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A Systematic Approach to Running a Small Furniture Operation: How I Use A.M.O.R.I.

13. September 2019 11:35

By: John Lindsay, New Breed Furniture LLC

 Here's a quick review of the management system acronym that I have been featuring in this blog: A.M.O.R.I. 
As readers who have been following me so far know, I find this home-grown, five-part business organizational tool essential in managing my growing wood manufacturing business. The system is called "A.M.O.R.I." - A is for administration, M is for marketing and sales, O is for operations, R is for research and development, and I is for Investments and Intellectual Property.

In the next series of five blogs, we'll run through an update on of how New Breed Furniture’s current business development projects fit under this system, one letter at a time. Hopefully, you will find some insights into the AMORI system through these concrete examples showing how the system plays out in a real-world woodworking business. And maybe some of these specific ideas could even work for your company. 

So let's start with A for Administration, and look at the development of New Breed Furniture's Discount Policy for Volume Purchases.

A - Discount Policy

When New Breed first broke into the furniture world, we were a very small fish in a large and red ocean. More on red and blue oceans later (see Blue Ocean Strategy by W Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, published by Harvard Business Review), but let’s just say there was and still is a lot of competition, which we were and are ready for.

What we weren’t ready for and aware of was the vast network of middlemen/women we would have to cater to. What we had to master was our wholesale and retail pricing.

If we wanted to place our brand new New Breed Furniture into high-quality chic furniture stores, we would have to be good little wholesalers and offer our work at 40%-50% off (sometimes as much as 55% off for floor models) the final sale price (M.S.R.P.). So we did it for the first few years, always at a loss because the orders were always small.

We believed, rightly so, that this was key to getting our products out in front of the right people, helping us to gain traction as a brand, opening other doors in hospitality and commercial commissions. In short, I wouldn’t do anything different, and that includes eventually doing everything differently when I decided to pull focus away from our original wholesale offerings and launch our own online store.

This second phase allows us to keep our prices down for the end user while increasing our RPT (revenues per transaction). So, now the name of the game is crafting the right discount policy, one that incentivizes the right kind of customers while protecting our RPT. The truth is that we just don’t have that much of a discount to offer, maxing out at a third off MSRP, rather than 50%, 

for the rare client that can deliver massive annual sales. Our new strategy is to go after direct sales, leaving the middlemen/women behind.

So here’s New Breed Furniture’s new discounting policy: a long list of the New Breed family, including repeat customers, designers, a  few supportive retailers, industry professionals, and makers will be issued their own representative code, that when used will offer a two-fold discount/credit, starting at 8%-16%, in which the user of the code gets an immediate 8% discount, while the representative get the same amount in future credit.

This percentage increases with the amount of purchases made under any given representative. Now, for example, if a client like our beloved repeat customer Cortney Bishop Design places the order themselves, using her own representative code, then she gets to enjoy both the discount and the credit for future purchases, making for a more conventional wholesale experience, but not quite totally the same. 

Level annual sales discount

  1.  $0-$24 →8%-16%
  2.  $24G →9%-18%
  3.  $48G →10%-20%
  4. $96G →11%-22%
  5. $192G →12%-24%
  6. $384G →13%-26% 
  7. $768G →14%-28% 
  8. $1,536G →15%-30% 
  9. $3,072G →16%-32%

Next time we'll look at the M in AMORI, Marketing and Sales - and talk about New Breed Furniture's approach to coupon design and distribution. 

A Holistic Approach to Finishing

27. August 2019 10:38

I am reminded of a scene from the old movie Unforgiven where Clint Eastwood looking to exact revenge walks into a saloon and asks who owns it. The bar tender raises his hand and claims to be the owner, and Eastwood shoots him dead.

Gene Hackman who plays a corrupt sheriff exclaims that Eastwood just shot an unarmed man, to which Eastwood replies, “He should have armed himself.” To remain cutting edge in finishing we need to always “be armed” with the best information and questions.

In the first couple of articles we focused on the “How" questions we ask and the ways they shape our worlds. We also noted how some parts of the woodworking industry have become so specialized that they are their own world.

Don’t get stuck unarmed in an obsolete world. Let’s remember the best answers come from the best questions, and the best questions provide the deepest understanding.

We will start with finishing as it always seems to be the most popular area of concern. The future isn’t what it used to be. Industrial wood finishing in regards to chemicals and equipment has changed more in the last 25 years than it had in the previous 100. You can expect it to continue to outpace the rate of change for other parts of the wood industry due to increasing environmental regulations, demand for higher performance, usability, and the effort to lower costs.

In the last five to 10 years there have been major coatings and technological developments in curing and application, so the future will most likely never be what it used to be. That's why you should adopt a holistic approach to stay abreast of technological developments that can create the highest value for your wood finishing processes.

Some may question if there is a high-level holistic process that really applies to all wood finishers. I would say yes, unequivocally.  Let me say that every year I hear or experience first-hand wood finishers who order equipment or make plans to move to a new coating and don’t do the environmental due diligence and or don’t develop a coating that performs at a high enough level to meet the customer's expectations.

Sometimes the equipment waits for long periods of time before it can be used due to environmental permitting. If the finishing journey doesn’t start at the starting point, eventually the environmental regulatory agency or the customer will bring it back to that starting point.

That said, to be a leader in finishing and create the highest value, every question in regard to a successful finishing journey is best asked from the standpoint of what would be game-changing and revolutionary in regard to creating the highest value for the organization and the customer. 

A finishing journey that starts by asking how others are succeeding in finishing and then seeks to emulate them,  assumes too much.  The value of another’s experience is to give us hope not, to tell us how or whether to proceed.

Holistic Wood Finishing Process Cycle

No great finishing system was ever created by copying another finishing system. That said, many small- to medium-sized wood finishing operations who want to scale up don’t start at the starting point. Sometimes they don’t even realize the environmental permitting they follow. I have seen shops make major coatings plans and investments before considering it. This occurs with larger wood finishing operations as well though less often.

The good news is there have been more innovations in coating formulations, coating application and curing technology and environmental controls in the past few years. Harnessing these innovations using a holistic approach is the key. Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking that following a holistic process like this with good questions and understanding will take too long and cost too much. If that is a concern, I want to share a few good reasons for why it is better to use holistic approach:

a. Most wood finishers don’t know their target and true transfer efficiency or track it on a regular basis. Just like rough mills live and die by hardwood yield the best finishing operations live and die by transfer efficiency.

b. An estimated 80% of the perceived value in finished wood products comes from the performance and aesthetics of the finish. The average amount of time, effort, understanding and organization in wood finishing operations isn’t proportionate to the perceived value.

c. The majority of accounts/customers that are lost due to quality are issues are classified as finishing defects.

d. Finishing equipment has the highest rate of obsolescence in cost and time compared to other woodworking machinery.

e. More wood products are being sold unfinished than ever before or are being purchased as pre-finished components then sold with other components and larger assemblies.

f. Ignoring environmental regulations and permitting thinking that it costs too much will always result in higher costs and potential other business/operational problems down the road.

g. The highest value finishes are the ones that help create a brand and have the value and performance that get and keep customers excited. This isn’t a cheap fast process.

Let’s look at how to get started with the holistic process in the graphic above. Let me first say that this process is most successfully done with a combination of leadership and technical knowledge and that is why there is an abstract picture of leadership in the middle of the graphic.

1. Start every question in the context of what is game-changing and difference-making; first ascertain the value, performance, aesthetics, and cost that would make a great finish for the wood products that are being brought to market. What finish would help make a difference in the brand? If the new or revised finish doesn’t do these things it probably won’t make that big of a difference.

2. Have discussions with several coatings suppliers, equipment suppliers, and other design and technical specialists. Engage the marketing, brand, product development, and manufacturing leaders in the organization to develop key insights. Use third-party labs to perform tests. Sometimes for high performing finishes, these test results can be used as marketing materials. What we want to do is develop a winning strategy for finishing.

3. Make up a one-page document that states how the winning finish will perform, aesthetically appear/feel and what value it will have in cost to manufacture and what the customer would be willing pay for in the context of experiencing a great finish. It helps to make this as objective as possible.

When this process isn’t used many people just ask how can we do what we have been doing better? Very seldom does an improvement of an existing finishing system in simple formulation or application make a big enough difference to be a difference-maker or game-changer.  I encourage everyone who has a stake in creating game-changing/difference-making finishing systems to create something new! The next four articles will dive into specifics for each step in the holistic process from the graphic above.

The Cure For Jack of All Trades Mania Broken Down

7. August 2019 21:47

By: John Lindsay, New Breed Furniture LLC
In my last entry I shared an acronym I came up with that helps simplify what any kind of business owner needs to focus on, and here it is: 

Administration

M  Marketing and Sales

O  Operations

R  Research and Development

Investment and Intellectual Property

But before I give an in-depth explanation, my editor suggests I explain a little about
my own woodworking history. 

As the owner and principal designer of New Breed Furniture LLC, I have been developing for the last ten years a complete line of furniture including chairs, stools, benches, side tables, coffee tables, dining tables, conference tables, desks, dressers, credenzas, consoles, shelving systems and more all based on one beautiful innovation, the Petalply knuckle joint.

This discovery came after close to a year of research and development working with hundreds of 1/10th scale models and full-scale prototypes, searching for a wood-centric manufacturing system that also made for a great design language. Happily, something truly original and beautiful was realized. Structural components such as legs, arms, and stretchers combine and rotate around a structural dowel/tenon, maximizing glue surface while stabilizing each component, eliminating cupping or bowing of the wood. 

The tabletops defy the norm by not merely sitting over a base, but rather by spanning between component parts, resulting in a fully integrated monolithic structure. Add to that the creative use of penetrations in each piece that both allow for seasonal wood movement while freeing light and space to travel through and around each piece, creating a highly sculptural experience.

The effect is an amazingly strong structure that proves to be eye-catching, truly an example of beautiful forms defined by function. The shapes of the different components resemble the petal of a flower, and the layered glued components with alternating grain act like a muscular alpha plywood, thus its name “Petalply”. 

Of course my work includes other joinery techniques, each chosen because they are the best solution to the varied challenges of building furniture for so many situations, such as tongue and groove as the principle joint for all the case work, for both boxes and drawers. And then there is also my fascination with thick alternating solid wood veneers that are pressed and engineered to be both stable and durable, combining three, five, and seven veneers for different applications like doors and table slabs.

But it has been the Petalply joint that has been my main interest for this many years, so much so that it is almost embarrassing. I’m kidding when I say that, but there is a strange relationship in which I feel I am more its apprentice than I its inventor. Please forgive me if I belabor and gush about this work, but its been truly pleasurable pleasing customers employing it for so long.

The truth is, I’m yet to get sick of the process, I’m talking after tens of thousands of hours later, and it keeps proving a reliable technique for so many situations. Anyway, when you find a process that you love that offers great results, hang on to it, and double down on it, that’s what I’ve done with this. So, if you get a chance to search through my website, www.newbreedfurniture.com, and follow my social media you can judge for yourself if you think I’ve invested in something worth while, and if so then maybe what I will be continuing to write here might be worth reading, or not? 

To circle back around, in my last entry I proposed five questions: 

A Whether furniture, cabinetry, and millwork companies ever go back and analyze what parts of their initial estimates and systems for bidding were accurate?

M How to spend marketing dollars and time?

O How to use the shop floor in concert with the available storage to get best performances and build the best products?

 R How should a smaller to medium scale artisanal manufacturer continue developing their product line’s design languages while filling orders, collecting money, packaging and shipping, etc?

 I  Can you imagine being a venture capital fund that made strategic investments in parts of your business, expecting to see real return on investment?

Sadly I will have to tackle these questions in the coming editions, for now I must get a material order placed for my next exciting new commission, a new series of desks, a large wall console, custom conference and lounge tables for a company located in Bozeman, MT, Jelt HQ. In fact plan on reading about this too in the next installment. 

John Lindsay is President of New Breed Furniture LLC. Reach him at john@newbreedfurniture.com 847-946-7867. www.newbreedfurniture.com

Book Preview: "Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America" - How Materials & Technology Shaped Design

3. August 2019 22:17

Yale University has published "Serious Play: Design in Medcentury America." It tracks the rise of commercial and consumer design trends following World War II as new materials and technologies enabled designers for Herman Miller and other corporations to move in vibrant new directions.

On the consumer side, following World War II, Americans began accumulating more and more goods, spurring a transformation in the field of interior decoration. Storage walls became ubiquitous, often serving as a home’s centerpiece.

Designers such as Alexander Girard encouraged homeowners to populate their new shelving units with folk art, as well as unconventional and modern objects, to produce innovative and unexpected juxtapositions within modern architectural settings.

"Playfulness" as a term of art can also be seen in the colorful, child-sized furniture by Charles and Ray Eames, who also produced toys. And in the postwar corporate world, the concept of play is manifested in the influential advertising work of Paul Rand.

Set against the backdrop of a society that was experiencing rapid change and high anxiety, the book Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America takes a revelatory look at how many of the country’s leading designers connected with their audience through wit and imagination. Edited by Monica Obniski and Darrin Alfred, includes essays by the editors, as well as by Amy Auscherman, Steven Heller, Pat Kirkham, and Alexandra Lange. 

Ann Landi, reviewing the book for the Wall Street Journal  notes, "As several contributors . . . point out, many designers . . . rejected a dogmatic modernism and hungered for something beyond rational and utilitarian motives.’The post-World War II era was marked by an acquisitive appetite, for which designers like Charles and Ray Eames and Alexander Girard devised colorful multitiered storage units, while ceramists like Eva Zeisel created charming table accoutrements to fill them.”

The book contains over 25 pages of materials checklists sourcing the numerous furnishings and designs included in its pages. 

Co-editor Monica Obniski is Demmer Curator of Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Design at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which hosted a related show earlier this year. Co-editor Darrin Alfred is curator of architecture, design, and graphics at the Denver Art Museum.  Learn more or order the book at Yale>>

Is There a Growing Need for High Resolution Digital Databases of Wood Imagery?

23. July 2019 12:42

Sherwin Williams Virtual Panel Studio www.virtualpanelstudio.com

As design programs grow more robust, the ability to generate realistic renderings of furnishings and projects has improved dramatically. For patterned laminates and paint colors, there is no problem matching graphics and colors in renderings - since most of these originate as digital designs prior to creating the decor laminates.

But rendering convincing versions of real solid wood and wood veneers - that's another matter.  In nature, the trees take care of creating the grain pattern for the finished work - but how do you do it digitally?

One approach and I think it's the best one, is photographing the real thing. Veneer companies have been developing controlled photographic renderings of inventory for years now - to share the look of a bundle or lot of material without buyers having to travel. Here's how  Veneer Supplies of Frederick Hill, MD describes it: 

In a lot of 20 sheets from the same bundle, the top veneer may show a bark patch and the bottom veneer may be flawless. The pictures we shown are always taken from the side of the bundle that has the most defects.....When photographing the veneers on this website, I do not use alcohol, water, or any other means of enhancing the grain or figure. I try to photograph the veneers as close to the original color as possible by shooting with white light and applying software-based color correction that is specific to our light source. 

The most widely known source for identifying wood species is www.Wood-Database.com (above) which has gradually improved and broadened the photographs it presents. It relies on woodworkers to volunteer shots of wood species with two grain directions and end grain - when available. The quality varies but is continuously on the rise.

Now there is a new and growing database of very finely resolve wood images - but this one  - Sherwin Williams Virtual Panel Studio - was established to show wood stains on various wood species. You have to be approved by Sherwin Williams to access it - and it is intended for designers, specifiers and their woodworking professionals in doing project planning. 

Sherwin Williams describes the Virtual Panel Studio is a "first of its kind online resource available exclusively for furniture, kitchen cabinet, and other wood product designers and product developers to discover, manage and share hundreds of high-resolution panel images." It is part of its Global Color Design and Design Center.

A password-protected account allows users to search, download and share the images. Request registration at oem.sherwin-williams.com/gcdc-panel-access-request

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Luke Barnett Handcrafting a Windsor chair

15. July 2019 11:43

Luke A. Barnett handcrafting a Windsor chair at the Adrian Community Woodshop, where he teaches. Video by Jason Ely and Brian Court of Chameleon Studios. All from Adrian, Michigan

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The 5 Levels of Active Recruitment of Woodworkers - Part 1

11. July 2019 12:44

Luke Barnett: Chairmaker: Sam Beauford Woodshop Career Woodworking Institute

Luke-Barnett"Just like growing a garden…. cultivating the future talent pool of skilled workers takes effort. It takes time, talent, and money. You will reap what you sow. Your results are directly proportional to the effort that is put in.

This article will be broken into 2 parts. This is part one. Make sure you check back for part 2.    Level 1 is where most of the industry currently is positioned. At this level of employment, vacancies are filled by traditional methods. An employer will recognize that they need to fill a position when an employee decides to quit or retire.

On my personal “task management board”, I would put this in the AMBUSH category. Ambush means that my task is time-sensitive and I need to devote resources that I did not plan on devoting to accomplishing the time-sensitive task. Ambush tasks are usually completed in a state of panic, which causes me to make less than optimal decisions. Ambush mode is not where you want to be while hiring. This causes you to take what you can get rather than picking and choosing the right talent for the job. Level 1 recruiting has a domino of side effects such as, high turnover of employees, causing increased resources spent on training, which causes lower wages due to not having the most effective staff, which causes an overall negative culture among the employees.  If any business is at this level, I would strongly encourage them to make the move to level 2.

Level 2 is where some of you may be. Level 2 is where active recruitment starts. At this minimal level, you have awareness of your local skilled trades program. You have made a phone call to the instructor and opened a dialogue with him or her. You occasionally make an inquiry to whether they have any candidates to work for your business.  You may get a student here and there, but it hasn’t been a really good resource for your business so far. Does this sound familiar???? Level 2 takes minimal effort, all you do is make a phone call and they send a potential candidate. I am going to give you the hard truth about level 2 from an educators perspective. I couldn’t care less about level 2. Your occasional phone call is 1 of 100 per month that we receive from recruiters looking for a quick hire. Level 2 is a low priority for us. We will send you students but out best and brightest are reserved for higher levels of participants.

Level 3 is the level when you have bought into the recruitment plan and you want to contribute. You do not have the time to dedicate but you still want to contribute so you write a check or make some in-kind donations of materials or something.

On a side note…….. Do not call a CTE woodworking school and say that you have some scrap wood that you are willing to donate. We know this game………. You are trying to get rid of your scrap and hoping to off it on someone that can use it. A similar scenario that you may be familiar with, is when a person calls your company to tell you that they have a tree in their yard and you can have it if you are willing to cut it down and haul it off. The point is….. We do not want your scrap wood.

Back to level 3. Let me tell you….. we LOVE getting checks. On this level, you will have worked out the beginnings of a formal partnership with an educational institution. Your contributions earn you some level of priority when it comes to the quality of students. This level is where you will start to see returns. Every woodworking business in North America should be at this level. This level strengthens educational programs by providing them with much-needed resources, which help us provide better quality education.

Levels 4-5 will be discussed in the next Blog. Stay Tuned…..

Overwhelmed Being a Jack of All Trades/Master of None? Then Try Breaking It Into Manageable Parts

9. July 2019 16:01

By: John Lindsay, New Breed Furniture LLC

Editor's Note: This is the first blog in a series by design/builder/entrepreneur John Lindsay. 

After years of being an owner/operator of a small furniture company that offers more than two hundred solid wood products developed and manufactured in house, I determined I had to understand all my roles and responsibilities to help mitigate the anxiety that comes with having to wear so many hats. I began by going back to school - in this case, self-education through reading and listening to audiobooks - in pursuit of my own Masters of Business Administration degree.

I liken the process to reading about the latest research on aerodynamics while building a flying machine while flying said flying machine, while hurling down to the unforgiving ground at breakneck speed. What I was in search of were systems, philosophies, best practices, and heuristics that could help me structure my efforts building my business. 

What I came up with was a simple to learn acronym: A.M.O.R.I. which both represents the five distinct categories or departments that all business need to have to be able to scale while having its own business philosophy built into the name. This philosophy is that to be a successful owner/operator/entrepreneur you have to resist the natural desire to favor certain parts of your business over the others and learn to LOVE every aspect of your business, which means taking an active role in mastering all the differing roles. Here’s how it works:

A    Administration
M   Marketing and Sales
O   Operations
R    Research and Development
I    Investment and Intellectual Property

This is what I plan to share with you in this series of articles about owning your own woodworking business. However, discretion demands that I be transparent about when these ideas I share are more hypothetical, and when they have been practiced and hard-earned. In short, I am far from having mastered any of these categories, and in some cases have yet to have any real experience leading teams in the trenches, but rather, I am projecting forward standards I hope to one day prove essential to my success.

I’ll get right into it with the first letter of the acronym.

A  for Administration:

A question that has long plagued me was whether furniture, cabinetry, and millwork companies ever go back and analyze what parts of their initial estimates and systems for bidding were accurate? From my experience, it is very difficult to go back over a project, sift out all the necessary numbers, separating out the different activities and costs into the same categories, all in an effort to compare apples to apples. Then once the analysis is complete, be able to identify which unit costs or algorithmic heuristics are off and change them.

Next, keep a record of the changes with descriptions of the decision processes that lead to the change, so that they can be confirmed or denied time and time again. Finally, learn over time which systems are reliable, how reliable, and why? Instead, I imagine many companies skip these crucial process’, having completed the project, needing to move onto the next. My first principle thinking mind concludes that missing these steps will keep all bad practices and estimating flaws right where you don’t want them, in the driver’s seat of your profitability. In coming articles I will break down why doing this work is so frustrating and difficult, how to set up your operations and your administrations to best capture vital information, and more importantly how to know what isn’t necessary.

 M for Marketing and Sales:

Another question that every business owner faces is how to spend marketing dollars and time? It seems to me that if you have a company who sells products made of the most beautiful material on the planet (wood) and is handled and manipulated with expert skill and craft then why not learn to apply that maker’s talent to your marketing materials? 

In coming articles, I will break down why hand made marketing combined with smart social media is the winning strategy. 

O for Operations 

A third question that I ask myself as a user of space is how to use the shop floor in concert with the available storage to get the best performances and build the best products? In coming articles I will break down why most shops have it all wrong when they let their larger machines dominate their space with permanent footprints.

R for Research and Development

My lifeblood is dependent on the quality of the designs I am offering. For my kind of business, being serious about having an ongoing design process which includes art directing, engineering, cost analysis, market research, and comp collection is essential, but not always possible. How should a smaller to medium scale artisanal manufacturer continue developing their product line’s design languages while filling orders, collecting money, packaging, and shipping, etc?

In coming articles I will break down how dedicating time to experiments and explorations in design can be balanced with the day to day deadlines and orders.

I for Investment and Intellectual Property

This is the part of the article where I let myself dream, and share ideas about how to best invest real profits back into this crazy business that I am learning to run, while running it, while hurling toward unforgiving realities. The last question in this article is can you imagine being a venture capital fund that made strategic investments in parts of your business, expecting to see real return on investment? I much enjoy ignoring my present reality, and enter a fictional world in which the business (or business’) that I have created are all wildly successful and I’m faced with the happiest problem anyone could have, where to put the piles of money that is pouring in? In coming articles, I will dream big and imagine how real estate can be both the destination and generating agent of profits.

John Lindsay is President of New Breed Furniture LLC.  Reach him at john@newbreedfurniture.com  

Questioning How Your Plant Operates Is Hard, and Why the Answer to How? Is Yes!

4. July 2019 22:42

By: Joe Baggett,  Innovative Wood Process Solutions  

The best answers come from the best questions. And from the best questions come the deepest understanding.(although sometimes we won’t like the answers to those "best questions.")

Let's take a look at how we can learn to ask the best questions. As the skills for each area of wood manufacturing (fabrication, finishing, programming, etc.) become more specialized, managers must adopt a type of strategic learning to be able to tap into and harness the specialized skills of department managers. In other words, you have to figure out how to become a temporary "expert," while asking the right questions to guide the conversation and discovery, in the context of the actual “world” of wood manufacturing.

It seems there is always a noteworthy business that is closing down (like Wood-Mode) or shifting to Mexico (like MasterBrand ) or even exiting the business (like Masco).  Somehow under new ownership or at a new location, these businesses are able to start fresh and succeed, or else they never re-open, like Cardell. 

And that is largely because the former leaders have not asked the right questions - or didn’t want to. While that may seem harsh or even irrelevant during this strong economy, it is important for organizations that endeavor to create strategic learning organizations that constantly reinvent themselves. Wille Peterson in his book Strategic Learning says “failure is seldom caused by what the environment does to us; it is caused most often by what we do to ourselves”.

According to an old friend and industry colleague (he’s wood industry leader John Huff), people will believe 25% of what they hear, 50 percent of what they see, and 100 percent of what they want to believe. John and I often joked together about how biased our own thinking processes were, and we struggled with what we could do to overcome our own preconceived ideas and beliefs.

In all these queries, l realized the outcomes on projects are more of a product of the questions we ask - even when we don’t always consciously understand that those questions actually come from our pre-conceived ideas and assumptions. Most of the things we ask or assume come from thought patterns that were based on “What to Think” behavior. These were formed from the way we see the world in which we work and live, day-to-day.

But that view of the world is a product of our own background. It is the sum of our education, exposure, belief systems, and culture. In re-engineering or starting up a plant, we have to be open to set that aside. Here’s a good example and thought exercise on that concept:

I’m a big fan of the Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies. In a scene from “The Return of the Pink Panther.”  Sellers was checking into a hotel and saw a dog sitting next to the front desk manager. He asked, “Does your dog bite?”

The manager looked up and said, “No.” Sellers reached down to pet the animal, which promptly bit his hand, pulling off his glove. Shocked, Sellers immediately retracted his hand and exclaimed, “I thought you said your dog did not bite!” The hotel manager looked up and said, “That is not my dog.” Context is everything for asking the right questions.

In my last blog, I mentioned most wood manufacturing companies have a “dungeon” – the place where equipment that is not in use or is obsolete, is stored. I asked if we had to write a report about the equipment not in use or obsolete, what story would it tell? In general, I believe it would tell about how there was a failure to derive increasing simplicity from increasing complexity.

The wood industry has become increasingly specialized and more complex while making some traditional methods seem “easier.” This increased specialization has caused some wood products manufacturers to keep it simple, while not taking full advantage of possible improvements and game-changing technology.

The average woodshop may not want to acquire the maintenance, operator or leadership talent to adopt and utilize the technology. Some manufacturers risk acquiring the technology, but don’t have the organization or strategy to apply it in a successful manner, and end up discarding it for simpler methods and machines. Some are investing in the organizational talent, culture, strategy and learning to apply as much cutting-edge technology as possible,but are is still years removed from what could be and should be the current state.

I recently visited a cabinet shop and was required to sign an non-disclosure agreement because they had switched to a new wood coating. While we observed the operation, we couldn’t help but notice the coating was a modern but typical post-catalyzed conversion varnish. This type of wood coating has been around for well over 30 years. It was new to them (their world) but in the actual world of available wood coatings, this is an older technology (in the actual world of woodworking). 

The increased specialization in the woodworking industry has created these two worlds. This is a good thing because we need to be constantly developing cutting edge technology but, to successfully apply it, we also need to put it into perspective and context. Strategic learning is the key to harnessing this specialization for its value and asking the right questions in the context closer to the actual “world” of wood manufacturing.

It starts by re-envisioning the way we ask our questions. Peter Block does great work in his book, The Answer to How Is Yes, in re-envisioning the way we ask questions. As Block puts it: 

There is depth in the question “How do I do this” that is worth exploring. The question is a defense against the action. It is a leap past the question of purpose, past the questions of intentions, and the drama of responsibility. The question ”How?”- more than any other question - looks for the answer outside of us. It is an indirect expression of our doubts.

Block gives us six typical questions that shape manufacturing operations, equipment and products more than any others and the way we could ask them differently that would have a profound impact.

  1. How do you do it? This the greatest assumption. The biggest question is what is worth doing and what matters the most not how it is done.
  2. How long will it take? The question how long drives us to oversimplify the world.
  3. How much does it cost? The most common rationalization for doing the things we do not believe in that what we really desire either takes too long or costs too much.
  4. How do you get these people to change? What would empower and create the environment for the needed organizational transformation? Also, what does it mean for me? 
  5. How do we measure it? Many of the things that matter most defy measurement. Our obsession with measurement is really an expression of our doubt. What measurement would have the most meaning to me and our organization?
  6. How have other people done it successfully? The value of another’s experience is to give us hope not to tell us how or whether to proceed.

If you look at the rhetoric in the woodworking industry you can see how the questions of “How?” proliferates in our thinking.  We constantly see "How To" advice in much of what we read, hear at conferences, attend and listen to in the woodworking Industry.  How to set up a profitable finishing operation, how to select the right software, how to select the right machines. 

If our default for developing great questions remains heavily on the “How” we will continue to be susceptible to the missteps resulting from the increasing specialization, and from other opportunities and threats. The best strategic solutions often require learning and knowledge we have yet to experience. The solutions take longer than what we want, cost more than what we want, require more or better people than we have. And they deliver results that we don’t currently measure.

I love the woodworking industry and want to see it rise to new heights, both on the national scale of manufacturers as well as the global scale. I want to see the small and medium-size shops realize their dreams and be recognized. I want to see the large manufacturers invest in technology and become even more strategic leaders in the global woodworking industry.

I truly believe that the most important contribution a leader can make is to make more leaders. It is my purpose in these writings to inspire and provoke new thoughts and passion, and evoke thoughtful but decisive action. I keep coming back to a need for us as leaders in the woodworking industry to revise some common thinking processes, an area we will continue to explore. 

Joe Baggett is President of Innovative Wood Process  Solutions. Reach him at iwpsolutions19@gmail.com,    817-682-3631. www.iwps.biz

Before You Make Any Technology Investments, Let’s Visit the Dungeon

28. June 2019 11:45

By: Joe Baggett,  Innovative Wood Process Solutions              

Editor's Note: This is the first blog in a series by engineering consultant Joe Baggett

After years of leading engineering and technical service operations at major cabinetry and wood products firms, I determined that I would like to take what I had learned and use it as the basis for starting an engineering and consulting firm. So I began by thinking back on my career so far. In setting up this consultancy, I wanted to do something – and create something - new and different. 

On the equipment side, I did a quick survey of the machinery, infrastructure, and information technology for which I had been responsible. It shocked me when I realized that I had specified, acquired, installed and commissioned over 100 million dollars worth of equipment.

Then I asked myself what I had learned from all this. That’s what I plan to share with you in this series of articles about plant operations.

A question that has long plagued me was why the average shop or factory floor doesn’t look more like the show floor from IWF, AWFS or Ligna? I used to think it was for lack of funds or financing. So I asked myself if each wood manufacturer that attended these shows had a blank check, with no obligation funding to buy machines each year, would it really make a big difference in our industry’s operations overall?

The more I thought about it, the more I concluded, it would not. Yes, more machines may be bought and installed; but would it result in the average woodshop/factory being more profitable, stronger organizations, etc.? I would have to say no. Let’s explore why.

First, just ask and answer some blue-sky hypothetical

  • If the organization you are currently leading had 10 million in obligation free capital to invest in equipment, could you increase profitability by 5 to 10%, or more?
  • Would such investment strengthen your organization?
  • Would it bring health to the culture of the organization?
  • Would it fit with a holistic company-wide strategy?

I’ll go deeper into what’s behind my opinion on why investment is not the magic bullet in later articles. But suffice it to say for now, that after giving it a lot of thought, I determined that the most valuable contribution I could make to the woodworking industry through a consulting engineering practice wouldn’t be merely offering technical expertise, but to address, instead, the strategy – in regards to strategic thinking or what I call “holistic organizational thinking” - in which to apply it.

In re-engineering or green-fielding a plant, asking the right questions and in the right context is everything - especially as increased specialization and the creation of worlds within the industry such as Finishing, Bar Code Scanning, Shop Floor Control Software, etc. , come into play.

Let’s return to our questions about that hypothetical ten million dollar investment. One thing I noticed is that most wood manufacturing companies have a “dungeon” – the place where equipment that is not in use, or is obsolete, is stored. Sometimes that equipment isn’t very old, and not infrequently, there is a lot of it. Also sometimes it hadn’t been in service long enough to pay itself off. (Just think about what that $10 million in potential investment could buy.)

During this same time, I was beginning to take note of this phenomenon: the downturn in the economy was beginning. At first, I thought this accounted for the growing inventory of machines in those dungeons.

But there was another force at play. So let me ask another non-rhetorical question: What’s in your dungeon? If we had to write a report about the equipment not in use or obsolete what story would it tell? The story usually has less to do with the equipment itself and more to do with the organization, strategy, permitting and the market life of the product it was purchased to produce. If we did a postmortem on the equipment in the dungeon what story would it tell us?

Now, this where I would suggest that the obligation free investment in equipment wouldn’t have that big of an impact on the average woodworking organization if it was available. I would suggest that it would proportionately grow our dungeons.

I can’t tell you how many times we have resurrected a piece of equipment from the dungeon but in the context of making it work for the current application and needs. Always with the “it doesn’t work” as the starting place. This reaction is the anecdotal verbalization of this phenomena from “what to think” instead of “how to think.” The downturn in the economy only exacerbated the underlying problem. Holistic Strategy is the key to changing how we approach equipment acquisition and application.

Will Peterson says it best in his book, Strategic Learning:

“As strategic leaders, we have to derive increasing simplicity from increasing complexity. Information is universally accessible and becoming free to all. The internet offers it to us on a plate. No longer does the world belong to the ones with the most information, but to those with the highest ability to make sense of it; no longer to those who know more but to those who understand it better.”

Next time we’ll look at the idea of “asking the right questions," and why that is so hard to do.

 Joe Baggett is President of Innovative Wood Process   Solutions. Reach him at iwpsolutions19@gmail.com,    817-682-3631. www.iwps.biz