When I first came to California, from New York City, it was supposed to be a vacation. But soon after I got here, I was bored and went to work as a machinist for a small company in Los Angeles.

Paul Burri

Paul Burri

About six months later, I was promoted to foreman of the machine shop and was in charge of about 16 other machinists, welders, sheet metal workers and painters. I was 23 years old. I was proud of being chosen, and I still like to believe that the company chose me because it recognized my skills as a machinist. I was a pretty good one at that.

There was one not-so-minor problem, however. Nearly all of the men I was supposed to be supervising were much older — some of them in their 50s. I was sharper and faster than they were, but I was emotionally insecure and uncertain. I was much less effective than I should have been, had I been older and had more experience in “people skills.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t even mature enough to think of asking for advice from my boss. So, although I ran the shop fairly well, I could have done even better had I been more mature.

An incident that occurred during that first supervisory position comes to mind and illustrates the difficulties of being 23 years old in a “man’s world.” The owner of the company was involved in various industry advisory positions, including having a seat on the board of advisers of the two-year Los Angeles Trade Technical College. He told me one day that he wanted me to go to the next advisers’ luncheon coming up the following week.

I planned to attend the luncheon, but a little background first. At the time, two of the people working under me were recent graduates of Trade Tech, so I was familiar with the kind of students they were producing. They were great. Almost too great. Let me explain.

A machinist’s job is to take an engineering drawing and produce a finished part to its specifications, which involves the degree of tolerance on the various dimensions of the part. A drawing may require that a shaft be 1 inch in diameter within a variation of a few thousandths of an inch. If the drawing says the diameter should be no larger than, say, 1.005 inches, anything larger than that will not work and will be unacceptable.

The important point here is that the “tighter” the tolerance (i.e., +/- .001 inch is “tighter” than +/- .030 inch), the more care, time and money it takes to make the part. My Trade Tech employees had been taught to make all parts to +/- .001 inch, regardless of what the drawing demanded. I assume that was done to make them top-notch machinists, but it also meant they were making parts that were too good, they were taking more time than the drawing required, and the parts they made were costing more to make.

Now, I’m at the Trade Tech luncheon with a group of men, most of whom were old enough to be my father. A discussion ensued and this question was asked: “What can we do at Trade Tech to make our graduates better and more effective workers?” When it was my turn, I said, “Teach your students to read the drawing and not make the part any better than what is required. Stop teaching them to make every part to +/- .001 inch.”

To say the least, this was heresy to the Trade Tech staff and instructors. They politely ignored my remark and moved along to the man on my left for his words of wisdom. So much for asking the opinion of a young punk who didn’t know anything.

But I’m still sure I was right.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. He can be reached at pburri@west.net.