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“A bull, whose owner hopes he’ll be a prize winner, gets his moment in the spotlight at the [2015] Colorado State Fair in Pueblo.” 
Source:, Gates Frontiers Fund Colorado Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

What’s new?

On 1 September 2020, Modern Machine Shop (MMS) announced the winners of its annual Top Shops competition.

What does it mean?

MMS magazine focuses on machining businesses, in particular, businesses that offer machining services using CNC (Computer Numerical Controlled) machines. This year, 298 CNC machining businesses filled out a detailed questionnaire including items such as “spindle utilization, labor turnover rate, order lead time and so forth.” Selected measurements are weighted to create overall scores in four categories: machining technology; shopfloor practices and performance; business strategy and performance; and human resources. The best shop in each category receives a Top Shop award.

Rimeco Products won for the business strategy category through a combination of focus on a new line of customers and development of new tools to improve efficiency. They are now selling those new devices to other shops. Senior editor Matt Danford commented that the winner in each category is also strong in each of the other three categories. “The honors program is reserved for top shops, and becoming a top shop requires excelling in all four categories.”

Each participating company also receives a customized report showing where they stand on specific metrics as well as attributes of shops that scored well on that metric and that might drive performance. For example, companies that performed well on gross sales per machine tended to have quality certifications and to use 5S.

Usually the results are presented at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in September, but, like many conventions, the IMTS is online this year. The Top Shops presentations will be online each Tuesday in October including findings from the survey and a panel discussion of people from the top shops.

Certainly there are many industry awards. I like the Short Line of the year, awarded by Railway Age in 2019 to the 106-mile Louisville & Indiana Railroad Company. My favorite short line is the 13-mile long San Luis Central Railroad, which carries agricultural products in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, the largest alpine valley anywhere. I rode the train at the 2016 San Luis Valley Potato Festival.

What makes the MMS Top Shop competition different from other awards and so valuable is that it isn’t just a competition, it’s an educational event. I am not fond of competitions (see Alfie Kohn’s great book No Contest: The Case Against Competition), but I spent 40 years as an educator, and I like to think I am still doing that. The MMS Top Shops program reminds me of state fairs. Yes, you can eat funnel cakes, turkey legs, and corn dogs, but the state fair was created in the mid 1800s to exhibit agricultural products and, from the start of 4-H in the late 1800s, competition was linked with youth education at the state fairs. At the Archuleta County Fair in Pagosa Springs in 2019, I heard the sheep judge award prizes, but also give an amazing explanation of what he looks for in a top sheep, as well as how to raise sheep to that standard. The MMS awards are in that great tradition, a combination of benchmarking and education.

The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, run by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), presents another model in which the journey is the point – applying for this award can lead your organization on a journey of quality improvement.  The American Health Care Association’s National Quality Award Program for providers of long term and post-acute care services is built on the Baldrige model. It’s the application process that is the benefit.

What does it mean for you?

The first lesson is obvious. Competitions and benchmarking are useful to find out how well your product and processes compare to others. Find an association like MMS in your field. Find a way to benchmark in your industry. Find a way to combine that benchmarking with learning and improvement.

The second lesson is that you can learn from organizations with totally different missions and technology than yours. MMS cites the Top Shop in machining technology for how it has adapted to change, the Top Shop in manufacturing processes for its use of lean methods, the Top Shop in business strategy for its focus and new products, and the Top Shop in human resources for how its culture helps it attract top talent. I challenge you to read those four articles and NOT come away with some ideas for improvement in your organization.

Where can you learn more?

I found several lists of trade associations, from the Planning Shop, from Wikipedia, and from ANSI. The Rutgers Library has a list of lists of trade associations. The Directory of Associations has various ways to search their list.

Many state fairs are cancelled or scaled back this year. The Colorado State Fair has its eye on the important stuff with the Drive Through Fair Food event.

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