You’ve heard it enough in this post-pandemic working world. Good people are hard to find. Supply chain interruptions are no joke. To survive, it’s either evolve or die. At Hamilton, continuous improvement has been a major strategic focus for us, especially when it comes to skilled labor and lead times in our caster production. We’re constantly looking for new ways to do “smarter, faster, better.” And we’re excited to share some of the fruits of our efforts today.
In September 2022, for example, our average lead time was 19.2 days to ship our caster products. Just six months later, we’ve managed to reduce it to 10.4 days. How? We caught up with Plant Manager Lester Jones and Lean Manager Lee Burroughs to talk about the benefits of dual sourcing, hiring from within and bringing shop class back to the classroom.
First, let’s get some context. How have the last few years been for Hamilton in terms of production?
Lester: Our biggest struggle has really been about manpower. When others were slow, we were still struggling to fill open positions. We had the capital resources, just not the manpower. Our challenges with finding skilled labor started back before the pandemic—around 2018—and they certainly were intensified with COVID. Since 2018, we’ve never not been hiring.
Lee: Things were pretty stable before COVID, and we were doing pretty well. Then COVID came along, and our business was reduced a little bit, but things were still pretty good. It’s when things started opening up again that the challenges really started for us. Business picked up much faster than we expected. It came all at once and we found ourselves unprepared to meet that demand with skilled labor.
Lester: So we realized that we had to pivot our strategy and focus more on developing people from within; we needed to build structure around formal training and development.
And what does that look like?
Lee: In the beginning we had no choice but to enlist our production employees to train other employees. Our formal training program had been in development for a few years, but it’s really gained traction in the past year. We use a methodology called Training Within Industry (TWI), and it’s been the key in getting our people trained correctly so they can train other employees.
What does TWI involve?
Lee: It’s a regimented approach that is all about drawing upon the knowledge of seasoned employees to document the one best way to perform a job, and then developing trainers who can teach that method consistently. The goal is that each trainee gets trained the same way on any given job. Trainers must complete an 8-hour course to learn how to break down a job into digestible pieces and train someone effectively. Then we spend a few hours each week meeting with each trainer to discuss progress and how we can optimize and really make this part of our culture.
Is there any incentive for an employee to train another employee?
Lester: I was really proud of how our employees responded here, actually. At first, we made no specific promises to our employees who wanted to train. We simply asked who was willing. And they were so good about stepping up and volunteering, even before we offered to pay them something extra. They were just happy to help.
Lee: They’re doing a fantastic job. They’re really committed to it.
What are some of the typical jobs for which Hamilton trains from within?
Lee: New people typically come in on night shift into caster assembly. That’s the entry level position. From there they move to more skilled jobs. At each step there is a need for training. It is important that the training they receive on night shift is consistent with practices on day shift. Again, there should be one best way that we know how to do a job, and that should be the way it is taught, regardless of shift.
Lester: What’s so important about that is that on second shift, we don’t have nearly the skill and experience base. It’s a seniority-based union, so the most senior employees are typically on days.
Why do you think it’s so hard to find skilled labor?
Lester: I’ve noticed it’s been difficult for about the last 15 years. Prior to that, high schools still offered industrial shop classes, and a lot of students still attended technical schools. In 7th grade, we were operating wood lathes, and making small tables. Now industrial shop classes aren’t even offered in most school districts, so students aren’t even exposed to industrial equipment and training.
Lee: The current push is on getting people trained in caster assembly operations or on manning a lathe. But when you’re talking about skilled labor, behind that is our desire to train our own machinists because they’re almost impossible to find. They have to come up through the ranks. So we’ve worked on developing a formal curriculum for someone who wants to progress from the shop floor to becoming a machinist over time.
Lester: Part of that curriculum includes working with Hamilton High School, which still has tech classes, and also with Butler Tech and Great Oaks [Career Campuses] to provide instruction for our employees. Our connection with these local institutions also creates a pipeline for incoming talent. For example, we have a class at Butler Tech that allows participating students to bid on the highest paying jobs at Hamilton when they graduate.
Can we talk about how Hamilton has dealt with supply chain interruptions?
Lee: They definitely slowed us down a bit, but those are starting to clear up now—due a lot in part to our purchasing and sourcing team’s efforts to go out and find new vendors.
Lester: We really took a longer view to combatting supply chain issues, instead of an immediate fix. We tried immediate fixes like using blanks instead of castings and forgings, but that ended up costing us more money, so we couldn’t pass the cost onto our customers for standard stock items. But the longer term was getting redundant vendors, like having two casting houses for the same part. Even in just the last few weeks, we received a dual source pneumatic for the first time. Late pneumatic shipments have been a constant thorn in our side for a while. Purchasing has done a great job turning the corner on this.
We’ve talked about sourcing multiple vendors and internal training to reduce lead time. Is there anything else we’ve focused on?
Lee: I think it’s really the fact that we’re looking at continuous improvement holistically, analyzing the entire value stream to create better flow—from order entry to scheduling to purchasing raw materials to fabrication and assembly and, finally, shipping. We work continuously to take waste out of the process so that we can reduce lead times to customers without adding the cost of additional inventory.
Is what we’re doing unique from our competitors?
Lester: One thing for sure is that Hamilton is committed to a “no excuses” mindset. Other companies might use supply chain interruptions as an excuse for long lead times to protect themselves, but that’s not good enough for us. We see every problem as an opportunity to do better. Our focus on reducing lead time is a strategic opportunity for us to grow the business and capture market share.
Lee: It was pretty gratifying to get feedback from our recent customer surveys. Prompt delivery and great service were repeat themes in customer comments. One customer wrote “Fastest shipping of any of our vendors.” So that’s nice to hear.