Mike Grace: From Restaurant Kitchen To Factory Floor


Prior to coming to work at Ergonomic Products, Mike Grace, who is currently Factory Manager at the company, worked in a restaurant kitchen and when not working, he enjoyed playing his bass guitar. What might seem an unusual background—food and music—turned out to be super valuable experience to work in a factory.

Mike Grace at his desk reviewing plans“On one hand, restaurants and factories are nothing like each other,” Mike says. “But if you view it broadly, considering processes and efficiencies, they’re quite similar. You have knives and cutting boards as tools in the restaurant and prep work is important. Similarly in our factory, we have materials that are prepped out, and there are certain things that we can make ahead of time so we can be prepared to fulfill orders quickly.”

In a restaurant the term for getting everything organized for the chef is mise en place (or just mise which means “putting in place”), and it’s very important. For a junior cook, it can be a full-time job. “This is exactly what we strive for in the factory as a way to start our work every day,” Mike says.

Parallels between an efficient dental office and those of a kitchen and factory

Mike says that he thinks about similar parallels between an efficient dental office and those of a kitchen and factory. Dentists and assistants also spend time prepping to have tools and supplies ready and within reach, and efficient environments are critical for long-term success.

“Here on our factory floor, we want tools and supplies right when and where we need them,” Mike says. “You don’t ever want to have to go around looking for it. You certainly want to have the proper labeling. But like a chef in a kitchen, some tools like a spatula and a spoon are used often, so they all need to be organized in a particular way, but you don’t have unnecessary equipment nearby because it gets too cluttered. For dentists, it’s very much the same, they don’t want to have a tray with absolutely everything next to them. They only want to have what they really need and have it right there ready to go.”

Mike joined the company a dozen years ago and started out doing packaging, shipping, and working with suppliers. “At the time, there was a smaller team, so we all wore a lot of hats,” he says. “Over the years we expanded significantly to meet the demand for our products. We doubled the size of our staff, added Corian fabrication equipment, and a new CNC machine.”

Computer numerical control (CNC) machines are used at Ergonomic Products to build complex projects efficiently and with extreme accuracy. The machines utilize pre-programmed computer software to determine the movement of machinery such as precision saws. Ergonomic Products uses CNC machines to produce components in less time and at tolerances that would be impossible using a manual process and also deploy robotics for small part assembly and a high-end plasma cutter for metal work.

Because the company was growing quickly, several years ago it became clear that a factory manager was required. Dr. David Ahearn, CEO of Design Ergonomics and Ergonomic Products, together with his management team chose not to micromanage the process of finding a manager either from outside or within the company. It turned out that Mike had the ideal combination of skills and was well respected across the company.

“At that point, I had worked in packaging and shipping assembly,” Mike says. “I’d done some assembly work to create bins and tubs, some of the channel work, and I had worked on the Corian machines. I also knew a great deal about of the processes like how sales orders are handled. Our team just figured out that I would be the best manager and Dr. Ahearn and the management team agreed that as long as we’re getting work done and out the door, and we’re showing that we’re figuring things out, that sounds like a good plan.” Today there are more than a dozen people working in the factory and many others in research and development.

Mike Grace during the factory team huddle
The start of a typical day on the factory floor includes Mike leading a team huddle. “We go over what our expectations are for the day, what the production schedule looks like, and we discuss what each individual or group of people are working on, Mike says. “I want to know what they need from me and if they foresee any problems.”

Mike also ensures there are sufficient parts in inventory to make the production schedule. To make his work easier and to streamline interface with other departments, Mike is part of a team implementing a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. This sophisticated software manages parts inventories, orders, staffing levels, manufacturing, and finance to make the factory and indeed the entire company run efficiently.

Mike says that the investments in equipment like CNC machines and software like the new ERP system allows his team to make a super high-quality product on time. “We look at our processes through the eyes of our clients,” he says. “They have a certain expectation, and we need to meet the expectation. However, we want to do more, to make products that they love.”

Playing in a metal band and working as part of a team

Through experience, Mike has identified several important attributes for ideal new factory employees: They must be able to work as part of team and they need to be morning people. “I like to bring in some of the younger guys that haven’t had much experience, people who don’t have excess baggage from working in factories that don’t operate like ours. I’m also looking for intelligence and the ability to learn, not just somebody looking for a job for the sake of looking for a job. Culture is so important.”

But wait, what’s the deal with morning people? The factory operates from 7:00 am to 3:30 pm, which gives employees time during the late afternoon to do what they are passionate about.

Mike Grace in Running Maid metal band“I’m in a band called Running Maid together with one of my colleagues, Jeff Vilardo, who works in R&D,” Mike says. “We have a studio space at Jeff’s house, and we are working on an album. We do all the recording, the mixing, and the vocals in the studio.”

Mike plays bass in the metal band, writes some of the music, and does some backing vocals. He is quick to make sure to emphasize that Running Maid is a band in the true sense, a team of musicians.

Mike has found multiple callings, all focused on the powerful dynamics of a team. Going from a restaurant kitchen to a factory floor, to managing the factory, as well bringing together musicians, Mike is a team player. He’s also a leader. He’s found the ideal role, managing the creation of the products from Ergonomic Products—tools that dental offices use to make their team dynamics much more efficient, leading directly to excellent patient outcomes.