Machining journals

Question: What is a machining journal?

Answer: A machining journal is a daily log that records the many aspects of your workday in detail.

I’ve used machining journals since the beginning of my career as a machinist. I cannot tell you how many times those journals have come in handy. Sometimes you’re asked, ‘What did you work on three weeks ago on a Tuesday?’ Hell, sometimes I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning… and you’re asking me about three weeks ago? Out comes my journal. I can flip back to the day in question and accurately answer the question.

I’ve had bosses that approach me directly and ask about the material heat lot code on a specific material I machined sometime in the past. If they can give me a job number, I can give them the information they’ve requested. That’s important because, without the heat lot code, a job would have to be scrapped out. *Heat lot codes (traceability explanation below) are directly tied to certification codes. They are the way we establish traceability of a part from the original material supplier of the material, through the manufacturing process, and on to the customer. The jobs could be inexpensive or high dollar value. Once I relay the material certification number to my boss, he can then request hard copy ‘certs’ from the vendor of the material… saving the job from being scrapped.

Keeping a machining journal is helpful in other ways as well. I’ve had instances when a supervisor would tell me to proceed with a job that I don’t feel comfortable with running. It could be a tolerance not being called out on a print or maybe there’s a question about the finish. In either case, writing an entry into your journal and requesting that the supervisor sign off on the entry, puts the supervisor in the position to defend his decision on proceeding with the job, should it become an issue at some later point in time.

Times have changed a bit since I began my machinist career. I no longer keep a journal but will document concerns, etc. with emails. Even verbal conversations that center around a decision by a supervisor, an engineer, or programmer, are put into an email format and sent to all parties concerned. That way, should a decision later become a point of contention, the email chain can be then be resurrected to determine who said what.



*Traceability, through the use of heat/certification codes, are a requirement of nearly all high value parts supplied to the government, the aerospace industry, or other critical end customers. The reason for this requirement is that when a high value item fails, i.e. plane crash, etc. occurs, and the failure is traced back to a certain part… those high value items can then be pulled out of service to be inspected by investigators for flaws.

Machinist training

Where to start? This is such a broad subject matter and no one answer will truly fit all situations.

I’ve been in the San Diego area for over 17 years. In that time, I’ve encountered very few machinists who have had formal training of any kind. And yes, taking a course or two at a local community college, memorizing a few G codes and M codes, isn’t considered formal training in my book. Yet, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve come across those guys and who will call themselves ‘machinists’. It’s quite disheartening. The guys with whom I have come into contact with, and whom have had a formal machining education, can be counted on one hand.

Most shops employ guys who have learned the trade ‘on the job’, so to speak. There’s nothing wrong with learning the trade in that manner, if they’re employed in a small shop setting. The problem with an informal training readily becomes apparent in a larger production setting. Why? The reason is simple… A machinist with formal training approaches a job in a logical way. They start with ‘A’, followed by ‘B’, and so on. An informally trained machinist will tend to set up a job the way he was taught by another informally trained machinist. There’s no consistency or rigid method in which to follow, resulting in questionable setups and longer setup times. A machinist worth his salt, will want to tear down a setup that he has no confidence in, and start over the process.

Formal training usually includes learning the basics of manual machining before ‘stepping up’ into CNC machining. The ‘basics’ can include using dividing heads, machining gears on a horizontal mill, and making your own custom tooling for a job. A machinist, in a trade school setting, will learn how to approach a job in terms of planning the sequences of operation. These skills are considered fundamental to a well-rounded machinist. After mastering these basic skills, a machinist is better able to understand the techniques and planned sequence of events that go into a successful setup.

I’m an avid believer that a competent and successful shop is staffed by formally trained machinists.

Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S… Why they tend to fail.

What is Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S? More importantly, why do these programs tend to fail?

Basically, all of these terms refer to a philosophy of continuous improvement and working practices, set in place to remove clutter, improve quality, and to streamline work processes. It is the purpose of these ‘quality programs’ to reduce over production, cut waste, and deliver products ‘just-in-time’ to customers.

In theory, these programs are beneficial for the companies implementing them. To a lesser degree, it can also be a positive influence to those who use the same techniques in their own personal lives.

What I’m interested in is why these quality programs tend to fail. I’ve been involved in Six Sigma and 5S programs when employed at various companies in the past. These programs, in my opinion, started with good intentions but were either misunderstood, mismanaged, or ‘gamed’.

Misunderstood: Often, people’s concept of Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S, is limited to the replication of other companies’ implementation of these programs. It is said that copying is the sincerest form of flattery. While that may be true, copying a wrong result will only end in another wrong result. Looking to other companies as an example, is a great start. But you should start by asking ‘Why?’ ‘Why’ does a company using Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S… do so in the way that they do? Does it make sense to use the exact way one company uses it in your own company? Or, do you need to tweak the way you use the program to better fit your own company/work environment? You need to have a vision of what it is you want to achieve and not go about blindly making unnecessary changes. This will only confuse employees who are charged with maintaining the program and create a pessimistic response from them too.

Mismanaged: This is probably the biggest part of failure relating to Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S. Like ‘misunderstood’ mentioned above, it goes one step further by oversimplifying, overdoing, and becoming entangled in the nuances of the quality program instead of addressing the aim of the quality program. An example of this is labeling and marking. You can tell when this is concurring by looking at the workspace in question. Is the area marked off in excess? Staplers lined off on desks… file cabinets lined off AND labeled ‘File Cabinet’… etc. Are things labeled for the sake of labeling? Don’t get me wrong, but when you label a label maker, you’ve exceeded your usefulness and entered the realm of the absurd.

Gamed: Gamed in terms of manipulation of the data to achieve better ‘results’. Results that falsely show the quality program’s results that are not accurate. Managers often try to manipulate charts and data to reflect a positive momentum towards a perceived end goal result. The purpose of Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S is not to achieve perfection but to address inefficiency and wasted movement in the workplace. Implementation of Kaizen, Six Sigma and 5S are costly. When the programs get ‘gamed’ in this way, then the integrity and effectiveness of the programs must be called into question.


A few observations… (24 Jan 2013)

I’m currently sitting back and watching a 5S program at a local defense contractor come together. I won’t publicly state the company’s name because it really isn’t important. What I have found interesting is the manner in which the 5S concept is approached and implemented. I’ve seen first hand trivial items being over analyzed while significant concerns are simply overlooked. It may well be that they’re just not fully communicating what is being addressed in a timely manner, but I have my reservations. 5S is suppose to streamline processes and optimize capacity. Instead, it seems that for every streamlined process, there’s some sort of added paperwork or other such obstacle to clog up the system once again. Its as if the appearance of tidiness and order, trumps actual utilization of resources and production time savings. It bears a striking similarity to how the Democratic Party operates… ‘symbolism over substance’!


It has been 6 years since my last update… (27 Jan 2019)

So, what’s been happening in the time since my last update? To be honest, the company used as an example in the above post, stepped away from their quality improvement programs a few years ago. The quality program infrastructure is still in place (status boards, etc.), but hasn’t been maintained for 2+ years. I knew the program was on the ropes when I saw outdated charts, which were usually changed monthly, stay on the boards for more than six months. No longer were weekly walk-throughs being conducted. Slowly, all signs of their quality program just disappeared. If it weren’t for the empty status boards still hanging on the walls, what remained of taped out floors, and the occasional mention of 5S… one would never know that such a program existed within the company.


“Where do you guys all hang out?”

“Where do you guys all hang out?”

That was the question I was asked a few years ago by a young female recruiter for a large temporary agency. She had called on day when I wasn’t too terribly busy at my shop. Normally, I wouldn’t have had a lot of time to spend with non-business related calls but, like I said… I had a little extra time that day.

She started off the conversation by introducing herself and asking if I could help provide her some assistance in finding machinists to fill vacancies she currently had in her agency. The conversation went something like this…

Headhunter: Can you tell me, where do you guys all hang out?

Me: What do you mean?

Headhunter: I’m having a little trouble finding machinists in the area.

Me: Ok, what are the qualifications you’re looking for and how much are you willing to offer as a salary?

Headhunter: Well, the requirements are ‘…must be able to read measuring instruments, blueprints…’

Me: ***My eyes were starting to glaze over*** Excuse me. I meant ‘what level of machinist were you looking for’. Asking for a machinist to be able to read his or her measuring tools is like asking a pilot if he knows how to fly.

Headhunter: Oh, I was just reading what the job description says on my printout.

Me: I understand. Do you want a ‘button pusher’ or are you looking for a real machinist? In other words, do you want someone able to make parts to print or do you just want someone with very little experience, to push a button?

Headhunter: I need real machinists.

Me: And how much are you looking to pay?

Headhunter: Between $9.00 and $12.00 an hour.

Me: ***Now I’m dumbfounded*** Really? That much, huh?

Headhunter: Yes, it’s with a great company.

Me: I think you’re misunderstanding me. I think I know why you can’t find machinists.

Headhunter: Why?

Me: Because you’re not willing to pay what machinists are worth.

Headhunter: Well, I have a salary range I have to stay within.

Me: And you’ll never fill those vacancies because of the low wages you’re offering.

Headhunter: So what should I do?

Me: You really only have one choice. Either pay an acceptable wage or your jobs will go unfilled.


I’m telling this story because it has stuck with me over time. I’m troubled by the lack of understanding the general population has as to what a machinist is, and the years of experience it takes to produce a top-notch machinist. When I was a younger, single man, I would meet ladies who would ask what I did for a living. My response would be “I’m a machinist.” I cannot tell you have many times the reply would be “Oh really? What kind of cars do you work on?” You’d expect temp agencies to at least know what machinists are and what they’re worth. I mean, it’s their job to be able to match the best qualified applicant for the job, right? One would think a temp agency head hunter would have some grasp of what they’re seeking. Needless to say, I was disappointed.

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