John Lawson, Director of Engineering & New Product Development
For over a decade, SafeRack has delivered high-quality, precision-built industrial safety solutions. And we like to always keep a step ahead. But if it weren’t for the savvy minds behind the scenes, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Our expert team is continuously working to solve for tomorrow’s safety and productivity challenges.
In our ongoing employee interview series, we talk with the people behind the company who help define SafeRack as leading industry innovator. Today, we sit down with our Director of Engineering and New Product Development John Lawson to discuss being LEAN, SafeRack’s development approach and what’s coming down the pike.
Q: How did you first land at SafeRack?
A: I found out about the role through an online job posting. The description looked interesting and the role looked strong — so I applied. Once I met with Jeff Reichert, (the SafeRack president), I knew it was a good fit, a challenging role and a company that had a strong strategy and vision. That was two years ago.
Q: So how has life at SafeRack been going? Are there challenges you’ve faced since coming on?
A: Well, the director of engineering position was a new role — which is always a challenge to fill. But to me, the challenge is what makes it fun. You have to win people over and convince them to believe in what you’re doing. When you show by example, colleagues eventually start to see things working. And once you get buy-in, things start moving.
Over these past two years, we’ve been improving productivity, getting multiple processes in place, driving improvements and increasing the project throughput from the engineering group.
Q: It sounds like things are progressing well. How have you found SafeRack to be different from past companies where you’ve worked?
A: Well, the big thing is that SafeRack is a private business versus a corporation, where I was before. It’s a lot easier to implement processes and execute in a private business like SafeRack. You don’t have nearly the bureaucracy, so you can be lean, mean and more effective. You can truly focus on the customers’ requirements and how to make things happen to meet those requirements.
Another way it’s different is that SafeRack — or at least the part I touch — is more of a “systems” business rather than a “products” business. For our customers, we aren’t just putting out a product that’s been developed already. We usually have to concept the solution, design it, run it by the customer for feedback, make adjustments and detail it out. And that’s all before it goes to the machines to be built.
We do a host of customizations across our product lines. Even if it’s not always complex, it’s not a simple in and out the door either. The devil is in the details and a lot goes into every solution.
In my prior roles, I dealt primarily with the automotive and aerospace industries. These two industries are other examples of “systems” businesses whose processes are similar, yet with a different environment and rules to doing business.
Q: What does this mean for the customer?
A: It means things are faster. It means we can evolve our products and solutions more quickly when we hear a need from customers. For example, last year we rolled out a whole new ErectaStep crossover platform system in under six months. In that time, we designed, built, tested, did digital models, performed finite element analysis and rolled it out. Anywhere else, that amount of work would be a two- or three-year project.
We also had a completely cross-functional team on the project, which helped greatly. And overall, there’s just more of an entrepreneurial sprit here. We execute and make things happen quickly, because we don’t get caught up in other agendas or hindrances that large corporations may have to deal with.
Q: How has working in the loading industry differed from past automotive and aerospace industries you’ve worked in?
A: Honestly, it’s the same ball game, just a different park. If you understand what needs to be done at a high level to execute your end goal, you apply similar principles to it along the way. At SafeRack, we have a lot of great experts that management has put in place to address the primary industries we serve. We are now adding experts for these new markets we are penetrating. And now as we get more into new industries like aerospace, there are whole new sets of rules by which to operate. It makes it easier if someone’s walked down that path before — and luckily, I have.
Q: You mentioned that improving productivity has been a big focus for you. How have you done that specifically?
A: Everything I do in this job centers around the question, how can we “LEAN the process?” That is, how do I take waste out of the process? One example is with project intake. In this area, we’ve implemented processes where we can better track and monitor the flow of all projects that come in, categorizing them based on project size and the team responsible.
We’ve also put in place biweekly cross functional teams where we get together to review status, set goals and make action plans. This better communication and visibility has helped to increase our productivity. We’re up 54 percent in incoming projects, and we’re still able to meet or exceed delivery requirements.
Q: What are your predictions about where the loading industry is going next?
A: Overall, I don’t think it’s as complicated as people make it out to be. The customer wants their applications to be quick, simple and technically sound. So how do we put all that together in some way?
Our goal is to enhance customer safety as much as possible without interrupting their process. You always want to keep things moving and flowing — so much so that the worker may not even realize he/she is in a safe environment. It should be a natural process.
Anything we can do to automate their processes and reduce waste for the customer and increasing safety — that’s going to be a win-win all around.
Q: What’s the SafeRack difference?
A: In my opinion, we design to the customer’s requirements better than anyone else. By providing digital analyses on our equipment before it ever goes out, we’re able to get it perfect the first time. Utilizing technology, we build solutions out in virtual space first. And that’s a differentiator. This allows us to analytically present to our customers documented data that supports the safety we advertise.