Afterthought: What We Do

Today’s Machining World Archives August 2010 Volume 06 Issue 06

The Budweiser radio commercial extols the virtue of beechwood aging and its beer’s crisp, clean taste. Heaven knows what those revered adjectives mean. Bud’s spot ended with a telling sentence, “It’s what we do.” That line meant something to me.

Budweiser was stating very clearly that brewing beer “is what we do,” and I buy the premise—if not the product. Defining what we do is important.

Can you succinctly—in one pithy sentence—say, “I grow delicious potatoes,” or “I make stainless steel,” or “I fly a Boeing 737 for Southwest Airlines”?

In a sophisticated economy like America’s, many of us have trouble devising a simple, declaratory sentence that explains what we do so clearly that we understand it, much less an uninitiated listener. It’s the cocktail party opener, the elevator speech, or the first sentence on the mortgage application.

But I think answering the question “what do you do?” for yourself is a deeper interrogatory that can bring clarity and momentum to a foggy, plodding career and even a foundering personal life.

For me, defection, lack of focus, and drift are continual problems to deal with and often look away from. I’ve tried to do a lot of different things related to the machine tool industry, but my vexing conflict has been between creative deal making—buying and selling—and managing.

I have observed the people of the machining world joust with a similar conflict. Many people gravitate to the machining business because they love to make things. I remember my father telling me a vignette about Mr. William Simeon Davenport, the inventor of the Davenport screw machine. He was a brilliant inventor and tinkerer. He loved making machines but was lousy at running a business. The salient punch line of the story was that Mr. Davenport could make anything except money.

This is the story of so many terrific machinists who start companies out of the sheer joy of creating metal products more elegantly than anybody else ever had. They buy cool machines that enhance their metalworking skills—but managing machinists, particularly that who lack their passion and skill—that is the rub.

If I were to ask a lot of folks in our business to tell me what they do, many would answer, “I machine perfect components.” But if they own a shop that employs a number of people, they might fumble around before fabricating an answer.

I have complicated my own life story by starting Today’s Machining World. I did it because I love writing, and I know a lot about the precision machining business because I have interacted with machining people for four decades. These days I write several essays per week. It’s what I do. But I also hustle ads occasionally, make personnel choices, crack the whip, and proofread. How I love commas and apostrophes.

So what do I do? I create machinery deals, I create a magazine, and oh yes, I run businesses that produce quality products that people buy.

The Busch family, who made beer for centuries, sold out to InBev, a Belgian-Brazilian alcoholic beverage conglomerate, in 2008. Do we accept beechwood aging or is it as dead as Ed McMahon? In the incredibly complicated world of international business “it’s what we do” has little meaning. For InBev the answer is more accurately “we keep the stock price up.”

But at the intensely human level of you and me trying to hold on to our personal and professional compasses, it is still a crucial issue that keeps us up at 3:00 a.m.

I like to pose questions—it’s what I do.

Lloyd Graff

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