Jason Halling, Burr Oak Tool - How to get project buy in?
April 13, 2021
Jason and Greg discuss how quality and innovation compete internationally, how to get strategic initiative buy in, and protein bars.
Jason Halling is the Vice President of Finance and Business Operations for Burr Oak Tool, a tool manufacturer that works with heat exchange companies in over 75 countries. Beginning his professional life in the world of international business and public accounting, Jason has found balance and opportunities to implement strategic growth and innovation at Burr Oak Tool.
Greg Mader: [00:00:00]
Today, I’m joined by Jason Halling,Vice President of Finance and Business Operations for Burr Oak Tool in Sturgis, Michigan. Jason oversees all front and back-office operations in this innovative international business. Jason, thank you very much for being on the podcast.
Jason Halling: [00:00:20]
Thanks for having me.
Greg Mader: [00:00:22]
There’s a question I ask everybody starting out as a little bit of a warmup, but honestly, I’m always curious about this. What’s your favorite snack food?
Jason Halling: [00:00:31]
I generally gravitate towards some kind of a protein bar.
Greg Mader: [00:00:35]
So protein bar like a Bison bar, or the plant protein? Where are you at in this spectrum?
Jason Halling: [00:00:41]
More rudimentary, I guess. A Power Bar.
Greg Mader: [00:00:44]
You are by far the healthiest guest we’ve had on so far, so that’s a credit to you, sir.
Jason Halling: [00:00:52]
Good, I appreciate that.
Greg Mader: [00:00:53]
Um, yes. I run into people that have built up really interesting careers, and you certainly have had a couple of jumps in your career to get to this point. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got to this place?
Jason Halling: [00:01:07]
When I first came out of school, I had a background in both finance and accounting so probably fair to say I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my career, but I wanted to always have an exposure on the international side of business. I loved the e-commerce side, the transactions, and relationships, so starting my career in public accounting and auditing was not necessarily the most direct fit, but I always knew that it would provide the foundation for understanding the language of business.
So, as quickly as I could, I transitioned from audits at Ernst & Young into performance improvement in the consulting arm of Ernst & Young. Absolutely loved it. Was really enjoying the strategy, the transformation projects that I was part of. But I think I was missing a piece of an important balance of me: being home a little more and with my family.
So when this offer came to transition to Burr Oak Tool, there was a component of travel, but there was also upward opportunities and a great opportunity to take what I had learned in the world of finance transformation and begin to apply it at a smaller organization. Hence, I jumped, and I haven’t looked back since.
Greg Mader: [00:02:17]
That’s really interesting because I agree, your financial and accounting background probably set you up very well for this. You probably had a breadth of customers of all different kinds, whether it was manufacturing or consumer, who knows what. But a wild guess is that the breadth of your early experiences probably has paid off for you here.
Jason Halling: [00:02:40]
Oh, tremendously. In fact, initially, the board looked to transition me immediately into the finance world, and I certainly would have been willing to jump into that, but at first, I transitioned into the world of marketing. So I began to discover the Burr Oak Tool market, the industries we played in, the customers, competitors, and I’m very grateful for that because it’s enabled me to do not only what I’m doing now, business transformation, but also understand the overall market dynamics. So couple those together, and I feel a lot more empowered to lead here at Burr Oak Tool.
Greg Mader: [00:03:14]
That’s great. So I run into a lot of interesting companies. Burr Oak Tool is a little bit different. I realize it’s an interesting and specialized market to be building tools for the heat exchange industry, but you guys are among the highest precision machine tool businesses I’ve ever run into. You care a lot about quality and innovation. Tell me a little bit about Burr Oak.
Jason Halling: [00:03:40]
It’s a really neat story. About 75 years ago, a gentleman and a couple business partners decided they were done being poor, and so in a small town in Michigan, they looked for some financing to begin doing some just general machining work. Push came to shove, they got the loan from a very small community by the name of Burr Oak, Michigan. Hence, why we carry the name Burr Oak Tool, as we got the initial financing from them.
From there on, we began doing some general machining, and very quickly around the outset of the expansion of air conditioning into a residential, even a broader market. It’s a family-owned company, and the family has always been focused on the highest quality, most precise tools, measurements, and machines that enable to us to be ultra-competitive in our current market, and perhaps even in others in the future.
So, we have a global footprint. We’re in over 75 countries and have been that way for probably over 50 years, which is a rarity for most US manufacturing organizations to be so global so fast. But air conditioners around the world are, of course, needed, and we were the brand name that everyone knew.
Greg Mader: [00:04:46]
Interesting. I’m looking at a new heat pump water heater for my house. What I’m asking myself when I’m looking at the different manufacturers is the same question: Are they using Burr Oak Tools to make the heat exchange gear? And you probably don’t have an answer, and I’m not going to make that a point of this, but-
Jason Halling: [00:05:04]
Probability is pretty high in the United States of America that some of the product has come off of Burr Oak Tool machines. You’re good, Greg.
Greg Mader: [00:05:10]
Okay, good. Yeah, I want to be loyal to you guys. You’re important to me. So ...
Jason Halling: [00:05:14] [laughs]
Well, thank you. We appreciate that.
Greg Mader: [00:05:16]
Switching gears: how do you realize that you need to charter a business change project? I’m specifically not using “IT projects” because I don’t really believe there’s such a thing as an IT project that’s successful. I think there’s only business change projects. So how do you decide that now is the time to charter one?
Jason Halling: [00:05:37]
I guess, for me, it takes on two different dynamics, I suppose. One, projects, or one set of projects, is launched based on just pure pain points. This is painful either in a process or this is prohibiting us from becoming what we want to become, and that is a segue into the second component, the strategy side. Most organizations, the strategic future of who they want to be as a company, their purpose, their mission sets themself up pretty well to say, “This project would help accomplish this.” I’ve been part of both. The reality is a lot of projects are just based on “This is too painful,” “This is too expensive,” “This is too hard. Let’s fix it.” And I’ve also been part of “Here’s the strategy of the future of the company. Let’s design it and go.” Both of which have their merits, both of which are hard, but I think that both of those two have been the general concepts of what drives, for me at least, the projects that are worth developing a charter.
Greg Mader: [00:06:33]
So is it fair to say that some projects are based on an emotion or an experience and, other projects, the charter the based around logical reasons?
Jason Halling: [00:06:43]
I appreciate you also used the term “launched from,” because I think, in the end, any project, its launch probably transitions to an emotional state, even if it was based on logic and others. I mean, from emotion to then a logic, or you kind of hope it does both. But, yeah, absolutely. I would totally agree.
Greg Mader: [00:06:59]
How do you get others on board and keep them on board?
Jason Halling: [00:07:03]
Yeah, for me, that’s a good question on culture. There are some organizations that their culture is just buy in, “Don’t ask questions, and go.” There are other organizations I’ve worked with that have a culture that’s ask lots of questions. Both of which are obviously healthy.
I would say, for me, the most successful projects that I can get stakeholder buy-in is when I really focus on the “What’s in it for me?” or the “Why?” behind the project. If and when I can get to the crux of the “Why” obviously then, in the midst of that difficult day-to-day churn or the weeklong “Hey, we’re not making progress,” you go back to say “Why are we doing this? Oh, yeah, that’s right. This is what we’re doing it for.” And that buy-in already happened, I hope, so that in the middle of the project, the “this is why we’re
doing it,” that purpose, always comes back. Probably the single hardest thing in terms of delivering large scale projects is the people side, because they’re the ones that have to get it done.
Greg Mader: [00:07:58]
I agree totally, Jason. In literature as well as our own research, the two biggest keys for success are business process engineering and change management. Getting that buy-in and keeping people bought in, even as you go through the life cycle of a project with maybe some ups and downs, if we can keep people motivated and excited for the end state and how the new future is going to be a better one for them, that seems to work pretty well.
Jason Halling: [00:08:32]
Greg Mader: [00:08:34]
Jason Halling: [00:08:34]
And that stakeholder analysis is really key. One of the things that’s unfortunate is I have done projects in the past that did not have a cross-functional buy-in, and generally speaking, that’s where projects fail is that lack of stakeholder buy-in for sure. It depends on the size of the project, if it’s company-wide obviously there’s a little more resources and a little more demand that gets pulled in.
Greg Mader: [00:08:57]
I was thinking about that cross-functional nature of your organization, so I’m going
to change subjects just slightly, here. You really do have this manufacturing business, but you also have to balance marketing, quality management, innovation and R&D. I can’t think of a company that has more demands for R&D than yours because of the increasing efficiency requirements in the heat exchange business.
Jason Halling: [00:09:26]
I think when you were here, Greg, if you recall, I believe we reviewed Burr Oak Tool’s vision, to be regarded as second-to-none by our employees, customers, partners and communities. Our mission is to eliminate waste, improve flow, and shorten lead times. And of course in a lead manufacturing world, anyone that’s in that space knows that’s the ultimate goal of an operation’s organization. And when you look at processes and you start to evaluate within a process; it might be accounting, it may very well be HR, it could be IT processes. If their duplication of efforts and adding overhead and not being as lean as we could possibly be, that’s waste. And so that buy-in across the entire organization that waste exists, and I think any organization on Earth that really has- takes a good, hard look at themselves to identify waste. If you’re not focusing on that to drive your large scale projects, and even small scale projects honestly, too, that should be what we focus on.
So we kick off every meeting with our mission, so the entire organization, I would assume, would be able to repeat back to you our mission: To eliminate waste, improve flow, shorten lead times. And that lean manufacturing is definitely baked into our culture.
Greg Mader: [00:10:37]
Okay. How do you govern this so that you are identifying these gaps or areas of
waste, and tell us a little bit about that sort of governance.
Jason Halling: [00:10:49]
It’s fair to say, and full disclosure, it’s not as good as we all would like. The reality is when we start to craft the business case behind it, it starts mostly with financial, right? We seem to think that it’s more expensive, and I can appreciate what you had mentioned, Greg. The innovation required in our space is very high. Couple that with the fact that our biggest competitors are in Asia, where costing and labor rates are significantly less, and so we couple innovation with the ability to also have to compete. If it takes, on a bill rate per hour basis, our competitors 100 hours, we have to find a way to do it in 15. And so because of our immense focus on reducing the time it takes, or enabling with technology areas in which we can get better.
Greg Mader: [00:11:38]
Do you have an organization like equality board or a IT governance board, and what role do they play in identifying the need for chartering a project?
Jason Halling: [00:11:52]
We have a team of about five individuals. We do keep a very deep record of a lot of our
quality issues. So, from there, we do have a kind of Pareto effects of the most common errors, the most common issues, and generally speaking, historically, that had only been manufacturing. And about- about three years ago, we implemented that across the entire organization, so a non-conformist report would be created for someone that did not follow an accounting process, or a sales-related process. We’ve got the Pareto, we now have history, and we leverage those quality points to determine what’s next. It’s not always the biggest driver of what we decide to fix next, but it generally is always a component of how we make that decision.
And then we create that business case where the financial estimates would then back, hey, we get frequency, can we quantify what that really does to the organization as a whole on the financial side?
Greg Mader: [00:12:43]
It seems in the last year we’ve all been challenged a bit. How did the COVID situation and material shortfalls or lead time changes or any of this affect you?
Jason Halling: [00:12:56]
We actually were quite fortunate. A lot of our supply chain has strategically for quite some time been based in the United States. Granted, even amidst the United States, we did have some here and there. But, generally speaking, our supply chain was mostly uninterrupted. We did have to work with many of our customers to be flexible in regards to when we could deliver certain machines or certain projects based on when they were complete. The most impacted area of our business was spare parts. Obviously, as organizations shut down their operations, there was less demand for commercial tooling, and so because of that, we saw a significant decline. However, there were those that were deemed essential, and even were part of government projects, that had to increase their production. And so we got some of the plus on that relative to the overall market.
All things considered, we felt like last year was okay.
Greg Mader: [00:13:51]
I got to think resilience has always been maybe not discussed but certainly baked into the culture there.
Jason Halling: [00:13:58]
Yeah, I think it’s certainly been part of our DNA because that same group of business partners that I mentioned that were just, quote/unquote, “Tired of being poor,” that they built the organization on the fact of, “Hey, we do this and this is our survival.” And so, in many ways, a lot of decisions that are made here at Burr Oak Tool were based on just good old-fashioned business. And what I mean by that is our core values are work hard, good people doing the right things, and innovate to meet and anticipate customer needs. We started with the “work hard,” because for all intents and purposes, and you’ve seen it, Sturgis, Michigan, is an agrarian society. If you don’t plant the seed and you don’t work it, you don’t get the return at the end of harvest. That’s part of who we are.
And so I think resilience is who we are, but then the reality is we also did have to make some changes, and of course, there’s certain areas where we said, “Hey, let’s look here a little bit more.” Generally speaking, we look to the future with a little bit more optimism because of the efficiency. Upcoming changes you mentioned—this year, changes are coming. In many ways, the opportunities of the future are significantly even better than what they were in the past, and so with that in mind, it makes resilience and growth even more exciting.
Greg Mader: [00:15:11]
Are there tools that you use to create trust?
Jason Halling: [00:15:16]
It’s a really good question. I would say what first comes to mind is our customer base. Obviously, there are many customers that come back to us because we’re just the best at what we do. And, of course, there’s no reason to not [laughs] say, “Let’s just keep doing that.” That’s one way, I guess in my mind, that we build trust is that the quality of products that we make people come back to.
Another component, I think it is with our vendors. We historically have always been that 30 days or faster in terms of paying our vendors. Many consultants have come in and said, “Nope, you shouldn’t do that. Here’s how you can control your cash.” The reality is I believe that the relationships we have with our vendors, because we’ve been so consistent and such a good partner, we’re probably getting better value out of the things that we buy from them aside from just a product. Maybe it’s better services. Maybe it’s top priority. Things that are tough to quantify but I think really do exist, and I think that’s how we build trust with our vendors.
So between the vendors, our customers, I also think it’s fair to say we always focus on hiring the right people. You have to have good people here that understand what we’re trying to do so we can exude that business relationship out in both directions. We, of course, work locally with our communities. We have a huge focus on making sure that Sturgis as a community is very vibrant, and Saint Joseph County here in Michigan, and other parts of northern Indiana. Those are our key stakeholders, and developing trust obviously means we do what we say we’re gonna do, we do it really well, and we’re just consistently doing that year after year.
Greg Mader: [00:16:45]
That was beautiful, Jason, actually.
Jason Halling: [00:16:48]
[laughs] It’s who we are. It’s actually a very easy thing to discuss.
Greg Mader: [00:16:52]
Cool. So going back to this idea of being a lean organization and using the lean principles to constantly improve, where does technology come into the picture for business change?
Jason Halling: [00:17:08]
Technology, I think, is critical. Our current CEO and Chairman, he, of course, grew up in the company. From the time he was 14, he was wiring presses in our shop. His expertise and his passion is related to manufacturing engineering. He’ll look at a process of how we take this raw material part and turn it into a finished good part, and of course if you just follow typical status quo, you would’ve looked and said, “Okay, it takes this machine 20 minutes. These are how many machines I need.” Our Chairman and CEO in prior roles would step back, and of course still today he does this as well, but that was his key stewardship in prior roles. He looked and said, “You know what? There’s gotta be a machine
tool builder that I could work with to make sure that we could make these faster.”
And so that’s been a huge focus in the role of innovation is that we’re not just looking at what process takes us how long and quantifying that, but we’re actually saying this process has to change. That’s been a hallmark of who Burr Oak Tool is. We’ve bought machines over the years that have probably been way more expensive than our competitors would’ve even thought and dreamed of, but that was the secret sauce. That’s the way in which Burr Oak Tool makes the quality part in less time and can innovate.
We’re trying to have that same cultural spillover into the business process side, which, unfortunately, there’s not one business process machine that you can bring in and suddenly it takes one thing that took an hour down to a minute-and-a-half. There’s been a lot of innovation in that space in recent years from the technology realm. I’m thinking of BlackLine as a good example in the world of account reconciliation. Those are big wins and so what we’re trying to do is also focus on the same repeatable framework that we have for the machines in our capex and identifying those big wins on the process side.
So, absolutely, everything is all in scope. Especially as now we look to make this migration to Odoo, we’re really re-looking at what processes we do that are so manual we say now is a good time to re-look at the tools that exist.
Greg Mader: [00:19:05]
I’m glad you said that, Jason. We need to always look at the business process itself and say, “Is this the business process that ultimately is the correct one for this business?” I can automate a bad, money-losing business process easily, and I promise I can really efficiently lose money—
Jason Halling: [00:19:23]
Technology, it’s that multiplying effect, right? It can make bad really bad. It can make good really good.
Greg Mader: [00:19:29]
Exactly right, yes. What tools do you use to measure the progress of a project?
Jason Halling: [00:19:38]
So the finance guy in me, of course, almost always gravitates back towards, “Hey, how does the P&L look? Are costs down, revenue up?” And of course that should never be the only driver of whether a project is successful or not. But the reality is, when push comes to shove, there has to be some kind of a business case for it.
Most of the tools that we use to measure are related to what’s time efficient. We’ll jot down very quickly on an Excel spreadsheet current state from point X to point Y, it took us this long. Now, let’s go in a future state based on some enabling technologies. Great, it’s half the time. Quantify that. Does it fit based on what we had estimated? If not, let’s go back and see if we can squeeze a little bit more time out of it or change the process to affect it.
I have worked with tools in the past in previous organizations, previous roles, to have certain assessments and databases. Benchmarking was critical for the world of which I came from at EY. We don’t do as much benchmarking here at Burr Oak Tools as I’d like, but once we get to a nice kind of stable state of design, I would like to help apply benchmarks to what we do, so good old fashioned Excel spreadsheet. I’m sure we can lean on the OSI team to help us either create or leverage some of the tools you guys might have to monitor, but at the end of the day, it’s more of the fact that you have to measure and observe the measurements. And of course, when that day comes, it would be nice to get a nice tool to help do that.
Greg Mader: [00:20:58]
A lot of the people that are listening to this podcast are at different stages in their career, and I always thought I’d rather learn from somebody else’s mistakes than make the mistake myself. So with that, Jason, do you have any stories from the school of hard knocks?
Jason Halling: [00:21:16]
It’s funny you bring this up because I was just talking to a friend of mine from Ernst & Young. We were talking about some of the issues that we had on previous client projects. And I would totally agree with you, Greg, about learning from somebody else’s mistakes. I think if there was a story I guess I would share, it was the fact that there was a previous client of mine with Ernst & Young. We got out of the gate, and I think it was fair to say the entire project team just neglected this stakeholder, that change management, the stakeholder analysis that was always part of our engagements, meaning we didn’t always get the buy-in of the lead executive. We thought we did. We assumed we had the buy-in because of the hearsay that was coming from the project-related teams, and suddenly, when we were ready to make some really hard decisions of really big dollar amounts, the executive essentially was ready to pull the plug on the entire project.
And it wasn’t because we hadn’t done our due diligence on the data or the technical side. We had. It was because we hadn’t done a full analysis of what that meant for the overall organization. And the stakeholder would’ve been able to talk us through that had we not just taken the hearsay or taken that as word. We should’ve done our due diligence in that area, too.
So I guess if I might provide any insights or help to some, you should never assume that the light is green across all channels unless you’ve actually done that work. Build those relationships with all the appropriate team members, even up to the executive, and make sure that you know firsthand, not secondhand or other, that you’re aligned in that. So those would probably be the most disappointing projects that I’ve been part of are those that I’ve neglected the- the change management, the due diligence, and that.
Greg Mader: [00:22:59]
That’s really good, Jason. I have had similar mistakes I’ve made, and it’s made me, over time, realize the more critical or large scale the change proposed is, the more permission is very important.
Jason Halling: [00:23:13]
Yeah, and, after all, business is about relationships, and when I forget that, or if I ever have forgotten that, that’s when things go sideways.
Greg Mader: [00:23:21]
Well said, sir. Thank you. This was a really great interview.
Jason Halling: [00:23:2]
Oh, I just appreciate the opportunity, and I guess I will just point out that it’s a pleasure to work with the OSI team. I think you facilitate a great team, good professionals, and that I would encourage anyone to seek OSI out for improving what they do.
Greg Mader: [00:23:41]
Great, Jason. Thank you. That was unsolicited, by the way. So ...
Jason Halling: [00:23:45] [laughs].
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