Good information equals production excellence

How can you assure that employees have all the information they need to do excellent work? September 26, 2000

I started a custom shop about five years ago that has seen steady growth every year. One of the biggest problems I have been plagued with is getting the information in my head to the guys in the shop.

I wish I could say I have extremely talented shop people who can build a complex project off the back of a napkin, but that's not the case. I go out to look at the job, develop the design with the client, and typically know in my mind exactly what it will look like and how it will be constructed before I leave their home.

I feel torn between spending half my day sitting in the office developing cut lists and drawings and knowing it would be just as easy to go and do it myself. I guess I'm looking for input on the ways that many of you take this type of info and get it to the shop floor. I just don't feel like I have enough time to do it all.

We use AutoCabinet for our kitchen designs and that creates cut and assembly lists that work fairly well, but when it comes to other custom work I'm looking for another method for quicker, more efficient ways to get the information to the guys. Is there a user-friendly CAD program that generates working drawings for custom pieces?

Here's another approach to your dilemma. Would you be willing to consider that the best answer to your situation may be found in your statement, "The guys are not able to build from a napkin drawing"?

If you were able to develop one (and then two, three...) of your guys to be able to do this, your problem may be solved. Now, that is a difficult thing to do, but I believe it can be done if you've hired good people. No, I don't mean the most skilled and talented woodworkers, just good attentive and caring people with ability in woodworking.

Here's a suggestion to get you started: Talk to your best guy about going on a future client visit such as the one you described. Explain to him the purpose of the visit, and what you need to accomplish during the visit. Here's the hard part: letting go of some control. When on the visit, seek and value the input of your guy (unless he's off the wall, totally).

When you get back to the shop, do the drawing together. This drawing might not need to be as detailed as if you hadn't taken the guy with you; you and he have already discussed the project at length. Over time, continue to allow him to do more, and you do less of the design/draw process. After a while, he may not need to draw the whole thing either. A visit to the customer and a napkin sketch may be all that is needed.

When that happens, you'll know that you've imparted your "standards of design" to your people, while giving them more of a stake in your business and their work. This approach, (over time) will allow you to assist your people, instead of spoon-feeding them. It will also free up time for you to work on the business end of things.

This is a tough step to take, as we all tend to think that we are the only ones that can do what we do. As a disclaimer, I cannot claim to have done this in this industry, as I am but an apprentice cabinetmaker myself (four years in a custom shop working for someone else), but I did use these principles successfully in another (much more complex) industry where I was the boss. Consider it please.

As to the software part of the question, I can't help you. I'm currently taking an AutoCad course myself to get more familiar with doing what you're talking about. The shop I work in currently uses an approach somewhere between "napkin" and "graph paper."

In my opinion, and with 23 years of experience in the custom business, the best way to communicate your ideas -- not only to your employees, but to anyone who is a part of a given project -- is with a good CAD package. This includes customers and subs who are supplying and/or installing items to be incorporated into your design.

The CAD program should not only provide graphic communication, but should also provide reports with info that is accurate to what the graphics are saying, i.e. cutlists, etc.

Take the time to teach your employees how to understand the graphics and the reports. Be consistent with the format of the information. The format should also tie into a production process that is well thought out and consistent. (Yes, even in a custom environment.)

Because you are "wearing many hats," you should minimize the tasks that you have to do in detail. By this I mean delegate, whenever possible, to provide yourself with additional time to focus on managing your business. (The delegating can also include the design/engineering with a CAD package."

I don't believe the previous person's advice is the best way to go. You would be, in effect, taking a resource dedicated to production out of production.

Our shop floor is for the most part very automated, which helps. But I have found that the key is to start thinking and manufacturing in terms of components or items, not projects.

In other words, I send out drawings, cut patterns, diskettes with CNC data, and product lists that describe each and every individual component of a project. My guys never see a full set of drawings of a project until they install it. This way there is no confusion about how something must be done. You do it according to the specific drawing or assembly sheet or CNC program or whatever, and you do X amount of them, in this color.

When I bid a project I bid it in terms of items or components, never by the foot and so on. Every project is essentially the same thing, just a different mixture of components.

From the original questioner:
That sounds like a good way to go but how do you then get all your parts assembled? Some of your people must have the overall picture of the project.
I still send out assembly sheets for items such as cabinets or other assemblies; I was referring more to not sending out a complete set of elevations and floor plans and saying, "Here's what it looks like, now build it."

I'm in a different scenario, but have the same problem.

I do very high-end, custom residential pieces, one-of-a-kind, one-at-a-time-type stuff. I'm not nearly as big as you guys sound, but that's the nature of my particular beast, fewer pieces per year, smaller staff, but the work is more labor intensive per piece.

What has just begun to work for me is bringing each person up to speed on one element of how I would think on a job. For example, one benchman knows the joinery and glue-up techniques I would use in a given situation. My assistant/apprentice is the "eagle-eye" in my absence; she knows what I'm looking for in surface preparation (we don't use much sandpaper, it's mostly planes and scrapers). Another guy is pretty clear on my grain-matching ideas. And so on.

I'm in the middle of trying to double my staff during a nice period of growth, so this is getting more difficult, but I'd like to continue down the same path (if I find it works) as I grow. I do shop drawings (or have them done), and go over them at the start of each job, with whoever is most responsible for the bulk of the job -- then I trust them to figure out how I would do it.

I usually have to come in at some point and do some of the more difficult things, or add a signature-type touch, which I would like to keep doing, while improving the efficiency of the rest of the job.
Maybe when a job goes out without me having to answer questions and approve things along the way (someday), I'll let you know if this truly works.

We have struggled with the same problem.

We build custom store fixtures, some in multiples, some not. It always seems like a waste of time to fully detail and draw a one-off. But when we don't, too much variation occurs. We draw in AutoCAD, apply tool paths with a CAM program, optimize in the office and download to the saw. Collating is still a hassle, but when the benchmen get the parts and drawings it's fairly cut and dried.

We try to stay consistent in methods, quality, materials, etc. I'd like to not have all the up-front time, but as volume grows so does specialization, and that in turn requires more complete communications.

We've just started using a program that will (I hope) improve communications both to and from the office. Drawings, schedules, processes, etc., will all be available at terminals all over the shop.

This is in addition to the main method of work communications, in the form of job travelers and bar codes. Job status is tracked by the same system (bar codes, start/stop entries at the terminals.) This also provides payroll, job costing, and inventory control. We've spent a lot to get started. I sure hope it all comes together like it's supposed to; I'll know in about six months.

My concern would be with the fact that the info is "in your head"; not just for the guys in the shop, but also for your clients. You may be able to work this way for a while, but eventually you will have a client who says, "I didn't think it would look like this," or a project in the shop that has to be tossed out and reworked because the details weren't clear.

In that one moment you can lose much more than you saved by not making all the details clear, through working from good drawings. You don't have to take this on yourself, there people who do free-lance drafting. I got out of manufacturing cabinets after 25 years and into the detailing business because I have seen so many people shoot themselves in the foot from not having good plans going in.

Working out of your head may have worked when you were alone, though I often found that, even then, I made many fewer mistakes if I took the time to do some sketches and cutlists.

As the jobs get larger and when other people get involved, good drawings and complete cutlists become more and more important. That just comes with the territory when you expand.

We do cabinets for high-end houses as well as architectural millwork and furniture, and whatever else comes along. We have a crew of twelve.

For most of the routine cabinet work, I try to keep everything to standard configurations which everyone becomes familiar with. For these cases, a good set of elevation drawings is usually adequate, with detailed drawings and sections of non-standard items. I draw in AutoCAD, then manually input standard items into Pattern Systems' Product Planner, which I've found to be quite flexible, though its output is unfortunately oriented toward a more automated operation than ours.

I've looked at various software over the years and haven't found any that can do the drawings and produce the cutlists from that input and give me the flexibility we need for our custom product. Virtually every job also ends up with items that have to be cutlisted manually. Every part ends up cutlisted. Any time there's something missing or cutlisted incorrectly it's very costly to back up and fix it! Still worse if it makes it's way out to the job site!

Occasionally, when we have unique (and usually expensive) pieces - most often furniture - we'll give these to a couple of employees who are highly skilled and can be trusted to turn them out from a drawing. But this is the exception, and these people are exceptional!

For most of our production, I'd say that the time spent detailing and cutlisting is time well spent!