Case: Neilsen Manufacturing, Inc – A Culture of Change

What’s the equation for successful change? Contemplate + Habituate + Advocate + Negotiate + Generate + Educate.

outside front of Neilsen Manufacturing, Inc building from parking lot
Courtesy of Statesman-Journal Mountain West eying former Neilsen Manufacturing facility for career tech school

In September of 1999, I began my employment with an intriguing little company in Salem, Oregon. This company, Neilsen Manufacturing, Inc was a fifty-year-old, family owned, union sheet metal shop that evolved itself into a world-class turnkey manufacturing company. 

NMI actually did build the Internet…at least a big chunk of it. 

At the time, there were around 360 employees, the bulk of which were operations personnel split between day and night shifts.  

While Sun Microsystems was our biggest customer, we had many others: Hewlett-Packard, Tektronix, Credence Systems, Intel, and FEI, just to name a few of our most notable tech-related customers.  

Thousands of individual parts for hundreds of different projects were run through multiple stages of fabrication, possibly some type of coating such as chromate, paint and/or silk-screening, and then would often end up in some stage of mechanical or electro-mechanical assembly. 

The company was already ISO 9001 certified when I arrived. There existed a well-written, easy to understand Quality Manual. The Quality Assurance department inspected things using proper statistical process control. There was a successful (though tedious) non-conformance process in place. Very importantly, they had a tight grip on change management, especially where document control was concerned. Things ran well enough to pass some rather rigorous ISO 9001 certification requirements. 

I was initially brought in to help the Senior Technical Writer wrangle the weld and fabrication shops. She was much more comfortable with the electro-mechanical assembly side of things, which was cleaner, and the workers were more polite and reasonable. 

Welders, press brake operators, and other fabrication personnel are more like construction workers. They’re often covered in grit, smell like smoke or grease, and given that they work in a loud, hazardous environment, they usually yell to be heard, which can often seem surly and intimidating. 

I was a former welder and construction worker whose hands didn’t work well enough to run a clean bead anymore. I also spent a couple of years on the receiving docks at Hewlett-Packard as both a Problem Desk Coordinator and Logistics Coordinator, where I handled the creation and maintenance of the ISO 9001 documentation needed for both positions. This combination of experience is why NMI hired me. 

The goal was to get that fabrication shop up to speed in terms of written and photographic work instructions. 

This meant breaking down cultural walls for every different section of the fabrication shop: punches, presses, mill and lathe, MIG welding, TIG welding, robotic welding, spotwelding, and the grind shack. The interesting thing is all these different sections of the fabrication shop had their own distinct sub-cultures. 

The punch operators were nerds. Press brake operators tended to be good-natured and talkative. Millwrights and TIG welders were very fastidious and precise. MIG, robotic and spot welders were often extroverted, sometimes bordering on intense. The grinders were all incredibly quiet, humble, and on the shy side. 

The one thing they all had in common was that they did not like people from the Quality Assurance office nosing around in their business, asking questions and telling them how to work. 

There was some resistance, initially. At first it was only the leads of the different units that would summon me. I would show up with my digital camera. I would take pictures of their processes as I wrote them out. I would go back to my desk, lay out the photos and text, take the paper copy for review, get it signed off, and then laminate the instructions, which would then be filed at their respective stations. 

It took about three months of this before certain individual operators started knocking on the QA door, on their own initiative, and requesting me. 

Within six months, all operators would come to get me every single time they had a new part to punch, shape, weld, or treat. They would also review their prints before every operation. If their blueprint was revised, they would come get me, and we’d revise the work instructions to match. 

They initially started doing this because it was expected by leadership; from the president of the company down to their managers and leads. It was written down as part of their procedural documentation and it was expected. 

Production personnel grew to embrace this, however, when they saw for themselves how quality issues disappeared. How it was so much easier to train new people consistently. How they were able to come to the QA office and get a fresh copy of their work instructions if the original set were destroyed or lost. As an added benefit, they started conversing more with our QA technicians and manager. Our office started to be seen as a helpful resource versus something oppressive and potentially punitive. 

This is not all, however. There was another, vital part of this system that can’t be left out. 

We had a Training Coordinator. Our Training Coordinator wasn’t a trainer. Our trainers were leads and journeymen employees and, in some cases, myself and other QA staff. Our Training Coordinator was the person who built the training system that our people had to work through to receive promotions and raises. It was a substantial training system because we had a wide variety of operational employees. Some training topics were universal, such as everyone on the shop floor had to know how to use a set of calipers. There are process-specific skills, as well, though. For example, an electro-mechanical assembler needed to be able to use voltmeters, ammeters, and impedance meters while a welder needed to know the proper electrical and gas settings to use for a particular job. 

Our operations personnel were encouraged to learn and grow. If they wanted a promotion or raise, they would put the required work in and pass their tests. As a result, they would be rewarded with a promotion or raise.  

Within two years I was the Senior Technical Writer. I covered every single process, from the punches to shipping. I was also responsible for the maintenance of our quality system documentation and the facilitation of a major QMS revision (I was also a certified ISO 9001 internal auditor at this point). 

This was when the manufacturing industry in the United States started to move from a slow decay to a rapid crumbling.  

As a result, we had to start looking at new concepts and adopting new practices. The biggest one was Lean manufacturing. As our people started to grow nervous over national news and started to see co-workers leaving our company and started to feel the impact of no profit-sharing due to cuts, the unease naturally grew. 

If this company had not built up the solid quality system foundation and history of success with its employees that it had in earlier, more fruitful years, the adoption of these new concepts and practices would have been impossible during an era when we were hearing the death knell of an entire industry all around us. 

We built Lean into everything we did. Our operations personnel showed up to the Kaizens focused and ready. They put in the skull sweat, put their shoulders to the wheel, and found ways to squeeze as much waste out of their processes as possible. Workflows were mapped, processes were documented and all of it was followed to the letter. 

They worked as hard, and as smart, and as efficiently as they could. 

Our executives stood in front of us at our monthly company coffee talks and pulled no punches when they showed us their forecasts, which just kept looking increasingly grim. We watched, in utter shock, three years into our Lean efforts when our Vice-President of Operations, Ken Gallagher, a proud, gruff, welder turned executive, stood in front of us all and openly cried at the lectern after having to lay off dozens of employees. Some of those employees he had known, and worked with, for over twenty years. 

This is about as involved and transparent as leadership can get. 

This is why many of us still communicate with each other, nearly 20 years later. We established a culture of collaborative excellence. An adaptable, beautiful, culture that learned how to manage drastic change, how to be nimble, and how to be resilient through some extremely punishing blows. 

All good things end, eventually, though. 

My last day at Neilsen Manufacturing was December 31, 2005…six years and three months after I first stepped foot into the facility. I and 124 coworkers were permanently laid off. 

Fortunately, for us, the company’s owners, Tom and Chris Neilsen, along with the executive team, were people with substantial integrity.  

Integrity was, in fact, one of the company’s four guiding principles: Integrity, Involvement, Innovation, Improvement. This was known as the Four Is. This message was posted everywhere within the company. On the shop floor, in the QA office, in the account manager’s bullpen, on the letterheads and signage. I could not forget the Four Is if I tried. 

Integrity was, quite intentionally, the first I. While the Neilsen family were very human and sometimes made human mistakes, they always took proactive accountability for their actions and owned the results of them. 

They also cared for their workers. They proved this regularly. They proved this by doing the hard things, like informing all of us about the impending massive layoff nearly a year in advance.  

During this year of misery, turmoil, and uncertainty they employed some important strategies. They hustled to complete Trade Act certification, which would provide educational opportunities to their qualified workers after the big layoff. They hosted countless big job fairs at their facilities to network their workers who had no interest in retraining/schooling through the Trade Act. They performed with due diligence to keep folks on their books by utilizing rotating, temporary layoffs to reduce resources and refresh workers, which kept them eligible for Trade Act benefits if the workers could hold out until December 31st, 2005. 

Yes, all good things end, eventually. The encouraging news is that new, good things will usually present themselves if you keep your head up and your eyes open. 

This is what sent me to Oregon State in 2006, at the age of 36, to complete my bachelor’s degree. The Trade Act paid for the last two years of my degree, all my books and supplies, and gave me two years of full unemployment benefits. 

I chose Business Administration with an option in Management of Information Systems because I was convinced then (as I still am now) that one of the biggest contributors to NMI’s demise was an old, brittle non-relational AS400 ERP system and the inability to easily relate production issues to the product. Our operational processes were efficient and robust, but our information systems were still mostly paper dependent. 

It was my hope to take what I had learned in my years at NMI, combined with the gift of an education that they had bestowed on me, and maybe help some other organization down the road with their information systems.  

As it turned out, that organization was my alma mater. 

Published by Jonah Sheridan Fenn

Nerd herder, word wrangler, working on the next chapter...

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