What We Learned: Expertise and Episodes from Three Years of ‘Factory Talk’

April 11, 2024
As the factory operations video series draws to a close, moderator Jamie Flinchbaugh shares some of the highlights.

The video series Factory Talk began as a collaborative project between me and IndustryWeek to bring voices of leadership from the factory floors to all of you. These interviews were meant to focus on practical techniques and experienced perspectives helpful to anyone in an operational leadership role, from frontline supervisor to multi-site leader. 

With this series drawing to a close, we reviewed the 11-episode library and found seven important themes connecting these many leaders. 

1. Leadership by Example 

True leadership transcends authority, manifesting in actions that inspire and motivate. Dan Royston of A.O. Smith exemplified this, saying, “I cannot expect the organization and the people to pick up garbage if I'm not willing to do it myself.” 

This sentiment is echoed by Don Bair of Robinson Fans, who asserted, “Leadership at all levels requires a commitment to being directly involved in the challenges faced by our teams​”​. 

Together, these perspectives underscore a model of leadership that is active, participatory, and grounded in mutual respect. It's a demonstration of commitment that not only bridges the gap between management and staff but also fosters a culture of accountability and shared responsibility.

2. Strategic Alignment and Execution

Ashleigh Walters of Onex emphasized the tangible aspect of strategic goals: “Making the goal very tangible for the team ensures that everyone knows exactly what we're working toward,” she said. Mike Fresnia of Qorvo complemented this view, stating, “Aligning every department's objectives with our overarching company goals has been key to our operational success.” 

These insights highlight the critical importance of ensuring that everyone in the organization understands how their work contributes to the broader mission. It’s about creating a unified direction that enhances clarity, fosters engagement and drives collective effort toward achieving common objectives. 

3. Cultural Transformation 

Sean Holly of J&E Precision Tool discussed the transformative power of learning from past experiences: “We've learned from mistakes specifically, which has helped us shape how people work here,” he said. This notion of cultural evolution through reflection and adaptation is foundational to creating environments that thrive on resilience, diversity and continuous learning. Leaders are instrumental in steering this transformation, championing values and behaviors that not only drive operational efficiency but also embrace change as a vehicle for growth and innovation.

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4. Continuous Improvement 

Carrie Thomas of Hallmark defined continuous improvement as a collective endeavor: “Continuous improvement is really a ground-up culture, and it's about everyone being involved​​." This culture of perpetual betterment engages every level of the organization in the pursuit of excellence, ensuring the company remains agile, responsive, and competitive. It’s a philosophy that nurtures innovation, encourages proactive problem-solving, and fosters a shared commitment to enhancing processes and outcomes.

5. Employee Engagement and Empowerment 

Alice Quesenberry of CMC Materials spoke of “creating an atmosphere of trust.” Engagement and empowerment are central to fostering a workplace where employees feel valued and motivated to contribute. This environment encourages a sense of ownership, prompts innovative thinking and drives individuals to exceed expectations, propelling the organization toward its strategic objectives.

6. Systematic Problem-Solving

Greg Kelly of Heartland Steel highlighted the importance of teamwork in problem-solving: “Systematic problem-solving has to be a team exercise, it’s not just one person's to solve”​​. This collaborative approach maximizes the diverse talents and perspectives within the team, fostering solutions that are comprehensive, sustainable, and widely supported across the organization. It’s about leveraging collective intelligence to tackle challenges effectively and enhance operational resilience.

7. Data-Driven Decision Making 

Mark Whitten of Spartanburg Steel Products elucidated the significance of metrics: “Every metric that flows into my staff’s metrics contributes to understanding our performance and guiding our strategy,” he said. This reliance on data underscores a strategic, informed approach to leadership and management. Data-driven decision-making minimizes guesswork, ensuring resources are optimally allocated and the organization navigates its path with precision and insight.

These themes demonstrate that there are some timeless principles that apply to factory and operations management. Some may be more important to you than others, and some might be more suited for your particular capabilities, but they are all important. You can hear in the interviews how each of these foundational principles may have its own spin or a different framework to bring it about, which suggests there is no one right way, but you must find a way that works for you. 

The final conclusion I would like you to take away from these interviews is precisely why I started this series: It’s amazing how much you can learn from anyone if you just invite them in with good questions. These conversations were rewarding and informative, and I hope you go find your own operational leaders to interview and learn from. Just ask … they’ll share their wisdom. 


Jamie Flinchbaugh is the founder of JFlinch, an advisory firm that focuses on helping build cultures, capabilities, leadership, and operating systems that consistently perform and scale.

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