Turning Talent Into Productivity
In a previous article we discussed how we found a good product that sold well and had a good relationship with our Asian manufacturers until their costs started rising too much to keep our product competitive. As we discussed with them the problem, the solution we could see was to move to a less developed country where labor costs were lower. At least 2 of our suppliers agreed with us that that was the right course. The problem came when in actually facing making a decision to move, none of them had enough resolve to actually go through with it. So as it turned out the 2 of us who were from the West and 3 of our Asian colleagues decided we should go ahead even if our manufacturers were unwilling to come along.
Our last article ended with our decision to set up a factory in rural northern Thailand. Was Thailand a good choice for a jewelry factory? At first glance the answer would be, "Of course!" There was a plentiful labor force with many skilled at working with their hands and apparently eager to learn new things.
But at that time that was what they had and all they had. Where our original suppliers manufactured there was a whole infrastructure of specialized subcontractors that had the equipment to deal with all the specialized processes that our product required. For example there were craftsmen to make stamping dies, craftsmen to make cutting dies, soldering subcontractors, and electroplating companies that specialized in plating this unique type of jewelry.
How could we combine the valuable human resources we had in Thailand with the technology and equipment our original manufacturer's had access to? We had by no means all the answers to that, but we started with what we knew.
I was commissioned to go back to the country where we had been, along with one of our colleagues whose home was there, to source mold making machines and a stamping press. We started with Yellow Pages in the phone book (Google didn't exist then), but made real progress just by contacting some vendors of our original suppliers. It wasn't that they explained everything for us. They were as cagey about revealing their secrets to outsiders as we would have been. But with small leads from them combined with sources of which we already had some knowledge, we were led on to some success in finding actual machine manufacturers.
Some would say that we were lucky, and I guess we were. But looking back one is inclined to put a capital "L" on luck, because of course, although we worked hard and we were united in our purpose, we now can see that what we were doing was in fact, something bigger than us and the steps we took were a bit as though there were magic in them.
The bare facts were that we did get a 100 ton stamping press manufactured, a pantograph machine for stamp mold making sent to Thailand, and an EDM machine for making cutting tools ordered.
But machines without 'know how' are quite useless. In the West there are trade schools to learn many technical things, but when we were growing up there we never dreamed we would be facing what we were facing here. But at any rate sometimes 'know how' means being willing to get ones hands dirty. Here is an example:
I call them artisans, but I met 2 different technicians with their own shops. They produced cutting tools by hand with a hacksaw, coarse and fine steel files, thread tapping tools, and a drill press. Each one was generously willing to let me work with him for more than a month. The time limit, I guess, was my own. I worked right along side them in their shops and found them very willing to share their understanding of virtually all of what went into making the tools right.
I realized -- they probably did, too -- that I had nothing near their skill and expertise, but I learned as much as I could. Then gradually as I would work and go home to my room at night, I began to realize that 1) if we followed their guidelines, and 2) made practical use of an EDM die cutting machine, and 3) trained 1 or 2 skillful Thai workers to perfect what I had a broad outline of, we could duplicate at our factory what I saw being done here.
It actually worked. When I got back to Thailand I was able to work with 2 of our young Thai employees who were very willing to learn and after not very long we got the basics of making functional cutting dies down.
There were many other fundamental processes we needed to master, not to speak of complex things like setting up a gold plating operation, but each step forward was a small victory. As we tackled each thing, although we really didn't think about it much, we began more and more to understand, "This is what we were made for."