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Brewer Science's Terry Brewer: Success Is Not a Silo

This leader is ready to push any of a thousand buttons to keep his company evolving in a dynamic environment.

Terry Brewer's job is "to keep the flow flowing," he says. Without context, the phrase means little. Chat with the founder, president and CEO of Brewer Science for a while, however, and his meaning becomes clear. Brewer does not believe in walls. He does not appreciate segments. And he actively works to break down silos.

"Success is delivered by a continuum, not by segmented pieces," he says.

Brewer's perspective explains, in part, how Brewer Sciences caught the eye of this IndustryWeek editor, who writes primarily about plant-floor operations, not high tech. And Brewer Science is very much about leading-edge technology, or perhaps more precisely, technology innovation.

The company—with headquarters in Rolla, Mo.—develops and manufactures materials and processes for the fabrication of semiconductors and microelectronic devices. It holds a multitude of patents in categories from anti-reflective coatings to directed self-assembly, and a whole lot more. Its messaging touts technology.

And yet the company has stepped up to share its story of continuous improvement on the manufacturing floor. (View: Continuous Improvement Deep Dive: How Brewer Science Amped Up Production Volume and Reduced Waste.) It's talking production, and the reasoning is pretty simple.

"Manufacturing is necessary to deliver technology. You can't separate the two, and I think that is something that gets missed a lot," Brewer says. "As soon as we start thinking, 'I'm a manufacturer' or 'I'm a technologist,' we've automatically through our words created silos." Moreover, he adds, "manufacturing itself is a technology."

"If I talk about technology, I need to talk about delivery technology. We are not interested in being a Leonardo da Vinci. We don't want to just have a sketchbook of great ideas. We want to have a world full of great technology in operation. So, from the very beginning we elected that we were going to invest in becoming a manufacturing company to deliver technology."

Learn from Brewer Science's continuous improvement journey at the 2018 IW Manufacturing & Technology Conference & Expo.

Interestingly, had the world turned a little differently, Brewer may not have started a company at all. He received a doctorate in chemistry and initially thought he'd become a teacher. When he couldn't find a teaching position, he went to work for a couple of large companies.

At turns bored or frustrated by those early jobs, the Brewer Science founder reached a decision.

"If I was really going to get something done in my life before it was over... I had to start my own (company) and build it up from scratch."

And so he did.

The Brewer Science founder recently shared additional insights with IndustryWeek.

On his leadership style ...

Brewer: You have to adapt to the needs the people have, to the outcomes that people are looking for, and it's a continuing, moving process. I think the simplest way is to say management by a thousand buttons. I'm literally tweaking, pushing softly on a combination of buttons on a continuous basis and those small changes each button provides... create patterns or flows that keeps things moving forward.

I never do anything for the sake of a purpose. Always it is multiple purposes. Generally, it is dozens of purposes at the same time. As a leader, you cannot simply do one thing for one purpose. That's like pulling a lever. Instead you push a thousand buttons.

On spending time on the factory floor ...

Brewer: I spend a lot of time on the manufacturing floor, but you won't see me doing manufacturing. I'm a believer in walking around and seeing how things are going, just coming up and talking to people and getting their input. It's a powerful tool. People don't realize that in a 10- or 15-minute walkaround I can be up to date, and I can really know everything that is going on.

A long time ago I did (manufacture), of course. When you start your company, you do everything. You clean the floors, you do the research, you do the manufacturing. And I'm still very involved in it, but now my role must be appropriate for the ongoing progress of what we are doing. There is no stopping point; there's no 'we've arrived.' My job, really, is to keep the flow flowing.

On education and silos ...

Brewer: Knowledge in the past has been delivered in silos. In English class, all they care about is my grammar; in math class, all they care about is my mathematical proof. (But) there is no such thing as siloed knowledge, so it is very misleading. Then, when people get out of school, what do they do? ‘Well I'm going to be an X,’ as if there is a singular description of vocation. And we all know that in practice... we start one place, and before it's over we have evolved and redefined and broadened our competencies tremendously.

Life will eventually help you break down the silos, but it's a pretty inefficient process.

On the benefits of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education ...

Brewer: STEM is a great tool to help us understand the world is not segmented and it is a continuum.

STEM provides a technique or an approach, a messaging, an awareness for students that there is a different perspective to view problems and the solutions with. STEM is not siloed primarily because you have to work in teams with multiple disciplines, so right away the nature of the problem has been changed. It’s no longer answer the problems at the back of the chapter. The definition of the problem, which is the real skill, has been broadened.

Some people call it STEAM, they add 'art' to it, and that's great. The point is, STEM is de-siloing knowledge and the use of knowledge.

We also support STEM because our vision is to be a company of the people. We really do want to see what we do come around to make peoples' lives better. And STEM is a way of touching and helping young people and teachers to make their own lives better.

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