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Building a Fab Business: Velocity vs. Volume

Think of a mountain river. Typically, there are stretches of white water occasionally interspersed with standing pools of calm. In the countertop business, according to the concept of Synchronous Flow, projects should move through the shop with a certain velocity like white water in a river, with a few buffer points built into the system where jobs can accumulate for a certain period of time to anticipate glitches in the process. The result is that even though jobs might be sidelined for a period of hours or even a day, all the projects are moving through the plant at a pre-determined speed, or velocity.

“The objective is to keep product moving,” says Ed Hill, founder of Synchronous Solutions, a consulting firm that focuses on helping business owners enhance opportunities for growth through increased operations velocity. “Typically in a countertop shop we control two dimensions in the flow of product through the plant. One is volume, and the other is velocity. Volume is how much, velocity is how fast. The volume is variable, depending upon the demand, depending upon various other factors that affect the flow on any day or month. But the velocity part, we want to keep that fixed.”

Determine The Control Point
With so many critical steps in the process of turning raw slabs of material into beautifully crafted kitchen furnishings, one might find it almost impossible to optimize and maintain high velocity at every station, all of the time. And, for the most part, Hill would agree. He prefers to focus instead on a single “control point” for the whole operation.

“In the counter top industry, we often put the control point at installation because that’s where the cash register rings,” says Hill. “The company doesn’t make money templating or cutting or fabricating. It makes money when it installs those counter tops in the customer’s location. Trying to optimize every step in the process can be overwhelming and chaotic, and often results in an atmosphere of chaos. All those things are important, but focus your attention on the control point or, in this case, installation. Make it beat like a drum. We call it a drum because we want it on a cadence: methodical, predictable and controllable.”

In essence, every function in the shop is tuned to keep a certain constant flow, or velocity, at the control point. Yet, as Hill points out, we do not live in a perfect world. “Murphy lives and stuff happens,” he acknowledges. “Slabs break, machines break down, people are absent, all sorts of things happen that cause disruption to the flow. So we build into the system more capacity, typically around 15%, to absorb variability and keep the drumbeat steady. It’s called protective capacity, and we call those locations of slack, buffers.”

Quality, Price AND Speed
Hill maintains there are distinct advantages to keeping flow through the shop at a constant velocity. One of them is predicting with complete confidence the turnaround time for a kitchen countertop. “Let’s say we template on a Monday and we want to install on the following Monday,” he says. “The lead times in each fabrication zone from beginning to end, template to install, are fixed. It’s not a variable amount. Their role is to serve the drumbeat of the constraint, and protective capacity is built into the system to absorb variability. So yes, we can make a promise when we template on a certain day, assuming all the information is clean.

“Countertop fabricators sell quality, which is not even a competitive opportunity anymore because you have to be pretty much perfect. They sell to some extent on price, and they sell on time. If they can be at good quality and have reasonable prices, then to be faster than anyone else assures they will get their share of the business.”

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A Day In Your Life!

For our training event in Houston, I prepared a short presentation for the first morning, before we dove deep into the details. The main message from the presentation was, “start with the business process in mind, then have JobTracker run your process more efficiently”.

The Moraware folks in attendance all took on different “jobs” in our imaginary company, “Moraware Granite & Marble, Inc”. We based our “company” on the different types of support calls and emails that we, at Moraware, have received every day for the last decade.  That’s employees from around the world at 1,400+ fabricators.

While it’s probably not as funny as when we were all acting it out, I’ve re-recorded that presentation and you can access it here:

For this post, I’ll document the process I used to prepare for the in-person training.  I found it worked pretty well, so hopefully it can help you, too.  I divided the process into two parts: (1) choosing what tasks to focus on and (2) showing the right information, the right way.

Choosing what tasks to focus on

  1. First, I thought about the different jobs that exist at the companies we work with. While some places have a Shop Manager, others call that role Production/Operation Head.  What we call them is less important than what they do.  I wrote down the list of jobs.
  1. Documenting the different tasks that these people do was the next step. Once I had a decent list for this presentation, I moved on to the next.  I realize that I had the luxury of not needing to make a list of all the different tasks at an existing company.  I’d recommend that you start with your key process(es) that gets the most product installed in the most efficient way, at the level of quality that you expect.
  1. Finally, I turned the list of tasks into a list of needs. For example, the task of “measures kitchens” turned into the need of “know where to go” because in order to measure a kitchen, you first have to get there. Once I had all of the needs identified, I created a grid with Jobs and Needs and here’s what I came up with:

Click to Download the Need vs. Job grid

Showing the right information, in the right way

  1. This part was fun. I thought about what information would satisfy the need on the grid.  Then I figured out where and how, in JobTracker, that information can be found.  Is it in a Form? A Custom Field? A Job Issue? A  Sales Lead?
  1. Then I thought about how would I be able to not only show that information, but show it in a way that provides the best value for that task (time, cost, quality).  Is it best shown in a Calendar View?  A Job View? A Report?

It turns out that all of these topics were covered during the training! And this overview presentation was done before some participants had finished their first cup of coffee. Hopefully it helped them in thinking about how their businesses run and how they want to configure JobTracker accordingly. The rest of the training went into detail about learning how to, and then actually implementing solutions right away, at the event in Houston!

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More training recap – tactical software changes and business goals

A couple weeks ago, we held an advanced training for about 35 companies that are using Moraware JobTracker. Over the 2 days, we spent lots of time working through the software as a group, and also helping individual users one-on-one.

Although there were specific goals that everyone achieved, here’s the summary of what we provided.

Tactical changes to JobTracker

When you’re immersed in the day-to-day operations of your countertop shop, sometimes it’s hard to set aside the time to make changes. Our software is an integral part of those operations – it’s a reflection of the business processes that you use to turn homeowner’s money into beautiful countertops in their house.

So, as your business evolves, it’s important to re-evaluate how you’re doing things. Sometimes that’s just simple tweaks to the calendar views, but it might also mean re-thinking how you capture data about revenue, square footage, and countertop colors.

By showing lots of examples of how things can be done, we encouraged the folks who attended to make those kinds of changes. All with the goal of making operations smoother, and making their businesses more profitable.

High-level business tips

Any time a group of countertop fabricators gets together, there’s discussion of business as a whole. In our training, we wanted to keep everything focused on the high-level. For every technical feature of our software, we linked it back to the business value.

Although there were 35 different ways of running a countertop shop, there are a lot of similarities between companies. I think one of the most interesting were understanding the key business metrics. Having a number that drives the business helps you understand what’s going on, and helps rally your employees around a common goal, too.

Building new relationships

All of us are faced with the same problems and opportunities. By building stronger personal networks, we’ll all be more successful in business. And, it’s more fun too.

One of the goals was to leave Houston with a new friend that you can talk to about countertops, and how they use Moraware JobTracker.

I think we succeeded at all three of those goals, and we’ll continue to share all of the new training materials we’ve been building for this event.

Want to know more? At Moraware, we make software for countertop fabricators. CounterGo is countertop drawing, layout, and estimating software. JobTracker is scheduling software that helps you eliminate the time you waste looking for job folders. RemnantSwap is a free place to buy and sell granite remnants with fabricators near you. We also sponsor StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators.

Mistakes, growth, and fun – a few lessons from Moraware’s history

We had a great time at our first-ever advanced JobTracker training in Houston. As part of that event, I gave a short talk that included a little about Moraware’s history. We’ve made lots of mistakes along the way, and I’m sure every business does. Hopefully, we’ll keep learning.

Here are a couple of stories and lessons.

Pre-Moraware Moraware

In 2002, my college buddy Ted started writing software for his brother’s countertop shop in central Florida. He and I were both working at venture-funded startups in the San Francisco bay area at the time, but hadn’t talked to each other in years. I think the last time we had actually seen each other was at my wedding.

We happened to meet for a beer the day he quit his job in early 2003 to start working on this software full time. I was totally infected by Ted’s enthusiasm, and I asked if I could help out. Here’s part of his email reply in February of 2003.

I don’t have to think about it at all — I would love some help. This week I have made some good progress and have gotten even more excited about the whole project, but I just wish I could code faster. So if you have some spare time to pitch in, that could help a lot. (Unless it turns out that you’re a really horrible software engineer, but I guess that remains to be seen 🙂 )

I don’t think Ted expected me to quit my job shortly after, but we’ve had a great collaboration since then. It turns out that although I wasn’t “horrible” as a software engineer, that’s not the skill that Moraware needed from me at the time (or now). The product is only a portion of what it takes to build a company. Someone has to sell the product and support the product, too. I never realized how much I’d love doing sales and support.

Early success and mistakes

As you can imagine, the first year in business was pretty difficult. By the end of 2003, we had 5 customers! Although it was very modest, we had lots of confidence that we were on the right track. It’s funny now, but we knew so little about the industry that we went to our first stone trade show in 2004 – as a warm-up for what we thought was the real business, working with Corian fabricators.

We made lots of other mistakes along the way, but kept working on JobTracker over the next several years. Another major change to our business was in 2012, when we introduced CounterGo.

What’s interesting in retrospect about CounterGo is the lesson we learned about our future development. I remember at that first trade show we got asked about doing drawings, and my answer was “we’ll never do countertop drawings”. So, now I’m a lot less sure about what we will and won’t do in the future.

Still learning

These days, about 1400 countertop companies use our software. Most of our customers are in the US & Canada, but, but we’ve also got customers in most other English-speaking countries.

Luckily, the problems that are on my mind these days are a consequence of that growth. I hope in a couple more years I’ll be able to look back on this time fondly, and draw some good conclusions. Hopefully without quite the same number of silly mistakes.

Want to know more? At Moraware, we make software for countertop fabricators. CounterGo is countertop drawing, layout, and estimating software. JobTracker is scheduling software that helps you eliminate the time you waste looking for job folders. RemnantSwap is a free place to buy and sell granite remnants with fabricators near you. We also sponsor StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators.

Why Amazon’s S3 outage affected us and what we did about it

Yesterday (2/28/2017) was a busy day for us. From about 1pm Eastern time to 1:45pm, many of our customers had slow access to our software, and throughout the afternoon, a tiny handful of folks couldn’t access certain attached files. I’m really sorry if you were affected by this. We know that lots of folks rely on us to run their businesses, and we take that responsibility really seriously.

I thought you might be interested in what happened.

The reason is because there was a major outage in Amazon’s “Web Services“. If you’re surprised that an online store has anything to do with software for countertop shops… well, it turns out that Amazon is one of the premier providers of cloud-based storage and computing. Their outage yesterday took down major parts of the internet, and luckily the effect on us was pretty minimal.

The vast majority of Moraware JobTracker and CounterGo doesn’t rely on Amazon’s S3 service, which is the one that went down. But if you’ve had customer support calls with us in the last couple of years, you’ve seen how we can share your screen almost instantly. The tool we use to do that relies on S3, and we hadn’t considered that if it broke, it could have a negative effect on us.

So, a little after 1pm, we got a call or two saying “Things are kinda slow…” which is super unusual. We started looking, and our development team immediately figured out the problem. It took about another 20 minutes to package up a fix and deploy it to our customers.

During the time it took to push out the problem, we got a flood of calls from customers saying the same thing. For about 45 minutes our whole support team was busy answering the phone with the same message. Once the fix went out, things got quiet again.

Too quiet…

Although our software was working well again, it turns out that our primary email channel was not. And to make things worse, all of our voice-mails and messages from our receptionist are routed through that same tool. Amazon wasn’t giving an ETA for their own fix, and we decided to sit tight while that all got sorted out.

Their fix took longer than we expected, but shortly after 5pm Eastern time, we got a flurry of delayed emails and voicemails. If you called or emailed us during the afternoon, you should have gotten a response last night at the latest. I’m really sorry about the slow responses, but everything seems back to normal now.

Thanks again for your patience, and we really appreciate you using our software.

Moraware in-person training – what you missed

We just got home from our first-ever in-person JobTracker training event in Houston. Despite being exhausted, all of us have smiles on our faces from being there. It was an intense two days, but I really felt everyone there (including the folks from Moraware) learned a ton.

Thank you to all of our customers and partners for taking so much time out of their businesses to attend.

The reception

We started off the event Wednesday night with a reception on the rooftop of the aloft hotel in downtown Houston. The weather was warm and clear, and it was a great space to mingle and get to know each other.

About 30 countertop companies came to our training. Folks came from far and wide, including the UK and New Zealand.

We intentionally kept the event small-ish, and the size of the group felt right. It was a good balance of big enough to have interesting discussions, but small enough to dive deeply into everyone’s story.

In addition to hanging out, we also provided chromebooks to all of the attendees so we could work from the same baseline system for the next few days.

We capped off the evening with a pretty tough trivia quiz related to the industry, but it generated a lot of laughs and some fun new knowledge. Wow, everyone but me knew that quartz is a 7 on the Mohs hardness scale.

Day 1

We started the first day with the whole Moraware team play-acting a typical day in the life of a fabrication company. We gave a short summary of how we see the roles of most employees – including shop worker, scheduler, templater, and the business owners of countertop shops.

After talking to hundreds of fabricators, we think we’ve got a pretty good idea of how a typical shop breaks down the work to be done every day.

Then, we dove into JobTracker software. Since the core of that software is scheduling and the calendar, Kathleen started there. Another key component of JobTracker is managing all of the information about jobs, the next section was forms.

We alternated classroom-style instruction with hands-on work. So after hearing about how you might change your calendar or forms for 15 minutes, everyone had a chance to actually make changes, either in a training system or in their real Moraware JobTracker.

Our partners made 1-minute presentations about their add-ons to our software. Thanks again to Job Well Done, Duda Consulting, Fabricator’s Choice, and DataBridge Integrations for their help and support throughout the event.

After a super-tasty lunch, we continued the fast-paced instruction by covering phases, sales leads, and inventory.

After another break for dinner, we ended the evening with a JobTracker lab – imagine math lab in high school where you’re working on your homework but an expert is there to help. It’s amazing, but the three hours in the evening flew by.

I couldn’t believe that it was almost 10pm by the time everyone left, after more intense hours of working on digging into JobTracker and making changes based on what they learned throughout the day.

Day 2

On the second day, we kept the same idea of the format. Patrick started with an overview of reporting, and we all spent time working on that for a little while. But, for the rest of the morning we broke into smaller groups to cover other topics more intensely.

Jason hosted a session about external and shop users, Kathleen went into even more detail on forms and phases, Eric discussed tracking sales leads and using CounterGo, and Patrick and I helped with additional open-ended lab sessions.

Our official agenda ended around noon, but because almost everyone was staying in the same hotel, the discussions continued throughout the day.

That evening, a group of about 14 of us went out bowling. I loved our Moraware team shirts, and maybe next time I play I’ll break triple digits.

Observations

A theme that emerged over the course of our training event is that even though Moraware JobTracker is a tool and we can help with the technical details, that’s not the whole story. Another really important aspect of our work for our customers is understanding their businesses.

For any technical question we get, there’s a business “why?” lurking close behind.

I really enjoyed spending time with so many of our customers and understanding their businesses. We’ve all got problems and opportunities, and if you have those business conversations over the course of a few days, you really get a new perspective.

Our work isn’t done yet. As part of doing this training, the whole team has been working really hard on a new set of help articles, videos, and toolkits.

Keep an eye out on our blog and newsletter for those as we share them with everyone.

Want to know more? At Moraware, we make software for countertop fabricators. CounterGo is countertop drawing, layout, and estimating software. JobTracker is scheduling software that helps you eliminate the time you waste looking for job folders. RemnantSwap is a free place to buy and sell granite remnants with fabricators near you. We also sponsor StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators.

Another unusual countertop shape in CounterGo

I recently got asked about how to draw another unusual shape in CounterGo. Our customer wanted a mostly-circular island with one flat side that’s bumped-out. Here’s how we got there. I thought it’d be fun to share:

First, draw a square w/ 36″ sides:

On Step 2, add a radius to the corners (by clicking where it says -Std-). I added 18″ radiuses to the corners:

Do that for 3 corners:

On the 4th corner, add a bump-out. I added one that’s 25″ long & 4″ deep:

Do you have a funky-shaped countertop or island you’re trying to draw? Although CounterGo can’t do every possible shape, with a little imagination, you’d be surprised at what’s possible.

Want to know more? At Moraware, we make software for countertop fabricators. CounterGo is countertop drawing, layout, and estimating software. JobTracker is scheduling software that helps you eliminate the time you waste looking for job folders. RemnantSwap is a free place to buy and sell granite remnants with fabricators near you. We also sponsor StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators.

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An updated CounterGo video

As we’re preparing for our in-person training in Houston this month, we’ve been doing an inventory of our help articles and videos. As part of that, we all noticed that the short CounterGo video on our website was a bit outdated.

I re-recorded the video for a couple of reasons.

First, the video we replaced was missing a couple of key features – probably the most obvious is being able to add pictures of slabs while you’re doing a layout. This is a tough balance, because there are some other things that I didn’t show – emailing quotes, showing options for materials. But, it felt like an okay compromise.

Next, the new video adds a little more explanation. This means it could be really handy if you’re a new employee at a company that’s using CounterGo . In just a few minutes, you’ll get a very good overview of how to use it. Of course, there’s lots more in-depth help, but this might be a bite-size chuck to help you get started.

And finally, we want to keep improving our marketing info. This is my first toe into the waters of doing this in a while, and I’m looking forward to making lots of incremental changes and additional videos.

So, Voila!

If you’ve got any ideas on what else would make this video great, I’d love to hear.

Want to know more? At Moraware, we make software for countertop fabricators. CounterGo is countertop drawing, layout, and estimating software. JobTracker is scheduling software that helps you eliminate the time you waste looking for job folders. RemnantSwap is a free place to buy and sell granite remnants with fabricators near you. We also sponsor StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators.

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StonExpo 2017

There’s an easy, informal way to test the health of an industry – by observing its trade shows. Judging from the participation at this year’s StonExpo / Tise, the stone industry is doing well.

Moraware stopped getting a booth at large events about three years ago (our sales demo/ discussion actually works a lot better over the phone), but we still like to attend and observe when our travel schedules align. This year, it aligned for Harry, Ted, and myself.

Since we didn’t have a booth, we decided to support MIA + BSI‘s booth – they always have chairs and smart people, so their booth is a great “home base” when you’re visiting a big show like this. We sponsored an “ice cream social” at their booth this year, which was fun.

As usual, the saw manufacturers all had impressive displays, as did the template tool providers (Laser Products throws a fun after party, so you probably want to stop by their booth next time and ask when/where it is). The granite purveyors themselves seem to focus more on Coverings … if you want to see a sea of material, be sure to attend that show in April.

MIA + BSI also always hosts a member reception, and this year was no exception (we’re one of the sponsors of that reception as well). In fact, they outgrew the room they used the last couple of years. Judging from the size and tone of that reception,  our industry is rocking. Everyone we spoke with had a good year last year and is optimistic about the year ahead. It was nice to see.

Trade shows like StoneExpo and Coverings are a great way to gauge the overall health of the industry, connect with other fabricators, and get some useful classroom-style education. If you’re shopping for new equipment, attending a trade show is essential, because you can talk with lots of manufacturers in one place.

That said, don’t overlook regional events from the likes of MIA+BSI and ISFA. These smaller events typically don’t have full exhibit floors (they’re often hosted by a single distributor or manufacturer, in fact). They’re typically attended by 25-50 fabricators, and because they’re more specific to the stone industry, it’s easier to connect with your peers. That’s why we like small, regional events even better than the large trade shows, and we attend them whenever we can. Check out our events page from time to time to see where we’ll be attending next – and be sure to carve out time yourself to connect with your peers.

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Connect Your Office and Your Field Crews with Job Well Done

Your business depends on workers in the field, so communication is essential. To that end, we’d like to highlight another partner product that’s been built to extend the functionality of JobTracker.

Every employee in the field needs to know where to go, what to bring, what to do, and so much more…

Even with well organized work orders and instructions, questions and errors can still happen, and when they do, the field teams have to call into the office – ultimately tying up other staff, slowing down the work, and costing you money. If you have multiple crews out working, the more they have to call in, the larger the consequences…

Enter Job Well Done, a mobile app and management software designed specifically for the stone industry and built to talk directly to your company’s JobTracker system. The primary purpose of Job Well Done is to make job information immediately available in the field on mobile devices. On the management side, all relevant information can be entered into the software – including location, customer name, materials, etc. – accessible at a glance for personnel in the field.
screenshots of Job Well Done software

Field staff can open the app, see completed jobs, today’s jobs, and jobs for the future. Within the details of each job, they’ll see a map and location of the job site, any special instructions, all customer information, and so on – the worker can even let customers know when they are on the way!

With separate views for templaters and installers, all relevant information entered by the office is right in your crew’s hands, tailored for the job they need to do. Workers can also upload drawings and photos of completed work (or work in progress), send concerns to management via the app, and see the work any other employees may have done previously.

Upon completion of a job, the customer can also digitally sign off on the job, notifying management in real time. This digital signature is one of the major advantages Job Well Done offers. Other advantages include:

Digital Forms
Instead of hassling with printing paper forms, filling them out by hand, transporting them back to the office, and having to re-input information into JobTracker and/or scan documents, Job Well Done digitizes everything. Forms can be filled out on a tablet, computer, or mobile device, and are automatically sent to JobTracker.

This simplification saves money and time, reducing pages printed and time spent manually entering information.

Customers can also fill out digital surveys and provide instant feedback.

Inter-Department Communication
When everything is digitized and centrally located online, anyone in the organization can find the information they need – and do so with ease. Completed jobs can be reviewed to see before & after photos, notes about the work, issues encountered, etc. – all packaged together within JobTracker.

This coordinated data from Job Well Done allows for highly efficient communication between your business and customers, with plans, estimates, measurements, and so on all available from a mobile device. Project managers, builders, general managers, customer service personnel, and other members of your company also have the same luxury – everything is organized and available through the software, reducing miscommunication and improving accountability.

The software is customizable to meet the exact needs of your business, easy to use for any one remotely familiar with a smartphone, and does so much to coordinate your office and field staff into a well-oiled machine!

Check out this introductory video for a more detailed look:

As more and more customer and business communication becomes digital, online, and mobile, these kinds of solutions become more valuable. Customers are increasingly learning to expect instant access and online communication – which means that Job Well Done adds a new layer to your customer service.