurs around us. But the reality is that emotional responses are part of the experience we all have and part of the burden we all carry, and efficient working relationships between people begin with confronting this reality head on. At Westminster Tool, skills such as how to read a micrometer and how to set a cutting tool offset are critical—and the shop has a system for teaching these skills—but how to understand your own responses and how to engage with your coworkers are the skills that come first.
Westminster now hires for character attributes over metalworking skills. In particular, it looks for people who are curious, dynamic, motivated and high in integrity. And once it hires someone, the company doesn’t even start with shopfloor skills as the foundation of its training. It starts with training in emotional intelligence (EI).
Emotional intelligence (EI) at its essence is self-awareness. Training in emotional intelligence consists of imparting terminology and a toolkit for recognizing our own emotional responses and not being mastered by them, while also recognizing the many ways people differ in perspective, aptitude and communication, so as to navigate those differences. To build on their training,employees periodically gather into classroom presentations by a visiting instructor on further concepts in EI. (The recent learning about the amygdala and its perils was an instance of this.)
One useful tool is the “DISC” assessment for classifying personality traits. Everyone in the shop knows his or her own personality type on the DISC matrix,and employees freely discuss this with one another. The letters stand for dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness, and “C”s are overrepresented because the work of a machine shop tends to attract this type. The intent is not to label anyone, Mr. Coombs says. The intent is to make plain the fact that different people value different things in their habits, their work, their processing of information and their means of expressing themselves. If everyone in the shop understands what a “D” values relative to what an “S” values, then D’s and S’s can be more readily understood and, even better, obtain what they need.
Employees are also trained in different learning styles.Some people are visual learners, some auditory, and some are tactile, needing the hands-on experience of performing the task in order to learn the most quickly. At Westminster, employees train other employees, so everyone needs to understand that a method that works well for one smart and talented individual might not work for another who is, in her own way, every bit as smart and talented.
All of this aims directly at the company’s core business, moldmaking. To share knowledge fluidly and impart skills quickly, status barriers and other emotional impediments to communication need to be cleared away and unseen communication obstacles related to differences in outlook or style need to be brought to light. With all this accomplished—with the foundation laid for communication to be open, effective and clear—it then becomes a matter of using the open and effective channel to teach needed skills.
How many skills? At last count, about 1,970.
Emotional intelligence is only the foundation. The training and practice in emotional intelligence is actually just one system that lays the groundwork for another system. “Westminster Academy” is the shop’s mechanism for defining and imparting skills necessary for the work of a machinist, CNC programmer, quality technician, toolmaker or whatever manufacturing role is needed. The “academy” has no formal coursework because people differ so widely in learning styles. Instead, it provides a scoring mechanism for characterizing each employee’s progress with specifically defined skills.
The skills are granular. How to take a faulty EDM part to welding for repair is one example of a skill, or “lesson,” within this system. Mr. Coombs began Westminster Academy by trying to list everything he knows how to do as a toolmaker. The result was an incomplete list, but it was a start. From there, he has insisted upon a simple rule: If any employee has to seek instruction in a task not listed in the academy, then that task must be added as a new skill. There are now 572 “courses” in Westminster Academy consisting of 1,970 individual lessons.
The scoring levels within each lesson are 0-, 33-, 66- and 99-percent proficiency, with definitions for what each proficiency level requires. Every employee has a digital profile on the shop’s intranet that lists scores in all 1,970 lessons. Employees update these scores frequently, often daily, as they gain new proficiency in needed skills. There is no required order for proceeding through the lessons, and for the most part, employees learn what they need when they need it as they grow within their roles or are shifted into different roles.
Again, there is no required or dictated method for how employees will learn these lessons. There is only the assurance that the people who already know the information will be available to impart this knowledge. A culture of continuous learning requires two things: people who are ready to learn and people who are ready to teach. Per-capita throughput dropped when the culture changed partly because the new system expected experienced people to routinely pause their work to teach inexperienced newcomers. This was clumsy at first. It was costly. To hear Mr. Coombs describe it, it was clumsy and costly for a long time—long enough for him to doubt the wisdom of what he had set out to do. But the shop increasingly hired people suited to this type of environment, and it increasingly got better at integrating on-the-job training into its habits and expectations. The culture of training took hold, and the productivity came back.
Today, to a visitor familiar with machine shops, this habit of training is strikingly apparent. It is routine to see instances of two of more employees together, one of them matter-of-factly imparting a lesson to the other, who pays attention with interest. No judgment is involved in these encounters—no sense of being imposed upon and no sense of shame over what the student “should have known.” The need for learning on everyone’s part is assumed.
Two employees who frequently work together in this way are Danielle O’Connor and Victoria Rooke, both currently assigned to the shop’s EDM area. They are a surprising duo because Ms. O’Connor, in her 20s, could be assumed to be inexperienced and out of her depth with a sinker EDM. In fact, she is a confident veteran with this equipment, and the author of approximately 50 training documents she has used to instruct coworkers in various lessons related to this machining. (Her favorite of these documents is the most basic: clear, comprehensive documentation for a course in “What is EDM?”) Meanwhile, Ms. Rooke, not yet 20, is an attentive and receptive student, absorbing what Ms. O’Connor can impart and quickly ascending in confidence at the EDM machine. Visitors touring Westminster are often introduced to these two because they offer such an encouraging picture of the way the culture is supposed to work.
Mr. Coombs admits the shop is still finding its way and sometimes stumbles backwards. The Westminster Academy model can be a challenge even to him, its inventor. A memorable instance of this involved Ms. Byrne, he says. One day, trying to schedule a job, she came to him asking for clarification on how to judge when a feature needs hard milling over EDM.
He answered, “You need years of experience to understand something like that. Years of experience.”
“OK,” she said. “But within that experience, can you just tell me some the kinds of things you’re looking at, the kinds of things you’re thinking about?”
Impatiently and likely under the influence of the amygdala, he rattled off several factors of the part geometry that would play into this decision. He meant to make clear to her how complex the decision was. But she was listening to every detail.
Recounting the story, he says, “And I’ll be damned if she didn’t take that job, take what I said, and mostly go make the right decisions about how to machine it.”
It was both a blow and a lift to his pride at the same time. It reminded him all over again of the way forward for his shop and the reason why that way forward has to begin with him. It reminded him of the reason, in short, why he had to remain steadfast in not being an a--hole.
The reason is this: Manufacturing is not subjective. Specific technologies produce an item exactly matching the intentions defined by the designer. As a result, the skills are not subjective, either. There are correct decisions to be made in manufacturing and effective ways to proceed. All of this can be defined, and because it can be defined, all of this can be taught. It is absolutely true that years of experience are valuable in the work of manufacturing, because there is so much to learn that it could easily fill years. But at the same time, the “years of experience” defense can be cover—a tidy explanation for the thing that we often struggle to find words to explain, which is why it can be so hard sometimes for us to relate to one another or benefit from what another has learned. Westminster Tool is addressing what its founder has come to see as the core problem: not the skills gap per se, but the gaps that threaten to isolate us from one another.
The entirety of the video taken at Westminster offers a taste of the company’s culture through the words and perspectives of some of its team members: