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It is crucial to develop your company's knowledge base

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Operations Excellence by Sepp Gmeiner
Sepp Gmeiner is a partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions please email

Companies face challenges; not enough orders or too may orders; price and cost pressures; employee cost or not finding the right staff; the economy is bad or the outlook is not good.
The pessimists have a great time these days.
We should however, focus on some positive signs instead. The US economy is on a slow but steady recovery. The exchange rate from the Canadian to the US Dollar favours Canadian export again. Woodworking plants are getting busier. One sign that companies are getting busier is that they are looking for people.
I’ve had more questions over the past four months than the combined two years before that whether I know of any ‘good’ operations, production and engineering professionals. Again, companies are reacting to the increase in demand.
New challenges are on the horizon. Too many companies had to shrink their staff to the bare minimum and now with the modest growth there is not enough ‘bench strength.’ Also, a number of employees have left the industry and have no desire to return. In short there is a shortage in the available skilled workforce. All the reports that were written about skills shortages prior to the recession are valid again.
In my opinion companies need to initiate improvements on many levels. Hiring the missing skills would be the easiest method, if there is a pool of people waiting to be hired. Poaching good people from competitors is not a long-term solution. Hiring young graduates and mentoring them through internal resources works well if you still have a good internal knowledge base.
Investing into your existing employees with skills development is the other opportunity. A good metrics would be to count how many hours of training the average employee receives every year.
There are many educational events for the industry. I have participated in such events as both the student and as the trainer. They have one thing in common; they are all undersubscribed; the target industry does not participate.
For some examples of available programs, last year we saw the Wood Tech Summit 2013 the day before the Toronto machinery show. In a full day a roster of industry leaders presented something they specifically did in their company, which helped them to compete and drive their business.
Luke Elias from Muskoka Cabinets talked about how he achieves high productivity in his plant by using RFID technology.
Pete Fournier of Triangle Kitchens presented their solution to the challenge caused by seasonality. An integrated system of targeted cross training minimized or eliminated the problem.
Adam Hofmann of B&G Furniture explained that a number of challenges can be tackled by cooperation between companies. In Southwestern Ontario a number of companies formed the Bluewater Wood Alliance, a cluster organization. The member companies cooperate in a number of initiatives ranging from Lean implementation, yield optimization, export development, government funding and many others.
Dennis Staples of Deslaurier Kitchens described the decisions and challenges they faced when a fire destroyed their manufacturing plant. I am sure most participants reviewed their own fire insurance policy after hearing this real-life story.
Bastien Larouche of Ro-Bois-Tic presented his story on how to produce components for 1,500 cabinets per week with just four employees. He described the first ‘lights-out operation’ in woodworking in Canada. His practical case study showed that this is also possible for a relatively small plant.
Ann-Marie Snook of Nienkamper linked their ongoing success to the close co-operation with architects and designers. Leading design, high quality and innovation are not a coincident; they are a part of the business model.
Each of the presentation was worth the registration fee, if the audience brings the information home to their boardrooms and discusses the possible application for them.
However, the follow up Wood Tech Summit 2014 originally planned for October this year was postponed because of insufficient enrolment. Some people say it was to be too expensive.
There are also other events, for example the Bluewater Wood Alliance puts on networking events for its members. Non-members can also come for free. The afternoon was filled with relevant presentations. Blum Canada presented their ‘old age suit.’ Besides the fun, the suit simulates the increasing immobility through ageing. There was a powerful message, the strongest demographic group, the baby boomers, are the seniors now. Product design and functionality must adjust to their needs.
Richelieu and Hettich presented separately on new the trends affecting the industry. The sizes of condos shrink from year to year and the ratio from houses to condo is also shifting to condos. The result is that furniture design and functionality has to adjust to this new reality. The traditional definition by room is not so clear anymore. The same room now frequently functions as a kitchen, a dining room and a living room, and thanks to a Murphy bed, the living room turns into a bedroom.
I did not observe that the audience took note of these important facts. The also did not have their marketing and product development people listen to these presentations. I bet that very few people in the audience took the message back to their team.
Industry associations such as the Canadian Kitchen Cabinet Association (CKCA) provide information to their members in national and regional meetings. In the recent meeting in London, Ontario George Lightfoot, a fellow consultant, talked about motivation, developing soft skills and employee motivation. I delivered a presentation on CKCA product certification. Again the audience was small compared to the potential size of the effected industry – Ontario’s cabinet manufacturers.
There are more events and initiatives, which can help the manufacturers. The online WMC Management Skills Training is just one of the programs offered by UBC/CAWP. Colleges also offer programs, which reach out to the industry. Additionally, other organizations and consulting companies provide training and guidance to the industry. WISnet has recently started a series of network meetings around Burlington, Ontario, machine and software supplier’s host open houses with training elements. They are all relevant to the different objectives of the companies.
So why do so few people attend these events? I do not have a clear answer to that question. I don’t think it is lack of advertising, because I see them advertise plenty. I do not think it is the cost, because the free ones are undersubscribed as well.
What reasons remain?
Is it ‘no training needed’ or ‘no time for training?’
What happens when we have no time for education and skills development? I do not mean the occasional scheduling conflict. I mean the systematic issue of not taking time for developing the employee knowledge base. What happened to ‘knowledge is power?’
To be clear, merely going to an event or sending employees to an event is not enough. Participating in a conference or listen to a training session just connects to the knowledge. It requires that this information is distributed in the company. How many companies send one or more employee to a tradeshow or to a conference – and that’s it? No follow up, no meeting with more peers where a summary is presented, no discussion on how the gained information could be used to better the company. If this important second step is not completed, you might as well not attend in the first place.
The company knowledge base needs to be developed. If we cannot hire the knowledge we need to develop it ourselves. This will not happen by coincidence. You need to plan it and execute the plan. 

Sepp Gmeiner is a partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions he can be contacted at:

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