Last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Blue, president of Miller Ingenuity, located in Winona, Minn. Winona is a medium-sized Midwestern town of under 30,000 people located on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in the southeastern corner of Minnesota across the river from Wisconsin.
"Rudy" Miller founded the company more than 60 years ago after inventing the wick lubricator, a maintenance-free lubricating system for locomotives. Miller's inventiveness enabled the company to develop into a successful enterprise by means of the ability to design, produce and deliver innovative railroad parts that meet the needs of the industry.
Miller Ingenuity currently has 50 employees at their 70, 000 square-foot plant, but has 18 sales people around the world selling to 100 countries. The company remained a privately held enterprise of the Miller family after Mr. Miller's death 18 years ago, and Blue became president 15 years ago.
As described on their website, Blue is carrying on the innovation legacy of Mr. Miller: "Our continued innovations are driven by three core motivations: to take on customer challenges, to think more creatively about solutions, and, humbly, to be everyday heroes to our customers. We put these beliefs into action based on deep and “factory floor” relationships with our customers and on our ability to invent, engineer, and deliver ingenious solutions."
Blue stated that the company started on their lean journey 10 years ago, and every employee went through the training. Two of their employees are Black Belts from training they had received when they worked for General Electric. The company has expanded lean out of the shop floor into "lean office," but not into "lean accounting" as yet.
Asked whether the company is having problems finding employees with the right skills, Blue said, "Yes, but it is because we are picky by design. We have created a culture, and not everyone fits into our culture. We are slow to hire, but fast to fire if someone doesn't fit. It's easy to teach skills, but attitude is more important."
Blue added, "We do continuous training as part of our lean program. We have self-directed work teams and utilize peer interviewing and reviews. We have a "bounty" program with a $5,000 cash award for the most innovative ideas. For example, six production workers reduced a stamping die set up from 4 hours to 16 minutes."
Since I saw a wide variety of products on their website utilizing many different fabrication processes, I asked if they were vertically integrated to do sheet metal fab, machining, rubber and plastic molding, wire forming, electronics assembly in-house or if they subcontracted out some of these fabrication services. Mr. Blue said, "We do metal stamping, compression rubber molding, and injection molding of plastics in-house, and subcontract out the other fabrication processes."
Naturally, I asked if he outsourced any manufacturing offshore to China or other Asian countries, and he responded, "We have some electronic subassemblies and surface mount printed circuit boards sourced overseas, along with some overmolded rubber parts because our competition was selling products at our U. S. cost."
On their website, I had noticed a heading for the Larry McGee Co. and asked Blue about the company. He said, "We acquired the Larry McGee Co. in March of this year. They were our third acquisition in the past 10 years. They had a great product line of radio-controlled interface devices, but no sales force. It was a low-risk opportunity to enter into a different technology. We moved their operations into our plant from their Chicago facility."
I had received a press release about the company's Creation Station, so I asked Blue why they started it. He said, "We started the Creation Station because our ability to innovate was slowing down and needed to be accelerated. We hired the ex-chief creativity officer from QVC to teach us innovation principles. We started by having an innovation session every Tuesday, but wanted innovation to be more spontaneous and not wait until Tuesdays. This led to creating a space away from their working space in the middle of the manufacturing area. Glass panels provide natural light. Smart boards are scattered about the room, and there is a pool table in the middle of the room. But, the magic is in the people, not the room."
An article in the Winona Daily News stated, "’Creation Station is a big investment in creativity and entrepreneurialism in manufacturing at a level where it needs a shot in the arm,’ said Steve Blue, Miller Ingenuity president and CEO. ‘It’s truly a breakthrough moment for our company, the town of Winona, the region, and small and mid-sized manufacturers in this country.’”
"Creation Station offers a flexible workspace designed for both large and more intimate presentations, trainings and meetings. Creation Station will also be made available during off-business-hours for regional organizations and companies looking for a high-tech ‘think tank’ space."
Manufacturing Challenge: Attract the Best Minds
In addition to Creation Station, Miller Ingenuity created the 2014 Ingenuity Challenge, open to employees and the general public. The public invitation stated: "The Ingenuity Challenge invites ALL college and graduate students to submit plans and creative ideas in response to the challenge – How Might American Manufacturers Attract the Best and Brightest Innovative Minds to Pursue Careers in the Manufacturing Industry. The best solutions will win: 1st place $7,000; 2nd place $2,000; and 3rd place $1,000." The deadline was November 19th, and they had eight entries at the time of our interview on November 17th. The winners have not been announced yet, but the results will be made publicly available, and the ideas will not be proprietary to Miller Ingenuity.
In answer to my final question as to what does he attribute the company's ability to prosper after 60 years in business, he answered, "Our culture by design, not default has enabled us to prosper. We have a cohesive, collaborative and creative culture."
We will be hearing more from Steve Blue as he told me that he had just signed a deal with Praeger Publishing to publish a book titled "American Manufacturing 2.0: What Went Wrong and How to Make it Right." We obviously share a common love of manufacturing and realize its importance to our economy and the creation of good-paying jobs. His book is expected to be published in the fall of 2016 and will utilize "up-to-the-minute data and trends to discuss the future of manufacturing in America and offers an inspiring vision—featuring his own company’s case studies—for revitalizing an entire industry."