Dream Machine

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I'm sitting in a plane looking out the window.  It's a short two hour flight, but I feel like I've been locked in a coffin for two days.  I try to read but can't focus. I would listen to music on my iPod but this is 1995 and they don't exist. Why is time dragging?? Because I'm on my way from Cincinnati to Montgomery, Alabama to face the president of a company who bought our new machining center, the Maxim, AND IT DOESN'T WORK.

The Maxim was part of our Wolfpack program at Cincinnati Milacron and was a Dream Machine. Faster, smaller footprint, innovative design features; it was a true next generation machining center that allowed us to take the fight to our Japanese and European competitors. But like a runway model with cancer it looked great on the outside but was dying on the inside.

The project had been giving top priority by our leadership with one major hurdle. Manufacturing costs had to be reduced by 40% from the cost of the current product, the T-10. The design and build of the machine was done at our S. Carolina facility in Fountain Inn. The team was identified; the project started and almost immediately the team made a fatal decision. The manufacturing group at Fountain Inn was 1) "too busy" with building and shipping the current product lines and wouldn't make itself available to the Maxim design team and 2) didn't like some design ideas that the Maxim engineers had come up with. Rather than resolve these "Design for Manufacturing & Assembly" (DFMA) issues the project team backed off and had the first two prototypes completely sourced and assembled outside the plant.

Once the two prototypes were built they made their second fatal mistake, they began selling the new product line using the prototypes as showroom demonstration models. When you have the history and reputation of Cincinnati Milacron customers expect a product that has been thoroughly tested. This was not the case with the Maxim.

As we began selling the machines the cost numbers started coming in. The team had not achieved the targeted 40% reduction in manufacturing cost and now it was time to throw the design over the wall to the manufacturing team. As production ramped up guess what? Costs went up, schedules slipped and testing was compromised. The project leader was fired.

How do I know all this? I was appointed business unit manager and inherited the Maxim product line. That's why I'm on this plane to Montgomery.

The meeting started amicably, true Southern hospitality was on display. But as the meeting went on it became clear that the president, Rick, wanted to return the two machines he had purchased for $800,000 and get all his money back. Back in Cincinnati I was under tremendous financial pressure because we had dozens of situations like this one and were spending millions of dollars to engineer fixes and then send field service people into the factories with the newly designed and manufactured parts.

"When I build a bad product I make it right with my customers, why won't you do the same for me?" Rick pleaded.

"We'll send in a service rep and new parts to get you up and running," I replied.

"Mark, your folks have been in twice before with the same line of bull and the machines still don't work. I'm losing hundreds of thousands of dollars on extra work, late shipments and now lost orders."

"Sorry Rick, I can't take the machines back and refund your money."

"Then get the hell out of my plant!" So much for that Southern hospitality.

Eventually we got the machines up and running, but then Rick sold both of them and replaced them with a competitor's machines. He also became a strong negative referral and was used by our competitors to scare away potential customers.

We had closed the Fountain Inn plant and brought the product line to Cincinnati. We were still trying to fix the major problem on the machine - the tool exchanger system. It came to a point where I had to make two major moves.

First, I went to a different business unit within Milacron and recruited a team of engineers that knew nothing about the Maxim or its tool changer system and put them in charge of the product. It was a bit amazing but within the first week on the job they analyzed the system, identified the weak link (a retention device) and came up with a newly designed part that cost about $5.00!

The second move was to elevate the testing level to insure this new design would work along with raising the overall reliability of the machine. To do that I recruited the most stubborn, ornery project manager we had in the company and put him in charge of quality. Machines only shipped if Wayne said so. He immediately put in a testing program twice as rigorous as the previous one. It resulted in one of the most "Alice in Wonderland" conversations of my career. Here is how that conversation went:

The head of our assembly floor (I'll call him Mel) came to me after Wayne put in the new test program.

"Mark, you've got a put a stop to Wayne and that testing program."


"None of the machines are passing the tests. My workers are having to rework the machines over and over and then those heavy test tools he is using are falling out of the machines. They are a safety concern."

"Isn't all the testing within the specifications of the machine? Aren't these tests exposing the weak links in our quality and reliability?"

"Yes, but my departmental overtime is up, I'll miss my budget and look bad for missing ship dates."

"So Mel, you're telling me it's OK for machines to break down or 50 lb. tools to get thrown across the room as long it's on our customer's floor not yours because your guys won't get hurt and you'll make your performance targets?"

He didn't reply as I stared at him. The next day I had a new assembly floor manager.

The new design did work and after months and months of hard work at the plant and in the field we were able to make the vast majority of our customers whole.

Lesson #3 - In this era of innovation and creativity and breakthrough products never, never, never short change testing and always, always, always empathize with your customer first.



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