A five-hour Amtrak trip from Chicago brought me to a heart of custom wood industry change: the Architectural Woodwork Institute’s professional development conference in St. Louis. AWI’s May event spoke volumes of how woodworking businesses are positioning themselves for changing client demands — by becoming better businesses.

Especially encouraging is that so many of the AWI presentations were peer-to-peer, with woodworkers who have had some measure of success in their business sharing it with others. One example was Allegheny Millwork’s Mike Bell. At his breakfast presentation on the newest Architectural Woodwork Standards, Bell noted that the guide, issued last year, is more than a standard. It is also a reference tool.

“There is some great resource for the woodworker that is not part of the standard,” said Bell. He encouraged woodworking and millwork firms to begin by reading the user guide at the beginning. Bell noted that the section on “Humidity vs. Wood,” is extremely helpful. “A lot of the heartache for woodworkers is around humidity,” Bell said, and he advised the audience to be sure the wood is ready for installation, and to make liberal use of hydrometers for testing moisture levels.

Off the Shelf
The important thing is to read the standards book, Bell advised wisely. “If the book stays on the shelf, you will learn everything in it,” he warned — possibly in the course of contract performance disputes with clients.

A number of the AWI sessions ran one or even two days, including “Lean for Woodworkers,” presented by John Wiley, president of Elipticon Wood Products. The Little Chute, WI, firm is perennially acknowledged in the WOOD 100 program. Wiley noted that lean goes by various names — Kaizen, Five Why’s, 5S, Value Stream Mapping — but all involve a change in company culture and attitude. “When you do lean, you reverse the management triangle. The boss gets on the bottom,” Wiley said. He suggests starting by writing a mission statement of corporate values.

“Employees need to buy into management values,” Wiley said, at least while they are at work. “It is not important that the employees have your values; it is important that employees find ways to support your values. The point is to get everyone moving in the same direction.”

Remaking Our Schools
Rolla (MO) Technical Institute got it right. The school acquired its first CNC router (a Weeke Vantech) to train students on CNC machining, no mean feat as education budgets shrink. It took a strong act of will to fund this provision for real-world skills businesses can use. Its Wood Manufacturing and Design program, part of the WoodLINKS USA network, includes hands-on conventional machining, residential cabinetmaking, assembly and finishing. Students design and fabricate a variety of wood products. RTI cabinetmaking instructor Robert Studdard, a WoodLINKS Educator of the Year and active in Skills USA, and colleague Don Block, a drafting and design instructor, went into training on their new CNC in order to properly train their students. Good job!

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