A framework for modern communal-use shop management

Why care about about communal-use shop management?

Shops historically were not communal-use. There were essentially two categories: commercial/industrial shops and home shops. Commercial shops were part of a business, used by employees with low turnover, and typically focused on one or several manufacturing processes. Home shops had even lower turnover (on the order of one user per user lifetime), with more variety in projects but still limited because the number of users approximated one. Both were privately owned, used by a small set of users, and had low user turnover.

Communal-use shops typically have high user turnover, have user training as a top priority, and are used for a huge variety of projects and processes. They’re typically located within a makerspace or at an educational institution, though a few are within businesses.

There are a lot of these shops now. Popular Science says there were 483 in North America in February 2016. A 2015 survey by the Maker Education Initiative found that the 51 spaces surveyed served 1.8 million users annually.

Why communal-use shops are different and hard

As I’ve written elsewhere, the unique thing about a shop space is its versatility. Whereas a classroom is for teaching and a kitchen is for cooking, a shop can produce anything you can imagine. A shop could even be used to produce, in theory, another shop.

This near-limitless versatility is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s what makes shops exciting, innovative, fun places. On the other hand, it’s what makes shops challenging to manage.

Versatility is a challenge for every shop, but especially so in communal-use shops. In traditional commercial shops, as management’s understanding of business conditions improves, they might choose to specialize in a particular process (say, centerless grinding) or industry segment (say, seat brackets for airliners). Over time, management gets better at knowing what tooling is needed most often, and how quickly it breaks or wears out, so tooling costs get more predictable. The same is true of other costs, like training and hiring employees.

But much of this is untrue in a communal-use shop space. Sure, some things get more predictable over time, like which tools tend to break most often, but:

  • The user base is by definition non-professional, with skill levels that are all over the place. Typically only a small proportion of users have much familiarity with the tools. This leads to more erratic maintenance and tooling costs.
  • The nature of the jobs/projects tends to be far more diverse. In most communal-use shops, the users (or perhaps their instructors) determine the projects. Shop management often has no control over what will be demanded in terms of processes, materials, and tools.

As a result, managing communal-use shop spaces is different from managing shops generally. The remainder of this post lays out a framework for communal-use shop management.

1. Understand stakeholders

Who are the stakeholders and what do they care about? What vision for the shop would satisfy them?

In an educational shop, for example, the list of stakeholders might include:

  • students
  • administration
  • faculty
  • parents

Ideally, you’d be able to rank these stakeholders by importance. Nobody loves ranking, say, students’ needs as subordinate to administrators’, but sometimes it’s necessary to do so, at least temporarily.

The better shop staff understand stakeholder wants and needs, the more successful the shop will be.

2. Define vision

Without a well-defined vision, the shop is doomed to failure.

At a high level, there’s a couple basic decisions that need to be made. For example, a shop generally either focuses on work orders (e.g. when a professor needs a widget for a research apparatus) or student projects and training.

Fortunately, it’s not that hard to start establishing a vision. A good way to start is to set some priorities. In an educational shop, for example, you might want student projects to be a higher priority than faculty work orders; work orders can be sent to outside shops, but student projects can’t.

Eventually, some lower-level decisions will need to be made, e.g.:

  • If the shop will be responsible for completing work orders:
    • If so, how will the priority of work orders be established?
    • Who will be responsible for completing work orders?
    • How, if at all, will work order costs be assigned to those submitting work orders?
  • What will be the access paradigm, i.e. who is allowed in the shop and when? Who will be responsible for setting the access paradigm?
    • How will access be controlled? Door key locks, machine key locks, RFID cards?
    • There may be some sets of tools with different access paradigms than others. How will this be controlled? Who will be responsible for setting these sub-paradigms?
  • What classes or training program(s) will exist?
    • Who will be responsible for designing and delivering them?
    • What users will be eligible for what trainings when?

3. Define role(s)

If and when staff like shop managers, machinists, student helpers, and volunteers, it’s folly to assume that these people will know what they’re supposed to do.

In contrast, when you hire, say, a mechanical engineer, the job description is more straightforward. Most MechE job descriptions are fairly similar both within a company, and between companies.

But shops are almost infinitely versatile, which means job descriptions within the shop can be almost infinitely diverse, both day-to-day and shop-to-shop. That is, the needs in a shop can change abruptly within a workday, and two shops that look similar from the outside might have vastly different needs (e.g. because they have different stakeholders and/or visions).

So it’s essential to set some boundaries. Will shop staff be responsible for setting policy, or merely for enforcing it? How will the staff’s performance be evaluated?

4. Culture first

Yea, I know, it’s supposed to be “safety first,” but give me a moment to show how focusing on culture can make a shop safer.

Let’s say you run a communal-use shop space and take the view that safety is what matters above all, and therefore any violation of the safety rules should be remedied with a stern and swift correction delivered by shop staff. What tends to happen as a result is that users respond to these incentives and always comply with the rules–but only when shop staff are present.

Instead, let’s say you frame safety as a cultural imperative. Rather than depending on you and other staff to deliver stern warnings, you encourage users to police other users in a collaborative, culture-building way, like maybe “Hey, I noticed you didn’t have safety glasses on, so here’s a pair for you.” Safety is framed as an ongoing responsibility of all users. Shop staff set the standards and the tone, but users help enforce cultural safety norms.

Which shop is safer?

Fortunately, most shop safety issues are long-term, not short-term. I’ve been working in shops for 10 years and I’ve seen an urgently unsafe condition on only a few occasions. Take safety glasses, for example. I am a proponent of all users wearing safety glasses at all times while in a shop environment. But this is not because there are acute eye injury hazards present in the shop. On the contrary, the hazard is a chronic one; hazard potential increases with time spent in the shop.

So although I’d prefer all users to always wear glasses in the shop at all times, when I see a user not wearing them, it’s more important to use this as an opportunity to build culture than to get safety glasses on the student as soon as possible.

Building healthy shop culture takes time. It’s the result of many tiny interactions, not a policy change. Humans build trust in tiny increments. Trust builds community; trust is community.

5. Balance safety and access

The safest shop is one that’s never open. Shops are full of hazards. The only way to guarantee safety is to prohibit access entirely.

That said, shops can be quite safe. I’ve been working in shops for 10 years now. The worst injury I’ve been around resulted in a part of a finger lost. The guy who sustained the injury still works in the shop. Unfortunate, and preventable, but not exactly deadly.

Taking a “safety first no matter what” approach likely promotes actions counter to the goals of the shop. Presumably you have a shop because you want things like faster prototyping. But if all you truly care about is safety, then having a shop isn’t a good idea.

I advocate seeing shop management as a balancing act between safety and access. With this approach, we can do things like identify which tools are most likely to cause problems, and then do things in response like prohibit user access to them, require special training before their use, or simply not buy them at all.

Shop management is NOT about reducing all safety risks to zero. That goal is incompatible with the existence of a shop. Rather, the goal is to find a spot on the safety-access continuum that works for all stakeholders, which inevitably means accepting some non-zero risks.