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The People Aren’t Broken

Sept. 24, 2021
Excellence is a complicated story, particularly today.

In light of all we’ve experienced over the past 18 months, doing much more than keeping your head up seems noteworthy. But in the fall issue of IndustryWeek—the Excellence Issue, featuring the 2021 class of IW Best Plants winners—we celebrate a few manufacturers that are doing much more than just treading water, that are doing much more than just good enough. We celebrate the companies that are satisfied with nothing short of excellence, and we detail all the terrific things organizations like these can do once their goals are set, once their teams are aligned, once the right investments are made.

This is a spectacular story in any year, worthy of all the praise we and our readers pour on these companies. But today, it seems extra sharp. The pursuit of excellence seems more than just good business somehow. It seems like a triumphant fist in the air. I’ve been studying this topic a lot lately, trying to understand exactly what makes great companies and great plants and great teams just so great—going full nerd on excellence, spending my nights rereading 30 years’ worth of IW Best Plants stories, 50 years’ worth of business books on strategy and team building, on change management and lean.

And all of them, every single one, say the same thing. They all provide the very same recipe for success, recounted and described a thousand different ways: Set the goals, align the teams, invest in the right things. That’s it; that’s the secret. The most imitable business strategy ever. Every plant should be an IW Best Plant, every company should be world-class excellence chasers.

But they’re not. Even in “normal” years, they’re not.

There are reasons why, of course. There are challenges in the way—truly difficult, thorny challenges to overcome before any progress can be made.

There are difficult teams with bad cultures. There are too few workers who possess too few technical skills. The company is set in its ways and resistant to change. There are bad apples sabotaging progress. I get it. These are real problems that every company shares, all of which absolutely impede progress.

But here’s the most important thing I’ve learned from all my studies: Every great company, every IW Best Plants winner, every high-performing team anywhere in any industry is also dealing with these same problems.

Look at Onex’s formerly broken, intransigent culture. Look at Brose Tuscaloosa’s worker shortage. Look at the entire city of Youngstown. All of them have faced challenges that seem just as insurmountable as any other struggling company or region. But none let that stand in the way of progress. All of them fought on. They set goals, they struggled and experimented and finally aligned their teams. All of them, all of them, looked hard at the long term and made the choice to invest in exactly what those teams needed to meet their goals.

If there is one major difference between the two sides of the divide—those in pursuit of excellence and those still stuck at the people-problem phase, the IW Best Plants Winners and the survivors—it’s a single concept that seems to vault some straight over the impossible hurdles: The people aren’t broken; the processes are.

The problem isn’t the tight labor market; the problem is the process to attract and retain workers. The problem isn’t the skills gap; the problem is the process to train and develop talent. The problem isn’t a bad culture; the problem is the process by which that culture is maintained and reinforced.

While it may be a gross simplification of these serious and complicated challenges—and certainly an under-characterization of the work overcoming them involves—the real difference between top-performing companies and everyone else is just one thing: The best companies set their focus on fixing processes, not people.

The real work starts after that. And it’s hard work. It takes time and patience. But, once the shift is made, it charts a certain course toward excellence. That is what defines all of the companies profiled in this issue and it’s what unites all great companies across the industry. That focus is the real fist in the air—the power that drives us to innovate, to improve, to grow no matter how hard it gets.

About the Author

Travis Hessman | Content Director

Travis Hessman is the editor-in-chief and senior content director for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He began his career as an intern at IndustryWeek in 2001 and later served as IW's technology and innovation editor. Today, he combines his experience as an educator, a writer, and a journalist to help address some of the most significant challenges in the manufacturing industry, with a particular focus on leadership, training, and the technologies of smart manufacturing.

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