To survive in today’s ever-shifting, ever-evolving manufacturing landscape, speed is all that matters.
For manufactures across the industry, the ability to quickly adapt to new trends, new technologies and new developments in the market, can mean the difference between life and death for the company.
But once that company reaches a certain level of growth and success, speed can become an impossible feat of global agility.
That represents a difficult contradiction.
Take Dow Chemical (IW 500/21) as an example.
In an industry rife with disruption, over the past century Dow has grown into an enormous multinational corporation that manufactures some 6,000 products in over 30 countries, employing 44,000 workers who pull in a revenue that out-stacks the GDP of a small nations.
The company has found itself in this difficult position: in order to maintain its global size and continued growth, it must remain quick and responsive to change. But because of its size and growth, speedy response is near impossible.
“You can see us a bit like an elephant lumbering slowly along,” noted Peter Holicki – Dow Chemical’s corporate vice president of manufacturing and engineering – at the annual Arc Forum in Florida last week.
“While being wise and graceful at times, this big elephant – even if we look back at 117 years of relentless success – can have difficulty changing,” he said. “But change we must, so change we will.”
In this scenario, he said, the question becomes, “how exactly do we get the elephant to dance?”
The short answer, shared by Dow and many corporate giants like it, is technology: an aggressive, corporate-wide investment in and development of the latest high-tech innovations and tools that can help steer the organization to success.
But that’s only half the story.
The Three-Part Innovation Plan
Over the past 25 years, the chemical industry has seen more than its fair share of disruption.
According to Holicki, of the 20 largest chemical companies in operation 25 years ago, only eight remain in business today. The rest, he said, just couldn’t keep up with the changing beat.
“The companies that didn’t survive, they were the ones that were comfortable with the status quo,” he explained. “They quit innovating; they quit making incremental but necessary changes to remain competitive in today’s world.”
In other words, they failed to get their lumbering elephants to join the dance.
To avoid that fate, Holicki said that Dow has developed a three-part system to remain agile and on-step even through its massive, global growth.
It starts, of course, with technology.
1. Invest in Technology
“At Dow, we are addicted to technology,” Holicki said. “It’s embedded in everything we do and everything we have going… It drives our growth and the well-being of our company.”
Spurred by a top-level directive to yield an impressive $1 billion of productivity growth over the next few years, Holicki explained that technology’s role in the operations of Dow’s global enterprise has increased dramatically, in fact doubling the global output with half the people.
“The best way to stay ahead of the competition and to thrive in an ever more complex marketplace is through technology development and technology implementation,” he explained. “Quick and effective management of technology is a key advantage for any company.”
But it is not a cure-all, he warned.
2. Align Business and Technology
“It’s not technology alone that determines if you win or not,” Holicki noted. “Technology needs strategy and business alignment.”
The key to success, he said, is not simply investing in the latest and greatest technology of the day; it’s about developing a deep understanding of how these technologies impact the core business strategies of the company and then putting them to work.
Further, it’s about owning the technologies, he said, not just using them. It’s bout fully implementing new technologies into the business and into operations and leveraging them both together.
“Technology and innovation have to be aligned with business strategy,” Holicki said. “Only then do you get remarkable results.”
3: Change the Plan
Here’s the real trick to success: as technology changes and the market progresses, winning business plans and operational strategies and even technological victories of the past will not ensure success in the future.
To do that, companies must be willing to aggressively and bravely shift their balance to whatever new beats the future may play.
“You have to be willing to depart from strategy, to adopt new strategies when needed,” Holicki explained. “When you do that, that’s when you get the elephant to dance.”