November 2010 Archives

The Resume

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"But Mike, why did Dan get the promotion? Didn't I guide the Synchron project successfully? Haven't we sold dozens of those flexible manufacturing cells at a nice profit? Why does Dan get to run a business unit and I'm still working on strategic alliances with OM (Japanese builder) and Mandelli (Italian builder)?

(Now comes the worst piece of career advice of the 20th century and unfortunately I swallow it hook , line and sinker).

"Mark, you know your technical background is electronics and software. Here at Milacron you're viewed as a software geek. A nerd. You know, an ESD'er." (ESD was the Electronic Systems Division of Milacron led by Herb Fuldner).

"So what should I do? I'd like to advance my career at Milacron."

"Mark, you need to show everyone you can work with the iron, you know man up and build a machine, not create a bunch of computer code."

So with that I turned my back on software and digital systems, traded them in for those reddish/pink shop towels and metal chips in my shoes and asked to head up the next major machine tool project at Milacron.  I was Iron Man!

In early 1992 management asked me to scope a project that would replace our line of large horizontal machining centers (called the T-30, 40 & 50). The T-Line was fifteen years old and showing its age. We had lost some orders in the U.S. and could not export the product for a number of reasons including its non-metric design and its constant leaking of fluids. Manufacturers in the 1990's realized that the cleanliness of their shops had to rise along with the precision of their part making if they were to remain competitive. A machine with a hodge-podge of guarding and shielding that put more fluids on the floor than Niagara Falls was not a winner.

We organized a small, three person team to analyze the market, talk with customers and put a business plan together for this new, clean sheet machining center. When we were ready, we faced the leadership team of Milacron to get project approval. At the time we had a new product development process called Wolfpack that had come out of our plastics machinery group.  Its key elements were fast time to market and each new product had to cost 40% less than the one it was replacing.

When my time came to present I ran through a number of slides but when I came to a spreadsheet that described how we would achieve the targeted cost reduction the president of Milacron, Ray Ross stood up.

"Mark, I'm sick to death of people putting goddamned numbers up on that board and then always missing them. Your goddamned resume is stapled to those numbers. Do you understand that?"

And so that is how the Wolfpack project called Marauder was launched.

As the full team was formed I immediately ran into the dilemma that engineers were getting pulled off my project when problems would crop up in other parts of the business. Not only had we signed up to achieve a significant cost reduction we were also on an eighteen month window to launch the new machine at IMTS 1994. Milacron was located on a sprawling campus and with the help of some old hands we found a room in a building that was a long way from the main headquarters. By begging and some arm twisting I was able to get the entire team of twenty into this one room far away from their direct bosses.  It quickly built a team attitude and accelerated our progress.

As the project ramped up there were three important aspects to the new machine that would determine its success or failure. The first was a "catch up" feature. As I mentioned the current model leaked fluids everywhere and as manufacturers cleaned up their operations, machines that made a mess were going into the dust bin. The discussion about this "no leak" requirement went something like this:

"OK guys, this new machine will not leak one drop of coolant or lubricant."

"But Mark, we can't do that. Everyone knows machine tools leak."

"Well then I'll just contact some colleagues in Japan I know and get them to design this machine. If you can't do it then I know a group of engineers who can."

"Well, can we look at it again before you make that call?"

"OK"

It was amazing what they came up with once they acknowledged that no leaks was a hard requirement. Instead of a maze of guards and covers they essentially created a "bathtub" style base where all the fluids would collect and then concepted a one piece "top hat" that would bolt tightly to the bathtub base creating a completely sealed working environment.

The second critical issue, as we learned from our Synchron project, was the need for a strongly differentiating feature that would attract new customers and separate us from the competition. By scanning the emerging technologies in other industries we locked onto something called Digital I/O. In the process industries, chemical plants were being redesigned with this technology that eliminated thick bundles of wire with one single communication wire. The benefits were reduced cost, quicker installation times and higher product reliability due to reducing the number of potential failure points.

The final hurdle we faced was hitting that cost target. We kept a big board in the team room that was a running tally on our achieving the target cost. One day when the results we getting a bit high I had this exchange with the team.

"Hey guys, I noticed the cost board says we're running over. You know we've got to hit the target. Remember Ray Ross' challenge and my resume"?

"Sure Mark, we remember but we were thinking of the saying "product development is a team sport" and in sports when the team fails they just fire the coach." Grins break out throughout the room.

I thought for a moment and replied, "Well, I agree product development is a team sport and you guys have been a great team but here's my metaphor. We're not a team; we're the crew on an airplane. I'm the pilot and guess what happens if I go down?"

"OK? Let's get back to work and hit our numbers!"

We launched the Marauder under the brand name Magnum at IMTS 1994 and it went on to capture 40% share of the domestic market and helped us grow our export and flexible systems businesses as well.

Lesson #2 - For major clean sheet product development projects, team co-location is a must and demanding design challenges should be given to any development team. Only with a strong technical or commercial challenge does great engineering come out.

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