Kathy Schaefer applies science to business

Kathy Schaefer draws on a background in psychology for a smooth and productive workflow.

“Can you imagine sitting at a sewing machine for eight hours a day?” asks Kathy Schaefer, COO of Glawe Awnings and Tents, Fairborn, Ohio. “I learned to sew this past summer and though I’m not all that good at it, it really taught me something—sometimes we take for granted how hard other people’s jobs are.”

Schaefer grew up in and around the family business, which is the second oldest awning and tent company in the United States, holding the distinction of having manufactured two tents for the Wright Brothers in 1903. In years past, her father and brother-in-law have both held the position of Industrial Fabrics Association International chairman of the board, and Schaefer is now an IFAI board member. Despite her deep roots in the industry, though, she never intended to work in it.

In training

In 1982, Schaefer graduated with a master’s degree in psychology and was preparing to enter the workforce. It was a time in U.S. history marked by long gas lines, layoffs and federal and state hiring freezes; Schaefer’s job offer evaporated and she found herself working for the business she had vowed she wouldn’t—answering phones for minimum wage. “But I don’t think starting out that way was a bad thing,” Schaefer says. “That’s where you really learn about the business—by answering the phones.”

Several years later her father, who was then COO, experienced a sudden illness, and Schaefer stepped up to manage a tent blow-down by meeting the crew onsite. “It was a mess,” she says. “But I loved working outside with the tent crew.” Shortly thereafter, the company hired someone to replace her in the office and she started working full time with the tent crew, something she did for 10 years.

While Schaefer ran the tent side of the business, her brother-in-law managed awnings, until he became ill. “Because of his illness he was able to do less and less,” Schaefer says. “In the summer of 2010 we had to reassess the way we ran the company.” Schaefer began the process of merging the two sides of the business so that she could manage the whole.

Before communication

Changes in the way the company communicated internally were key not only to managing the transition, but also improving the overall efficiency of the organization. “Communication is so important,” Schaefer says. “I think if I had to pick my degree all over again I’d still pick psychology—it teaches you how to deal with people.”

Communication doesn’t start with relaying information; it starts with helping employees experience and understand multiple portions of the business, Schaefer says. It starts with cross training.

Schaefer believes cross training does more than fill a gap in the production schedule; she sees communication benefits to training sewers in every phase of production, tent installers to install awnings, and awning installers to install tents. “It used to be that there was a kind of competition among employees,” she says. “Each felt their segment was more difficult than the others. After cross training, employees are not so territorial.”

Through cross training, employees—including Schaefer—also gain appreciation for the challenges each of them faces. When Schaefer learned to sew last summer she gained an unexpected insight into how her own communication practices might have posed a problem for the sewers. “We had some especially demanding jobs we were filling and I was sitting there sewing and thinking, ‘When is break?’—knowing I couldn’t get up and leave,” she says. “Before that experience, I used to go out and talk to sewers about projects, not really paying attention to whether it was their break or not. Now I hold that time sacred for them.”

Project tracking

Implementing a “communication wall” has also been instrumental in streamlining efficiency, a strategy Schaefer gleaned from Dan Nolan III, president of Tents Unlimited, Marietta, Ga. “Dan probably has one of the biggest tent companies in the United States, and I was curious about how he managed so many installers,” Schafer says. “I went on a plant tour of his facility, and took a picture of what was basically a wall of clipboards that he used to track jobs. Now I use the same system.”

Simple and affordable, the system is comprised of each installer’s name followed by clipboards with the installation schedule for every day of the week, plus one clipboard for non-essential “if there’s extra time” jobs. Each project also has a three-part order sheet: one for sewers, one for the installation crew, and one for office staff. “Now anyone in the company can see what’s in process and each person has access to what the big picture is for each process,” Schaefer says. “Anyone who answers the phone has easy access to each project and what stage it’s at.”

Think tank

Still, there’s no substitute for discussion when it comes to problem solving. Schaefer has established the sewing room as the communication hub so all parties can collaborate and brainstorm. “I make sure everyone is involved in discussing a challenging installation,” Schaefer says. “If an awning doesn’t fit, for example, it helps to have everyone involved so we can more easily track where the issue is, and how to resolve it.”

Schaefer also makes sure the sewers get a chance to see some of the projects they’ve sewn after they’re installed. “Can you imagine sewing this huge awning and never getting to see it installed?” she says. “The more involved all employees are in the big picture, the more personal the projects and customers are.”

Schaefer relies on finding the point at which people and process intersect—and that, she finds, results in a productive and harmonious workplace.

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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