On what side of the time clock are your employees leaving their passion?

Several months ago Plastics News ran an article entitled “Another casualty of the anemic economy: employee ambition.” This was a great observation.

I think this leads to another issue; how do we keep our employees engaged? How do we get them to “spend” their talent at work rather than elsewhere? We need to make sure that we are giving people a chance to contribute their talents to the organization’s performance. This is not for their benefit, but ours.

I recently had one of my better workers ask me why I came to work early. I told him that I was fortunate in that I liked what I did and I got a great deal of satisfaction from it. He responded that he wished he enjoyed his job as much I enjoyed mine.

His response bothered me for the rest of the day. Finally I went back and asked him what he did for enjoyment. With a broad smile he said that he engraved handguns in the evening and on weekends. He quickly took a stack of pictures from his tool box and showed me his work. He was good. For the first time I realized that I had a rival for an employee’s talent; not another employer, but another interest.

With the technology available today there are multitudes of ways we can find fulfillment in life. We are no longer defined by what we do at our “day job”. An employee can be a welder during the day to pay the bills and be a poet in the evening to feed his passion.

The stiffest competition companies’ face today is not for sales or profits, but for the talent of their employees. If we succeed in capturing this talent, increased sales and profitability will naturally follow. Engagement is the cause, success is the result.

Barry Stuart


The “New Idea” Landscape

In today’s tough manufacturing environment there is no lack of “advice”, free and otherwise. You can’t turn around without bumping into a consultant, coach or manufacturing “mystic”. We need to be sure that we don’t let these experts dominate the idea landscape and smother the evolution of new ideas.


In 1967 Edward de Bono wrote a book called “New Think”. In it he talked about the risk of idea domination. He used the simple example of digging a hole.

“Lateral thinking is made necessary by the limitations of vertical thinking. The terms ‘lateral’ and ‘ver­tical’ were suggested by the following considerations.

It is not possible to dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.

Logic is the tool that is used to dig holes deeper and bigger, to make them altogether better holes. But if the hole is in the wrong place, then no amount of improvement is going to put it in the right place. No matter how obvious this may seem to every dig­ger, it is still easier to go on digging in the same hole than to start all over again in a new place. Vertical thinking is digging the same hole deeper; lateral thinking is trying again elsewhere.

The disinclination to abandon a half-dug hole is partly a reluctance to abandon the investment of ef­fort that has gone into the hole without seeing some return. It is also easier to go on doing the same thing rather than wonder what else to do: there is a strong practical commitment to it.

It is not possible to look in a different direction by looking harder in the same direction. No sooner are two thoughts strung together than there is a direc­tion, and it becomes easier to string further thoughts along in the same direction than to ignore it. Ignor­ing something can be hard work, especially if there is not yet an alternative.

These two sorts of commitment to the half-dug hole may be regarded as commitment of invested ef­fort and commitment of direction.

By far the greatest amount of scientific effort is di­rected towards the logical enlargement of some ac­cepted hole. Many are the minds scratching feebly away or gouging out great chunks according to their capacity. Yet great new ideas and great scientific advances have often come about through people ignoring the hole that is in progress and starting a new one. The reason for starting a new one could be dissatisfaction with the old one, sheer ignorance of the old one, a tem­peramental need to be different, or pure whim. This hole-hopping is rare, because the process of education is usually effective and education is designed to make people appreciate the holes that have been dug for them by their betters. Education could only lead to chaos if it were to do otherwise. Adequacy and compe­tence could hardly be built on the encouragement of general dissatisfaction with the existing array of holes. Nor is education really concerned with progress: it’s purpose is to make widely available knowledge that seems to be useful. It is communicative, not creative.

 To accept the old holes and then ignore them and start again is not as easy as being unaware of them and hence free to start anywhere. Many great discov­erers like Faraday had no formal education at all, and others, like Darwin or Clerk Maxwell, had insuf­ficient to curb their originality. It is tempting to sup­pose that a capable mind that is unaware of the old approach has a good chance of evolving a new one.

A half-dug hole offers a direction in which to expend effort. Effort needs a direction and there are few more frustrating things than eager effort looking for a direc­tion. Effort must also be rewarded by some tangible re­sult; the more immediate the results, the more encouraged is the effort. Enlarging the hole that is being dug offers real progress and an assurance of fu­ture achievement. Finally, there is a comfortable, earned familiarity with a well-worked hole.

To abandon a sizable hole without any idea as to where a new hole ought to be started is unreasonable’ and demands too much of practical human nature. It is difficult enough even when a site has been chosen for the new hole.

Oilmen do not perhaps find it so difficult to appreci­ate the paradox that sitting about deciding where to dig another hole may be more useful than digging the same hole deeper. Perhaps the difference is that, for an oilman, digging costs money, but for scientists and in­dustrialists, not digging is more expensive. Without a hole, how can the mind exert its well-trained effort? The shovels of logic lie idle. There is no progress, no achievement. Today achievement has come to be ever more important to the scientist. It is by achievement alone that effort is judged, and to pursue his career a scientist must survive many such judgments.

No one is paid to sit around being capable of achievement. As there is no way of assessing such ca­pability it is necessary to pay and promote according to visible achievements. Far better to dig the wrong hole (even one that is recognized as being wrong) to an impressive depth than to sit around wondering where to start digging. It may well be that the per­son who is sitting around and thinking is far closer to digging a much more valuable hole, but how can such a thing be judged until the hole is actually started and the achievement becomes visible?

In the long run it may be far more useful to have some people about to achieve the right thing than have everyone actually achieving things of lesser worth; but there are few who are willing to invest in mere possibility. In the present system who can afford to think? Who can afford the non-progress of abortive thoughts?

An expert is an expert because he understands the present hole better than anyone else except a fellow expert, with whom it is necessary to disagree in order that there can be as many experts as there are dis­agreements, for among the experts a hierarchy can then emerge. An expert may even have contributed to­wards the shape of the hole. For such reasons experts are not usually the fIrst to leap out of the hole that ac­cords them their expert status, to start digging else­where. It would be even more unthinkable for an expert to climb out of the hole only to sit around and consider where to start another hole. Nor are experts eager to express their expertise as dissatisfaction with the hole, for dissatisfaction is too easily expressed, and often more forcibly, by many others who have not earned the right to be dissatisfied. So experts are usu­ally to be found happily at the bottom of the deepest holes, often so deep that it hardly seems worth getting out of them to look around.”

 Strike a chord?

Barry Stuart

Uniqueness in the Eyes of the Customer…

I recently sat in a bidder’s conference where each of five companies were asked to give a 30 minute presentation on their organization and it’s capabilities. Each group gave a glossy PowerPoint presentation ranging from 18 to 20 pages.

The participants used all the appropriate buzzwords and graphics. They were all working on lean techniques, they were all working on six sigma; all had hired black belts who were busily training greenbelts and mentoring programs.

Not surprisingly, they all were using similar equipment; had similar plants and information systems.

All the participants gave excellent presentations. There was only one thing missing…differences.

After almost three hours of “me too theater” they had successfully defined themselves as a commodity. The only thing left was to negotiate on was “price.”

We need to remember that we don’t compete on what we have in common; we compete on differences – on what we do better. It is what makes us unique.

The programs each company presented were important, but we need to remember that lean, six sigma and like programs are critical tools, but they are threshold events – it’s what gets us in the game; it’s not the finish line. These initiatives will only give us parity with other organizations using the same adopted programs.

So where does unique advantage come from. I suggest that we first look to the most underutilized asset in most organizations – our workers.

We tend to look at labor as just that, labor. Workers are more than just the muscle behind management’s intelligence and creativity. Understand, with ever worker we hire we also get a brain. Most floor workers are doing what they do because they lack education or training, not because they lack intelligence and creativity. So how do we tap this intelligence?

We need to access all the talent available. Innovation is not the sole province of the corner office. Those companies that ignore this fact run the risk of becoming the underclass of the next economy. They will compete solely on price if competing at all.  While they may survive, it will be at the will of more dynamic organizations.

While Kaizen events are one of the best tools to generate employee involvement, they are also commonly misused. I asked a floor associate if she knew what a Kaizen event was. She responded, “I have been in a couple. It’s a three day meeting where managers come out on the floor and explain to us what we think. If the event succeeds, they take the credit for showing us what we were doing wrong. If the solution doesn’t work, they say it’s because we didn’t understand the genius of management…sometimes we get a tee-shirt.”

This was not a stupid employee, she had seen through an organization’s attempt to misuse Kaizen to forward a predetermined agenda. She wasn’t fooled and the organization lost her engagement as a result.

We need to be sure that Kaizen events sincerely draw on the associate’s intelligence, creativity and their need to contribute to progress of the company. We need to define success not just in general terms, but how their specific function contributes.

If you want innovation from the workforce ask for it. Make it part of the job description. Let worker know that you value their minds as well as their physical efforts. We need to be sure that outside programs don’t dominate the idea landscape smothering internal innovation – the innovation that defines us.

Another technique for structuring this effort is a tool called “Idea Portfolios.” This is a process where managers meet with the operations teams on a bi-weekly basis to explain and update the challenges facing the team’s area. We would explain management’s plans for improving competitiveness including capital investments, training, etc.

Then we would ask them to find ways to generate additional savings; a specific percentage, generally 2%-4% depending on the opportunities available. Two weeks later (and every two weeks thereafter) they would present their ideas and plans. Leadership was responsible for supporting them with data, technical expertise and capital when it was justified. They were responsible for the generation, implementation and execution of their ideas. They documented their progress and key indicators in notebooks called “Idea Portfolios.”

As you start this dialog with your workforce, it generates some interesting dynamics.

First, you will be challenged to defend some pretty weak management positions. In this process, a team leader can assign a task “up” the organization. This process can force management to reevaluate the factors behind long standing practices. While this makes us better managers, it can be a humbling experience.

Second, the composition of your workforce will change. Employees that are only willing to offer their physical efforts tend to disappear – wandering off into other organizations. The employees that are willing to engage in this challenge tend to spread the word and attract new workers with similar values.

More importantly, your organization will be better prepared for the challenges of the next economy.

Adopted external innovation, while making us stronger, can make us less distinguishable from our competitors; a commodity. Added internal innovation makes us unique to the markets we serve.

Barry Stuart


Article originally published in Plastics News March 2, 2012. Entire contents copyright 2011 by Crain Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

Echoes of Innovation…

It is one thing to understand the challenges we’re facing today and the underlying need for change. It is entirely something else to identify that innovation which represents real value to our customers, employees and shareholders. It’s this innovation that builds a robust organization. It’s what makes us unique.



Change comes to our organizations in one of three ways:

  • Adopted Solutions (external input)
  • Adapted Solutions (external input, blended with internal factors)
  • Internal Innovation

Over the last fifteen years we have seen an increased willingness to adopt “just add water” change programs as a tool to help offset ever growing competition.

By adopting existing programs managers believed that they were demonstrating the type of decisive leadership that would keep companies competitive. In the quest for business’s “Holy Grail,” the last thing that we wanted was to be seen doing nothing.

At the same time, we have seen the unprecedented growth in the consulting industry. It is estimated that the number of consulting firms supporting these pre-packaged change efforts has grown 97% since 1990. During the same period the number of individual consultants grew by 170% and consulting revenues grew by a staggering 334%.

Prior to this explosion of “canned” solutions, management had been accused of ignoring potential improvements simply because they weren’t “home grown.” Katz and Allen referred to this phenomenon as the “Not Invented Here” syndrome (NIH). Clearly there was truth to this concern. Our egos and arrogance had fostered a “bunker” mentality that seriously damaged our ability to compete. We were trying to survive by “driving the old process’s harder.”

However, there is a much bigger threat to industry than “Not Invented Here,” We are now facing the threat of “Nothing Invented Here.” We are allowing external initiatives to dominate our idea landscape. We are moving from a class of innovators, to a class of implementers; implementers of the ideas of others.

As leaders we need to be aware of new technologies and techniques and determine their true value to our customers, our employees and our shareholders. No one else can do this for us. Customer Relationship Management, Enterprise Resources Planning, Material Requirements Planning, Just In Time, Kanban, Process Mapping, Kaizen Events and Lean Techniques; each of these programs and tools brings value, but they no longer represent level one innovation. These programs are the echoes of the innovation that came before.

Adopting is a tool that gets improvement into our organization faster and easier than inventing. However when we adopt we are “standing on the shoulders” of others who took the time to understand the essence of the market they serve. When we embrace these programs at face value, we may understand the “how” of change but not the deeper “why.” We haven’t earned the knowledge.

Today,Toyota is one of the most imitated manufacturing organizations in the world. The Toyota Production System is not a “random collection” of adopted systems. It was developed out of a “clean sheet” process that encompassed a value system, an understanding of the market they were entering, and an understanding of their own limitations in post warJapan. It was designed to address the challenges they were facing.

Almost fifty years later, the TPS is the premier manufacturing system in the world, dominating such mass production giants as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.Toyotaearned the knowledge. They understood the “why.”

This is not to say that we can’t adopt or adapt if the time or cost advantage offset the value of local innovation. But, understand that when we adopt we lose the opportunity to innovate; to gain a unique advantage in the market. It is innovation lost. Those companies that choose to follow will become the “beasts of burden” of the next economy.  While they may survive, it will be at the will of more innovative organizations.

When we adopt “Off the Shelf” programs we are not gaining a competitive advantage. At best we are gaining parity with the hundreds of other organizations adopting the same program. It is a defensive move, not innovation. We don’t compete by being the same we compete by being different; by being uniquely better. If we don’t offer uniqueness in the areas of technology, quality and responsiveness we are forced to compete solely on price.

When we allow “me too” programs to dominate the idea landscape, we do so at the expense of true organizational innovation. Inventing is a critical element of a dynamic organization. We need it; it defines us. It is part of our organizational DNA.

Saying that we are in the plastics business is like saying that Jackson Pollock was in the “canvas” business. We are all in the innovation business. Our end product is only the medium we work with. It’s the creativity, curiosity and intensity that we bring to that medium that determines our ultimate success or failure.

Barry Stuart

Article originally published in Plastics News December 23, 2008. Entire contents copyright 2011 by Crain Communications Inc. All rights reserved.