Passion Fuels Successful Manufacturing

Lessons in leadership from the Best Plants Conference

If you were to scan the portraits of manufacturing in popular media, you would more often than not see manufacturing portrayed as a kind of robotic environment -- soulless, routinized, devoid of emotion. But the reality is that passion fuels successful manufacturing just as it does other works of commerce and art.

That passion was in evidence throughout our recent Best Plants Conference in Atlanta. Take keynote speaker John Batiste, president of Klein Steel Service in Rochester, N.Y. For 31 years, Maj. Gen. Batiste rose through the Army's ranks, ending his distinguished career in command of the 1st Infantry Division, the "Big Red One," in action in Kosovo and Iraq.

In 2005, he made the transition to civilian life as a businessman and began applying the same leadership lessons he had learned in the Army to his company. As the leader, he set the mission of becoming the "premier provider of metals by customizing solutions to meet our partners' needs." To do that, Batiste employed a "team-member-centric model" of leadership. Rather than dictate from the top down, Batiste sought to build an organization where employees clearly understood the company's goals and values, then were trained and given the resources they needed, and provided the responsibility and authority to get their jobs done.

"A leader who micro-manages is insecure," Batiste said. At Klein, he strives for a culture of learning where employees are allowed to make mistakes -- and are held accountable for learning from them. Organizational discipline is the backbone of this team effort. "We do the harder right rather than the easier wrong," he told Best Plants attendees. Through constant communication and persistence, the company has developed empowered teams, he said, that can "achieve spectacular results."

Wil James, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, also knows about doing the "harder right." For many companies, the recession was about reducing costs, and employees often felt as if they had a target on their backs. But James had been schooled in a company philosophy that emphasized that the "decisions we make should not only benefit our team members in the short term but in the long term." So rather than lay off employees, James told the Best Plants attendees, Toyota kept them busy by offering them additional training, devoting time to continuous-improvement projects and providing them paid time off to volunteer in the community.

Greg Babe began his career as an intern in Bayer's Polyurethanes Group. Now the leader of Bayer's North American operations, he has spent his career in the chemicals industry and is disturbed by the trends. New plants that cost more than $1 billion are now almost exclusively built elsewhere, he noted, and domestic employment in the industry has plummeted.

In his keynote address, Babe urged the Best Plants attendees to get involved in shaping the public policies that will lead to more investment and employment in manufacturing. He cited the U.S.'s high corporate tax rate and our failure to enact a permanent R&D tax credit as issues to address, as well as financial reforms to promote access to capital and the need for infrastructure investment. Trade associations can help with these issues, he noted, but "we shouldn't leave it to them to carry all of the water for us."

Far from being a historical inevitability, Babe said, the future of manufacturing in the United States is a choice. "We can affect the factors that encourage economic growth or we can discourage them. The only question is whether we have the determination and the political will to keep it alive in America."

Our 2010 Best Plants winners epitomize the will to keep manufacturing alive. For example, IEC Electronics, a contract electronics manufacturer, faced closure in 2005 as its production of circuit boards for personal computers moved to Asia. The company reinvented itself, pursuing lean manufacturing and Six Sigma and targeting growing markets for build-to-order products. With the mantra of "Absolutely, Positively, Perfect and On-Time," the company now is on a steady growth path. Listening to Don Doody, EVP of operations, and John Biuso, process improvement manager, recount the story, you couldn't help but be impressed by both the passion behind the effort and the impressive results.

Steve Minter
Editor-in-Chief
[email protected]

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