WALKER — One West Michigan manufacturer has embraced a “Wild West” approach to running its shop floor.
In a move focused on workplace culture, Walker-based precision machining supplier Micron Manufacturing Co. has not only increased hourly wages for employees, but it’s also created flexible work schedules and removed supervisor positions.
The reason: Micron President Mike Preston sees value in trusting his 39 employees to finish the work on their own time.
“Make a system so people know what to do every day, so you don’t have to tell people what to do every day,” Preston said of the company’s strategy. “They know there is a process, they know where to find the process, and it helps them make decisions. I don’t have to ask someone else what the next task is to do.”
At Micron, the company’s self-directed work teams are “natural extensions of lean thinking,” said General Manager Dan Vermeesch.
For example, the company uses visual identifiers — whiteboard calendars, charts and signs — with assignments and/or processes to guide employees during their tasks. It’s a system that maximizes performance and eliminates costly downtime, Vermeesch said.
“We have no mid-level management; there are no supervisors,” he added. “(Employees) determine the days of the week they work, the hours of the day they work, the machines that they work on. It’s up to them. There has to be a primary backup for everything, and they coordinate their schedules amongst themselves (and) the vacation times they take.”
According to a report from Deloitte Insights, more than 80 percent of executives rated employee experience as important or very important. Digging deeper, Deloitte reports that in 2017, 23 percent of companies believe they are excellent in helping employees balance life and work demands, up 4 percent from 2016.
According to Preston, the shift to flexible schedules and the focus on workplace culture comes down to retaining employees in a challenging recruiting environment for employers.
“That’s an attraction, especially now (that) it’s about more than a paycheck,” he said. “We have a very good reputation for our company to the point that people … sometimes knock on our doors because, you know what, we have a great culture.”
The company’s best advocates are its current employees, who frequently cite Micron’s culture as their top reason for working there, Vermeesch added.
“(Micron’s) an environment people can really thrive in and become who they are meant to become,” he said. “That’s what we are trying to create here, as crazy as that may sound.”
Micron started an apprenticeship program two years ago as another way to create a talent pipeline for the company. Currently, the program has enrolled four people who will graduate in March, Vermeesch said.
To accompany its apprenticeship program, Micron has partnered with Grand Rapids Community College and Ferris State University to offer internships.
The programs prepare employees for positions when they enter the workforce, making it possible for Micron to give its employees freedom, Vermeesch said.
“You hear about apprenticeships all over the place now,” he said. “Three years ago, there were ideas of apprenticeships. … Everybody now wants apprenticeships. Well, we were pretty early adopters of that, so we have a very good training system for our machinists and a pretty good training system for everybody else.”
The U.S. Department of Labor reported 21,000 registered apprenticeship programs nationwide in 2016, an increase of 429 program from the prior year.
Nowadays, if a company doesn’t have an outreach program, then “good luck” finding workers, Vermeesch said.
“That’s how we combat the skills shortage issue,” he added.
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY
As a family-owned business founded in 1952, Micron is in its fourth location, moving from the John Ball Park area in Grand Rapids to its current 1722 Kloet St. NW location in Walker more than 50 years ago.
“This is second-generation leadership,” said Vermeesch, Preston’s brother-in-law. “We have the third generation working on the machines on second shift, and the fourth generation comes in on Saturdays and plays on the computers. This is family.”
By creating long-standing relationships, the company has built a network of clients. Today, Micron’s annual sales are between $5 million and $10 million, with 30-35 percent of the business coming from hydraulics, 10 percent in oil and gas, 10 percent in automotive, 10 percent in heavy duty trucks and 6-7 percent in office furniture.
Starting this year, Micron looks to hire six people, said Vermeesch, noting a few of Micron’s employees are retiring.
His selling proposition to potential employees: “This vision that family is No. 1, and that is something that has always been inherent in this company,” Vermeesch said.
“We have people come through here every three weeks … to see what we are doing,” he said. “A lot of them think we are crazy. They think, ‘How can you run a business like that? It’s the Wild West.’ But that’s OK — it works.”
Made in Michigan: Walker-based Micron Manufacturing Co. makes precision-machined parts for OEM customers in the hydraulics, oil and gas, automotive, heavy duty trucks and office furniture industries. The family-owned company employs 39 people and hopes to hire another six workers this year. President Mike Preston said the company’s focus on workplace culture, with flexible schedules and a lack of mid-level supervisors, has helped with employee retention and should serve to its benefit in attracting workers in a tight labor market.