“What’s Working At Work” this Monday, May 11, 2020, on the RBTC Business Lunch Radio program, focused on how engineers of large, essential item manufacturers are solving their biggest problems during the COVID19 crisis.
Bela Jacobson, Director of Packaging Operations for Haskell Engineering joined John Phillips, President of the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council, and Lynda McNutt Foster, CEO, Cortex Leadership Consulting.
Bela Jacobson is the Director of the Atlanta Packaging Center of Excellence. She has 15 years with the company, primarily focused on Consumer Goods Material Handling with focus on system design, optimization, master planning, vendor management, simulation, emulation, warehouse design, and product handling.
Bela also has experience in Project Management, managing large scale project scopes, schedules, and cost. She has a B.S. in Industrial Engineering with an emphasis in Manufacturing and Warehouse/Distribution Center layout and design. She also is a Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Packaging Professional (CPP)
Transcript of radio show:
John:Hey, good morning… actually, it’s good afternoon. We’re throwing that song out to Luke Phillips, who’s just returned from Afghanistan after about 11 months of deployment, made his mother very happy this weekend on Mother’s Day, if you got to see her for the first time, it’s quite Earth, Wind and Fire. But we would say thank you to all the first responders, all the military service members, everybody out there who’s doing the work of giants during the very unusual time in our nation’s history.
But good afternoon, I’m John Phillips, I’m your host. And thank you for joining us for today’s edition of the Business at Lunch show, brought to you by the Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council. Each day at the noon hour, we seek to talk with the leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs in the Roanoke and Blacksburg regions to learn how they are using innovative strategies and just sheer determination navigate their way through this unique period, as we together create the new economy for our future.
Off to a new week, and we were hopefully closing in on the days when we were able to begin opening our economy. It is Monday, and on Mondays, we bring back our regular Monday feature ‘What’s working at work?’ with Lynda McNutt-Foster. We talk a lot, but we want to hear from you too. So, please join us for today’s show at 540-795-2510. Please give us a call at 540-795-2510.
Lynda McNutt-Foster has been an innovator in business since 1987 when she opened her first company that only 20 years old, designing new processes that became industry standards and pest control, advertising, and now the coaching industry. Lynda is a sought-after executive coach, strategist, and keynote speaker. I’ve asked Lynda to bring on a guest today as we look at managing during a crisis and bring in an engineering perspective. So, Lynda Introduce yourself and introduce your guest to our audience today.
Lynda:Good morning, John. It’s great to start Monday so I know that it (actually) is Monday. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it’s like Groundhog Day. So, thanks for having me on. Yes, I’m very excited to have Bela Jacobson join us this afternoon, because honestly, she’s busy. She works as a leader of the Atlanta packaging Center of Excellence for Haskell Engineering, which is an international engineering firm. And she has 60 team members that she’s managing through this crisis. She’s primarily focused on consumer goods, material handling with a focus on systems design, optimization, master planning, vendor management, simulation, emulation, warehouse design and product handling. So, I really appreciate Bela joining us. How are you doing this morning, Bela?
Bela:I’m great, Lynda. Thanks for having me on the show. That was quite… that was quite an introduction.
Lynda:Well, I’ve gotten to see you in action. And so, over the last 2 or 2 and a half years with your team, I’ve seen you grow with them, them grow with you. And I remember that a couple months ago when we were having a conversation and I literally said, “Wait a minute, what’s the problem with this toilet paper shortage?” We got into a conversation about manufacturing lines and how fast or quickly (they could be changed). And… and so, what’s your take on the toilet paper shortage from an engineer’s point of view?
Bela:It’s a… funny question. I never thought I’d be on the radio talking about toilet paper. But I guess here I am. So… so, actually a big portion of my career doing engineering manufacturing, I’ve worked in paper facilities actually making toilet paper. And… and, you know, you heard a lot of people saying, “Well, everybody’s still using the same amount of toilet paper. Why is there such a shortage?” And the… the reality is, there’s a couple things that played into the shortage. And part of it is that most people are out of their house for a lot of the day, whether it’s at work or whether it’s out at stores, or, you know, just not in their homes. And so, they’re using somebody else’s toilet paper.
And what’s interesting is that, when you’re at home, you have a specific kind of toilet paper that you can use at home, right? You can use the single roles that you buy at a grocery store while at a… you know, at a supermarket or at a restaurant, they might have those… those industrial-sized large rolls that have those specific dispensers that come with them that you probably wouldn’t really know what to do with if you had one of those rolls at your house.
And so, when everybody ended up staying home, everybody was spending 100% of their time at home and 100% of the toilet paper they needed had to be a specific type. And the industry really has a method for how they’re… they’re manufacturing, and each of those manufacturing lines have specific capabilities. And so, you might have a set of lines that are particular at a particular paper plant that’s making home use toilet paper.
And, and the… the facilities that are making those… those away-from-home as they call them, the away-from-home types of toilet paper, those big industrial rolls. They might be at a standstill without a whole bunch of people buying the large rolls. But the… the lines where they make those large rolls can’t just be switched on and off to go from large rolls to small rolls. It’s actually quite an undertaking to change one of those lines.
Lynda:That’s one of the things I think I learned from you is how many months it can take to change a line, a manufacturing line, right? Like, anywhere from 3 months to 6 months or something, depending on whether you need to make a minor change or you need to build a whole sort of different apparatus. Is that correct?
Bela:Absolutely. The equipment that does each of the functions on a manufacturing line is very specific to the function and the size and the specifications that it needs to function… that needs to work at. And so, if… if we tell a machine, “You need to make a roll of toilet paper that’s 4.2 inches long and has, you know, whatever it is, 400 sheets of toilet tissue,” that’s what it knows how to do. And to retool a machine or to change out a machine altogether, retooling is what takes, I would say, the least amount of time, you know, changing kind of change parts on a machine to help it adjust to a small change in a product.
But really, replacing machines, which is what you need to do when you make large changes to the type of product you’re making, those machines generally have between a 6-months and 9-months lead time from when you design the machine to when you can install it. And then there’s beyond that sort of commissioning startup phase where it’s slowly growing into its final speed and capability which, like you said, it could take even up to a year or more to get aligned functioning in a new… in a new product.
So, it’s not something you can just turn on when they run out of toilet paper at the grocery store and say, “Quick, get some more.” You’re talking about almost a year turnaround for something like that.
Lynda:Well, that’s why I really wanted to speak with you today and have… have a conversation. Because to change… sometimes to change something that appears to the outside world as being very small is actually a very complex thing to change. So, I’ve… I worked with a lot of engineers and coach a lot of them. And… and your ability especially and with your team (who’s amazing, talented team out there in Atlanta) is about creative problem solving. Like, you have major changes that need to happen. There’s time constraints. There’s money constraints and those type of things. So, when you work with these man… these big manufacturers that you guys do, and you’ve been in this for a while, and what’s the biggest, most impactful things that you’re seeing from like your manufacturer clients… clients right now that your teams are working with?
Bela:So, a lot of our manufacturing is a… a little bit of background. In general, we work to design new manufacturing lines for all sorts of different customers in the… in the food, beverage, consumer products industries. And then we also help them when they’re trying to change their manufacturing or improve their manufacturing. And if you look at the… the grocery store aisles and you look at the changes that have happened over say the last 10 years, and you probably have noticed that many manufacturers, they used to be in a, you know, in a 64-ounce container, and then it’s in a 61-ounce container, and then it’s in a 58-ounce container, and they’re selling it for the same price, right?
And, but to go from 1 container size to the next container size, believe it or not, is a huge undertaking on their part in their plants to change the equipment and to change the processes. So, that’s usually, you know, 6 months to a year-long process to get the new equipment and start it up. And then the planning for that is even longer ahead of time. So, in looking at our customers trying to change their production or change their processes, it takes a while. So, you know, they’re all right now thinking about, “How do we react differently based on what’s happened over the last couple months?” And to just throw a wrench into it, most of them aren’t allowing non… non-employees into their plants. And so, for folks like us, we’re considered contractors, so we are not allowed into many of the plants right now just to keep… you know, for health, safety, all of that. They’re trying to keep their plants at a minimum level of… of exposure.
But what we are seeing is that the plants that have invested a lot in automation and… and, you know, maybe a whole manufacturing line only has 1 or 2 operators, they can socially distance on those lines and keep those plants running pretty well. You know, you’ve seen a lot in the news about the meat and chicken plants getting a lot of news… news time because they’re getting a lot of people… there’s a lot of people coming home sick. And part of that entire industry is that you’ve got a lot of people working in close proximity to each other, so it’s not as automated as a lot of the other consumer goods packaging. It’s a lot more manual and a lot tighter quarters for the… for the of people working side by side.
So, you know, in the industries where we see fewer… fewer operators and more automation, they’re getting hit much less hard than the ones that have a lot of… a lot of manual operations and people next to each other, shoulder to shoulder.
Lynda:No, that makes sense. Well, so you’re talking about your team. So, you’re used to, right, disperse your teams to the manufacturing plants. And what I heard you just say is, they’re not able… you know, if they’re not essential to that operation, then they’re working from home now. And you had to make that change, you know, sort of rapidly fast. As your customers were changing, you were changing. What kind of challenges with the customers are your teams seeing right now with having to work with them remotely?
Bela:So, I’ll certainly say, on the flip side, a lot of the work we do is not… even though many of our team members are based in Atlanta, most of our work is based around the country. And so, our team is pretty prepared in terms of having video-conferencing tools and, you know, shared spaces over the cloud to share documents and share pictures and share… share all sorts of files with our customers and from our customers.
And so, in that… in that sense, we already kind of had the… the framework set up to be able to work remotely with our customers. But a lot of what we do with our customers is we get in front of those machines and we look at them and we figure out what’s going wrong, or we figure out how to improve them. And we talk about opportunities and we talk about what… what needs to happen, and most hands on is actually getting those machines installed and started up.
And so, many of our projects were put on hold where folks have to go back home from our team, and we’ve seen sort of a new… a new opportunity in supporting our customers remotely. So, we’ve found some… some tools that have helped us do that. And so, there’s… there’s just a handful of different… of different companies out there that… that are supporting with… with being able to remotely access the… the… the line control. So, how do we adjust the line controls from a remote site versus being in the plant?
And so, we’ve been using some of those tools remotely just to help us help them. Also, having them, you know, videotape a problem that they’re having and send us the video and we can then diagnose and tell them how to fix it. And so, it’s been a different… a different set of challenges, but I think, you know, our customers are… are adapting just as… as… are adapting just as we are. And we’re all kind of learning through this together.
Lynda:Okay, awesome. Yeah, because I was thinking about all the customers you guys kind of represent and there’s definitely some alcohol… alcohol manufacturer. So, I’m wondering, besides your toilet paper people having to sort of amp that up quite much, have you seen any changes in the… many of people would have heard of these types of alcohol. You know, I’ve definitely seen that consumer spending for alcohol is up significantly. Anything on that front?
Bela:You know, we like to joke that our business is very stable because when the economy’s bad, people drink, and when the economy’s good, they just drink better alcohol. And so, they keep us busy regardless of what the economy looks like. And, you know, even our own team, we’ve set up happy hours for our own team, virtual happy hours. And we… we say, “Support our customers have a drink.”
So, you know, it’s our… our alcohol customers, for the most, part are very similar to the other customers and that they’re… they’re doing what they can to continue to produce and get what they can on the shelves. And we have seen some of our customers step up, and especially the distilleries, and folks like that that are making, you know, sanitizer available for… for, you know, hospitals and for local communities and things like that. So, a lot of the manufacturers and alcohol are actually kind of putting on pause some of their alcohol production and helping in the community get some alcohol out for sanitation purposes.
Lynda:Yeah. And, you know, that’s funny because earlier, it was like, you can’t really retool that quickly for like toilet paper from the commercial. But like GM and some of the distilleries are doing sanitizer. Can you quickly explain that to me? And then I’m going to jump back to John so he can break in with an… you know, an update.
Bela:Sure. They’re… they’re not really retooling for the sanitizers, right? They’re using the same size bottles and they’re just changing their formula of what’s going in the bottles. So, they’re not… they’re not creating sort of that gel sanitizer that you might buy in a pump. They’re rather providing like the liquid alcohol so that you can use it to sanitize. So, it’s sort of just a change in their process system of what goes into that tank before it gets filled into the bottle.
Lynda:And same thing with…
John:Well, I’m John Phillips and… oops, sorry there. I’m John Phillips, and I thank you for listening to Business at Lunch, brought to you by the Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council. And we’re talking problem solving during a crisis with Bela Jacobson, director of the Atlanta Packaging Center of Excellence for Haskell Engineering, along with Lynda McNutt-Foster today. Bela, I’ve got a few questions for you. I really like to learn how your… if you take a systems approach to problem solving, and if what you do normally changes during a crisis, what… how do you balance these 2 situations and making good decisions?
Bela:That’s a good question. So, you know, internally for our team has been probably equally as challenging as externally for our customers. So, you know, we have a team that generally is working face-to-face in an office or face-to-face with our customers in the… in the field. And so, it’s a… it’s a very team-based problem-solving approach. We do a lot of peer reviews to make sure that the problems that we solve, we don’t solve in vacuums, we get the right experts in the room to help bring those solutions to be as good as possible with the knowledge that we’ve got available to us. And so, you know, in any given week in the office, we’ll have 2 or 3 peer reviews with 20 or 30 people sitting in for an hour to give their expertise or their feedback.
Doing that remotely, has been a new challenge for us. But like I mentioned before, you know, doing the video calls, getting all of the information on a video call is… was part of the process before. And so now, it’s just, “How do we make sure people who have comments can get their comments in and heard when you’ve got 30 people on a call together?” But that process has been continuing forward and continuing to happen as it has been before which is… which is good.
You know, we have slowed down a little bit as customers have said, “Hey, we’ve got to pause projects. Hey, we can’t have you in our facilities.” But as of about a week and a half ago, they started calling back and saying, “Okay, we’re ready to start getting rolling again.” So, we’re still doing what we do, just from our home.
John:Well, do you see that trend accelerating? And are folks going to make some changes from where they were perhaps a month ago or 2 months ago before all this broke out? Are they going to take on different products or do some changes in their strategy? What… what is their approach?
Bela:You know, I think you’re going to see a lot of changes in strategy, whether it’s being able to change… you know, if you… if you look at the… the folks that are selling products to restaurants or to big distributors, you know, you get a 200-pound box of chicken legs, you know, a single consumer might not want to buy a 200-pound box of chicken legs. And so, now, they’re stuck with that box. How do they get that to the customer when there’s a shortage in the grocery store of the, you know, a 3-pound container?
And so, I think some of those bulk providers might want to look at, how do they quickly changed from the size production they’re making today to a smaller… a smaller production, whether that’s having a contract manufacturer, you know, do that offline or whether that’s adding capabilities to their facilities? I think that’s a big discussion in those in those plants.
I think the other change I think you’ll see a lot of is some more automation. I think you’re going to see some of those manual tasks get changed to tasks where it doesn’t matter if there’s a pandemic happening outside the walls of the facility, you’re still making what you need to make successfully.
John:Manufacturing has certainly been on the forefront of affected by the crisis, either through having to shut down, adjust their products and services quickly, or even be called into national service, as we saw GM do with the ventilators. Those are quick changes and having to be made in real-time. And a lot of decisions go into that both financially and structurally. One of the big adjustments that’s being talked about of course is the adjustment from offshore production, and how much production America has lost over the last 30 years or 20 years. How do you see that affecting your customers? And what are your thoughts on those types of changes?
Lynda:So, you know, a lot of our customers have… have a… we have a split, you know? A lot of manufacturing is still happening in the US. There’s particularly for things that are difficult to transport overseas and offshore, you know? If it takes a long time to get here and there’s a short shelf life, it’s not going overseas right now. If it’s something that takes up a lot of space on a boat, like toilet paper, we’re not shipping that in from overseas because it’s… it’s not worth the cost, right?
But there is some… some things happening overseas and, you know, we’re working right now with… with a company to build mask manufacturing in the US. We were engaged a couple weeks ago, almost a month ago now to… to re… relocate mask manufacturing from China to the US, which is I think a big trend that we’re going to see happening soon is more manufacturing here for things that potentially aren’t as reliable when things affect the world economic situation and traveling capabilities of the world.
So, you know, we’re looking at building a facility that makes millions and millions of masks a week bringing it here to the US. And, you know, in terms of turnaround time, that’s actually one that they’re looking at have that running masks in just a couple months. So, that’s an interesting project that we probably wouldn’t have anticipated 3 months ago.
John:Certainly a very quick change for that kind of volume, and one that I… that is very impressive and necessary to bring back on to our own shores. As we move down to the bottom of the hour, where we’ll take a break here in about 4 minutes for the news. I’m curious just to know what you think on that trend, also on supply chain and how that’s going to be affected… how that’s going to affect the manufacturers. We’ve had a lot of manufacturers in our region. They’re very important, both lot of transportation manufacturing facilities with Volvo and the new Mac facility coming in. And we wonder about that supply chain, whether that… that will be opportunities for us from an economic development standpoint to bring additional manufacturing into our region, and how companies will approach those types of decisions. What are your thoughts on that as we close out the bottom here?
Bela:Well, I’ll say my expertise is not on the manufacturing of automobile side, it’s more on the consumer goods side. But I think in general, the… the savings of doing things overseas is… is for the most part where it’s labor intensive. You know, if you… if it’s… if you need a lot of people to do something, it’s currently cheaper to do that in a lot of other places around the world than it is to do it here. When you start automating, and you’re able to do things without people… without the same quantity of people, maybe not without people at all, but without the same quantity of people, it becomes more realistic to bring it in-house when you start talking about the cost of transportation, and the cost of quality, making sure all of that happening in-house might be a lot more reasonable when you’re starting to remove the… the… the human element from it.
So, if you can… if you’re going to automate… if you’re going to change your processes overseas, I think there’s going to be a big push to, if you’re going to change the processes anyway, change them to be here.
John:It certainly will affect the types of training and the skills and background we want to bring on to these manufacturing floors. How do you see that being affected by any of the manufacturing realm over the coming… coming year?
Bela:Yes, absolutely. So… so, a lot of… I’ll say that the lower-skilled jobs that are on the manufacturing floor are probably the ones I would say most… most at risk. The… the ones that we’re going to need a lot of that we don’t have currently are, are people who … can do mechanical and electrical maintenance, you know, on the machines, on the… on the… on the different equipment that’s in the facilities that might not be there now. So, maintenance is going to be a big opportunity for people to, you know, be trained in mechanical, electrical maintenance to… to be line operators.
You know, the line operators to understand how the machines work and to be able to make that line work the way it’s supposed to work takes some training and takes some I’ll say on-the-job experience that… that you can get when you’re running a line. Those are the people that are going to need… need to be available and be able to be either hired, already trained, or train them.
And, you know, one of the things we do is we do training in a virtual environment. We put the entire manufacturing facility in a virtual reality setting to let somebody learn how to run a line without ever touching one of these 10-million-dollar manufacturing lines and risking… you know, risking shutting it down or anything like that. We let them train offline. And that’s a big help to just make sure they come on ready to… ready to rock and roll with it with a brand-new line.
John:We’re now at the bottom of the hour and we’ll kick it back to Bill with the news. And I’m John Phillips and you’re listening to Business at Lunch, brought to you by the Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council.
Great music there, Bill Trafiro. Thanks for bringing us back in. And I’m John Phillips and you’re listening to Business at Lunch, brought to you by the Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council. We’re discussing an engineer’s perspective on problem solving during a crisis with Bela Jacobson, director of the Atlanta packaging Center of Excellence for Haskell Engineering, along with Lynda McNutt-Foster.
We’re having an interesting discussion there on the talents and skill sets that are going to be called upon in the future and how to train and be ready for those. I think we know that automation… you made a great point here, Bela, that automation is the way of the future. And it is fantastic when you walk into these high-tech manufacturing facilities and see the robotics and how they are putting that to work. We have a very active robotics community in our region. And we recognize that a lot of the types of jobs that were being done by multiple people are now being taken over by robots. So, there’s going to be maintenance of those robotics, facility requirements, but there’s also going to be the folks that program them and make sure that they’re operating during the lines operations. Tell us how folks should adjust for the future as that becomes much more important, and what types of training they should be… that will be in demand in the future?
Lynda:That’s a good question. So, I think there’s… there’s a big range, right? So, there’s… there’s the people who are designing the machines. So, the mechanical engineers, electrical engineers that are designing and programming each of those machines to do what they need to do in the bigger picture of that manufacturing setting. Then there is people like… like my team, where we design the… the entire line where we pick the and choose which unit operations need to go on that lines to make the entire line successful, and we program the line to work as a single unit and… and be integrated together as a single unit. So, you’re getting the end product from all those individual machines, you’re getting that end product out.
So, again, mechanical engineers, industrial engineers, control engineers, mechatronics, depending on the school, they call the programs different. But I’m really looking at PLC programming, mechanical engineers using… using different types of AutoCAD and 3D… 3D CAD software are… those are going to be the types of jobs that are helping drive this industry. But at the same time, you’ve also got, those are… those are, for the most part, 4-year degrees in most universities, right? But you’ve also got technical school degrees and technical school apprentices… apprenticeships that are going to be in high demand as well.
So, you’re looking at, like I mentioned earlier that the maintenance crews been the mechanics, the… the electrical maintenance of the line operators. You know, those don’t require 4-year degrees to get into that work. And so, you… you can start by, you know, getting some of that training ahead and then doing on-the-job opportunities to, you know, hone that skill set and starting in it now. But in every plant we go to, the folks that they can’t get enough of are skilled maintenance workers for that equipment. So, I think that’s a huge place where people can start looking at getting some training to get in early now on the ground.
Lynda:Bela, this is… the information you’re providing is so dense and rich and… and helpful. And I’m sure… honestly, I’m… I was trying to think of the headline so far, which is like, “You don’t have to be an engineer to learn a lot from this conversation.” In fact, I think that the average person going, “What’s next?” I mean, you’ve really given some nuts and bolts, and really some point people in the right direction of, “Hey, if you’re looking to get a degree of any kind in this field,” you’ve given a lot of options there.
You know, what I’ve been impressed by a great deal since the crisis started and we’ve had conversation is about the ways from the very beginning that you created engagement with your team. And I’ve really been taking note of that. And I’ve actually been distributing to a lot of my other clients, those techniques, and they’ve picked them up and they’ve used to them with the kind of success you haven’t. I think some of the things that you have done, especially at the beginning are now almost commonplace. But they certainly weren’t the day that everybody was starting to work in their living rooms.
So, I was… I was wondering if you’d be willing to share some of the techniques that works best for your team. So, what’s working on keeping your virtual team engaged right now?
Bela:So, it’s funny. You get 60, 65 people and you tell them all, “Go work in your house.” And for some people, that means they’re alone in their apartment, and for some people, that means that they’re trying to work from their house while their spouse also tries to work, and their children are trying to school and or… or just maybe screaming in the background. And so, it’s… it’s very different for each person what working from home looks like.
And so, a big part of what I’ve tried to do is try to normalize it, right? It’s not wrong if you’ve got a kid in the background. It’s not wrong if you… if you… if your house is messy. And so, from the very start, all of our meetings have been video chat. So, I’ve asked everybody to turn on their camera. And it really makes people feel more human to each other, you know? I’m leading a team and when my… my 4-year-old son walks into the room and tells me he has to go to the bathroom, you know, everybody kind of laughs on the call, and then we get past it and we keep going, right?
And so, I think one part is… is having those… having everybody be on video. And it’s a kind of a conversation starter to say, ‘Oh, what’s not in your background? Who’s that a picture of? You know, what’s… what’s that ornament from? Where did you go?” And so, I think that… that was one of the very first things.
The other couple things that we started from that very first week, it was… it was sort of a 3-part effort. First, we set up check-in meetings. So, I set up every other week, a check-in meeting with about 6 or 7 people per meeting. And there was no agenda work-related to the… the check-in meetings are set for 30 minutes. And the idea was just to make sure people are doing okay.
Different people have reacted to the stresses of working from home differently. And… and, you know, some people… some people love it. Some people are introverts and they say, “I love this. This is the best thing. I wish I’d done this earlier.” And some people are very lonely and, you know, looking forward to that opportunity to interface with other people. And so, having an opportunity, not just for me to check in on them, but for them to talk to each other and see each other. And so, we’ve been doing that since the beginning.
The second has been happy hours. So, you know, to support our customers, of course, we have… every week, we set up about 4 happy hours a week. And 2 of them are, you know, 5:00 or 6 o’clock. And then we’ll have 1 at about 8:30 or 9:00 at night. And then 1… 1 of the young women on my team has actually set up an 8 o’clock AM happy hour, and she instead calls it a healthy hour, and she leads the workout for our team.
And… and it’s interesting because the… the happy hours aren’t so much based around drinking something. They’re more based around just getting to have that social interaction with the rest of the team that you don’t normally get. Where you would normally have that in the break room or at the watercooler or, you know, walking by somebody’s cubicle, you don’t have those opportunities now. So, those happy hours has been a lot of fun to just get to have an opportunity to talk to other people. And they’re all… they’re all themed, which is kind of funny. I can talk about that maybe later. But they all have a theme, and each person volunteers to host a happy hour comes up with a theme. And there’s… there’s been quite a wide range. It’s been pretty funny.
And then the third part has been I’ve been sending daily emails. And so, those daily emails sometimes have very important information about what’s going on in the business and, you know, what’s changing and what’s coming up, and things they need to know. And sometimes, it’s just something to keep them occupied and keep them laughing. So, we… last week, we had a baby picture contest, and we had everybody send in their baby pictures, and then we had everybody guests whose was whose. So, it’s any… it’s sort of the whole range of opportunities to have an outlet for a social interaction.
Lynda:Yeah. I mean, it’s really what… what I’ve seen make a difference in your division. I mean, it really is obvious the engagement level you’ve been able to… to keep going. And the other thing I would say… and I think we have a caller. I think we have Jeannie waiting on… on the line. So, I want to… want to get her into the conversation and see what her question is. But you have virtual lunches. And you don’t have to respond to this before we bring Jeannie in, but I just want to say I was very impressed from the very beginning where you… you instantly realized about the need for engagement. And you’ve made it a point to say, “I’m going to have lunch with a different team members, set of team members every day. And I want my other leaders to make sure they have virtual lunches.”
And I remember from the very beginning, thinking, “Oh, I just… I just loved that.” So, I want to go ahead and, and bring Jeannie in and see what your… her comments or questions or thoughts are about all this. Jeannie, are you there?
Jeannie Newby:So, this is Jeannie. I’m here, yes. I’ve really been enjoying this conversation and love all of the things to keep your teams engaged virtually. But I wanted to go back to talking about kind of the shift in the need for the skillsets of employees, you know, as the… we do more automation and, you know, we’re changing how we’re working. How do you kind of build a culture where employees have a sense to own their own professional development and how to gain new job skills to keep up with that? You know, some people just get so entrenched and… and kind of set in the comfort zones that, you know, they’re going to become unemployable. So, what have you seen that successful there to help these employees?
Bela:Oh, good question. So… so, to be transparent, my team is made up of engineers. And so, I don’t have a bunch of folks who are… are going to have to change their approach and what they’re doing because what our team is currently doing, I think it’s going to continue to be in demand. But you know, looking at the people who are working in the facilities where we support, how do they… how do they make sure that their team members get those opportunities?
And… and, you know, it might be a little bit a little bit crass, but you kind of hit it on the head where you said your job’s not going to be here if you don’t get those skills. And I think that’s… that’s… if that was said to me, “Hey, if you don’t name these other skills, you’re not going to have a job in 5 years, or maybe in 2 years,” that would probably push me over the edge to say, “I should probably go and start earning some new skills.”
You know, there are people out there that… that think that, you know, “This is what I’ve always done, and this is how it needs to always happen or else it can’t work as well as it does currently.” And the challenge there is that they haven’t seen it work somewhere else. And so, you know, we see that in a lot of the plants we go to is they’re doing… they’re doing a process that we’ve seen it happen much better in another customer’s or another facility’s plant. But because they’ve never been exposed to it, they’re just not aware of it. And so, I think, you know, being more vocal about look at what… what’s out there and look at the opportunities that are. Because if they don’t know that it’s out there, they’re not going to pursue it.
And so, you know, even… even within our own company, you know, we do a scholarship program for the children of our employees going to college. And about 5 years ago, that scholarship program changed where it used to be, you had to go to a 4-year university. And now, it’s you can go to a 4-year university or a trade school and get that same scholarship. And so, I think even with our own… within our own company, recognizing that there’s a lot of jobs out there that we need from trade school graduates, and… and that are not necessarily 4-year degrees, but are going to be in high demand as we keep going forward.
Jeannie Newby:Thank you. And I…
Lynda:I’ve got another question… oh, go ahead, Jeannie.
Jeannie Newby:I was going to say I’m… even with your own engineers, they’ve got to be constantly working to keep up with the latest technologies and trends as well just to, you know, be at their top performance. So, sounds like you’ve…
Jeannie Newby:… been successful helping them do that as well.
Bela:Yeah… And. and we do that. We have… so, we set up goals at the beginning of each year for every one of our engineers in terms of where we see our business going and where we see the gaps in each of our individual employees in terms of compared to their peers, and compared to the industry of where we’re going and where we think we’re going to need more… more skills.
So, if there’s an area that we’re starting to see opportunities in that we haven’t in the past, then we say, “We need to… we need to get some people trained in this,” and give up those… those opportunities to the people who are showing interest in and a drive to get that training. And you see it pretty fast. You see those people who are… are, I’ll say that they jump at new opportunities and new responsibilities. You know, some do it faster than others. But as long as you keep having those conversations of where the industry is going, people are going to continue learning.
You know, we… our team stays up to… up to speed. There’s trade shows… well, currently there’s no trade shows, but… but normally during… during the… during the year, you know, specifically Pack Expo is a big trade show that we attended. It’s at the end of, you know, Fall of each year. where a lot of equipment manufacturers are there showing their equipment, you know, trying to get new customers to buy their equipment.
And our team’s biggest task at that show is not… we’re not generally buying a whole lot of equipment for any of our customers there. We’ve got a few people doing that. But usually what our team is focused on is, “What’s the new technology out there? What’s the new trends? What do we need to be focused on? Because they’re going to… they’re going to be the next opportunities for our project.”
John:Well, I’m John Phillips and… I’m John Phillips and you’re listening to Business at Lunch. Jeannie, we appreciate you calling in. Businesses at Lunch is brought to you by the Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council, and we’re discussing an engineer’s perspective on problem solving during a crisis with Bela Jacobson, director of the Atlanta Packaging Center of Excellence for Haskell Engineering, along with Lynda McNutt-Foster. And we do hope you’ll join in our conversation by calling in at 540-795-2510. That’s 540-795-2510.
I’m interested, Bela, as we’ve talked about building teams to talk about collaboration and how to build a collaborative environment in a period where we are social distance and Zoom is becoming our primary means of… of interacting with each other. What do you see is some of the challenges and some of the best methods to overcome that?
Bela:So, it’s funny. Our… as a company, we use Microsoft Teams, and we’re, you know, consistently, you know, post… and Teams is good, not just for the video conferencing, but there’s a lot of other capabilities there too. But one thing that Teams lacks currently (I think it’s coming out soon) is a vis… a visual on everybody that’s on the call. And if you’ve ever used Zoom, Zoom is a little bit different, whereas Zoom has pretty much everybody on the call, their face is on your screen all at once.
And so, when I’m having a collaborative meeting, I don’t like to use Teams because I feel like I’m just presenting to the group. You know, I can’t see everybody’s face. I can’t get those… that feedback from the group unless they actually speak up, which, you know, if you’ve ever worked with engineers, not all engineers want to speak up all the time. They like to be quiet and then answer when asked.
And so… so, using zoom, I’ve had a little bit more luck where I can actually see the people on the team, look at what their reactions are as we’re having conversations. And that really helps collaborate a little bit more. If I’m actually presenting something to the team, which I do every couple of weeks, you know, I give a presentation to the team, Teams works well for that because I don’t have to actually see everybody’s face.
But on the flip side, the rest of the Teams platform we use a lot in terms of collaborative editing of files. So, you might put a Word document or an Excel file onto Teams, and everybody accesses it at once. There’s 1 latest version, you’re not having to ask somebody to close it to get into it, and you’ve got multiple versions hanging around. When you’re all at home, it’s hard to kind of catch everybody in a centrally located document and make sure everybody’s got it updated.
So, using some of those collaborative tools has been helpful. And we have other tools like that internally as well. You know, Blue… Blue Beam is great for that for drawings, you know, for PDF drawings of… of you know, CAD and all of that. We use Blue Beam to mark it up as a… as a collaborative tool.
So, you know, we… we continue to do the things we do in the office, as well as we can virtually by using a lot of the tools as much as we can.
John:We have another caller on our line. I believe it’s Brandon from Rocky Mount. Brandon, welcome to the show, and please let us know your question.
Brandon Scott:Alright. So, speaking of building teams, I’m the number 2 at a… at a small growing professional services firm. And we’re at a field that has not really experienced a downturn as a result of the pandemic, and we don’t expect that either. How would you look at growth in scaling a company at an uncertain time like this when meeting face-to-face with prospective employees really isn’t an option?
Bela:That’s… that’s interesting. We’re having the same conversations. So, we’ve seen, you know, there are other firms out there right now that don’t have the… the capacity to keep all their team members employed right now. And so, we’re seeing a lot of good engineers, good employees being laid off and being downsized right now because their firms can’t support it. And so, we’re looking at that and saying, “This is an opportunistic time for us, right? There’s people who could be great additions to our team. How do we engage them and bring them onto our team or even have an interest in our team when they can’t really meet our team and they can’t see our offices? How do we do that?”
So, we’re having that same conversation right now. And we’ve already started doing interviews on… on video chats. So, we’ve already started that process. One of the things that we actually started last year that’s been successful is creating assessments for our higher-level engineers. And so, you know, an interview works really well to understand their personality and how maybe they would get along with the team. But it doesn’t necessarily give you that depth of how they would solve a problem.
And so, we’ve actually created some assessments that give them real scenarios that we would see in a real project and… and ask them to go in and tackle them in… in, you know, a 30-minute segment and then come back and give us the response, then we give them another question. So, we have sort of an interactive assessment where it’s not a sit-down test, but rather, “Here’s something we would see from a customer. Come back and present to us how you would… how you would approach that problem.”
And when we got to, for, you know, engineering managers and senior engineer levels, a pretty good… I think it’s 6 questions now and… and we get a group of about 5 or 6 of us on the lines for them to present to, the same as they went to a customer if they were presenting a pro… project to a customer. So, we’ve been doing that. I think, you know, bringing them into even one of those happy hours would be a good opportunity for them to get to know what the team personality is like too, and… and vice versa.
So, right now, we’re doing everything virtually. But we’ve had a couple people actually start on the team knew that had offers out before this pandemic hit. And they’ve had to sort of start their process remotely and doing as much as we can remotely to bring them in. I think the biggest thing we’ve done for new hires, we started this about a year ago where we have every new hire, set up a 30-minute knowledge transfer with every current employee, or they’re supposed to do a 30. And so, they set up about 2 a week where they sit down with somebody on our team and they get to know them on a personal level, and then that the legacy team member teaches them something unique to their job, so that they kind of get a little bit of knowledge during that… during that session. Those have been a beneficial as well for the new hires just to get to know different people on the team and learn something as they’ve been doing this from home.
Lynda:Hey, Bela, that’s… I mean, this has been so rich. Brandon, that was fantastic. I love the questions that came in from the callers. And, you know, I think we’ve all learned a lot from the time that we’ve had with you today. So, I mean, I really appreciate you taking…. I know how busy your life is. Like, you have 2 kids, your husband’s working from home too, and you’re running a division of 60 engineers. So, I deeply appreciate you taking this… this virtual lunch, so to speak, and given us a future look. So, I’m going to hand back to John. He will take us out.
Bela:My pleasure… my pleasure, Lynda. Thank you for having me on the show today, John and Lynda.
John:I appreciate Bela. And I do want to make a couple more comments. I’m curious about the future and what you see on the future bringing to us. When you look out over the next 6 months, what types of struggles you think that the manufacturers face? And what are some methods to get through that? And then take us maybe even further out than that.
Bela:Well, I think in the next few months, it’s going to be, “How do we just keep up with demand as people have… have reduced the amount of time they’ve spent going to restaurants and going out? How do we keep up with this demand in the grocery stores and in the convenience stores to make sure people have the… the necessities to continue living from home or living a higher percentage from home than they have been?” That’s going to be the immediate question, and maintaining the health and safety of the employees in the manufacturing facilities.
You know, long term, it’s going to be each of those facilities looking at how to address another situation like this, right? Even if we all get back to work in a couple months and… and the economy is 100% back open, there could be another… another swing of, you know, stay-at-home orders coming in the fall potentially. So, how do they… how do they prepare themselves to be ready for the same thing happening again if that happens? That’s going to be, I think, the top of their… their concerns. The
other is they’ve probably all made a lot of money during this time trying to… you know, they’ve been sold out. So, they’ve got a quick influx of cash, where do they invest that into their… into their existing facilities? Or do they build new build new facilities or production capabilities, so that in the future, they’ve got maybe duplicate capabilities to ramp up when they need to? I think that’s going to probably be part of that discussion as well.
John:Well, we know lots of folks are out there wrestling with these types of decisions and trying to figure out their best way to make it through those decisions and… and get set up for what is undoubtedly an unpredictable future. When you’re working with an engineering group like yourself, what kind of goals do you set for yourself over the next 6 months? And how far out do you plan when you’re in a pretty unpredictable environment?
Bela:You know, it’s the… the manufacturing environment for us… so, Haskell does, not just manufacturing, but also facility design and construction and also the… the… the process and packaging systems inside of those facilities. And so, for us, it kind of goes in waves where customers, when they’re tight on cash, they might not be building a new facility, but they might be making improvements to their existing facility to let it last, you know, just another couple years so that they can bridge that time until they can build a new facility.
So, our focus sometimes changes between, “Are we building new facilities and new manufacturing lines? Or are we adjusting and improving and trying to get every last drop out of the existing lines and the existing facilities?” And so, regardless of whether we’re building new, or improving existing, that really… both of those hone our skills for our engineers and it keeps us busy. And so, you know, it’s… it’s… it’s a… it’s a blessing in disguise, you know, but… but the economy shifts doesn’t shift people’s need to eat or go to the bathroom or… or drink. They still do all of that regardless of the economy. It just depends on what quality of product are they buying. Are they buying the expensive toilet paper? Are they buying the cheap toilet paper? You know, are they buying the nice bourbon, or are they buying the cheap, the… you know, the cheap wine? You know, what… what they’re buying does change. And so, it does change for our customers where their focus on… is in manufacturing. But for us, the manufacturing tends to stay pretty steady in terms of what’s happening in our world.
John:Yeah, Bela Jacobson, Lynda… Lynda Foster, I appreciate your all’s time today as we move to the top of the hour. And thank you so much for coming on the show. I’m John Phillips, and I thank our audience for listening to Business at Lunch brought to you by the Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council. This concludes our show for today and we’ll return on Tuesday where we get the chance to interview the Center for Innovative Technology CEO, Ed Albrigo. Thank you very much and have a safe and successful day.