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IW's Talent Advisory Board: How Problems Get Turned into Opportunities

Oct. 25, 2023
The manufacturing leaders of IndustryWeek's Talent Advisory Board relate times when obstacles concealed new ways forward.

The IndustryWeek Talent Advisory Board offers monthly advice on how its members got to where they are in the manufacturing world and their perspectives on issues facing the industry. 

If you have a question for the group, please send it to [email protected]

The IndustryWeek Talent Board question for October was: Can you think of a time in your career when an opportunity came to you disguised as a major problem?

Carlos Torres—Head of Industry 4.0 at USA 5G Smart Factory, Ericsson

Difficult situations often inspire the most innovative solutions. 

In today’s world of rapidly changing technologies demanding continuous learning, scaling solutions that are increasingly more complex year over year, and shifting priorities to meet market demands can at times feel overwhelming. It is important to remember to stay positive and focus on what you can control. 

I had a mentor who would say “never waste a crisis to bring a positive change.” This sentiment will always energize me in those times when it feels difficult to stay optimistic. A positive attitude helps boost the team’s morale and encourages creative problem solving. 

Secondly, there is a difference between what you can influence and what you can control. Acknowledging and accepting uncertainty helps me find creative and innovative solutions to the most difficult challenges.  

Constraints are a good thing because they force us to think innovatively, and this is where we can grow the most as professionals. 

Paul Baldassari—Executive Vice President of Worldwide Operations, Flex

I strongly believe that every change or challenge provides opportunities. But we often get dragged into a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset. A recent example of this interplay was a major reduction on a program. By looking at the problem with a growth mindset, we focused on yield and efficiency improvements, which allowed us to get out of the volume dip in a much stronger position.

Rick Bohan—Principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC and an IndustryWeek Influencer

My first job was training coal miners how not to get hurt or killed on the job. This was in spite of the fact that I knew zero, nothing, nada about coal mining.  I spent some time visiting the mines before first standing in front of a classroom full of union miners, but a few visits didn't provide enough background to fill eight hours of instruction.

That first class was filled with men (and they were all men, back in 1978) who worked various jobs at surface mines.  Now, surface mines use equipment that we're all familiar with: bulldozers, front end loaders, graders, and trucks. Really big bulldozers, front end loaders, graders, and trucks! Again, my own experience with such equipment was limited to watching them operate from a distance.  My "major problem,” then, was how to keep a room full of UMWA workers engaged for eight hours. 

Out of desperation as much as anything, I introduced myself then asked, "Who here operates a bulldozer?" No one raised his hand or spoke up for a minute. Finally, one of my students lifted his hand from his desk.

I grabbed a piece of chalk, walked over to the blackboard (there were no dry erase boards in those days!) and asked him to tell us all what he did to operate his dozer safely, starting with a pre-ignition walk around of the machine. The experienced operator did just that. As he did so, I wrote down his comments on the blackboard. I had him continue through the operation of the dozer and the eventual shut down at the end of the shift. Written on the blackboard were a dozen or so bullet points that captured and summarized the operator's contributions.

At that point, I turned to the class and said, "There you go. That's today's lesson in the safe operation of a bulldozer at your mine. Now... who here operates a front-end loader?" We went through the same method through all the equipment and tasks relevant to their mine.

The "opportunity" was a real-time, real-life application of a principle I had always held but never been able to put directly into practice: the experts are already at the mine, in the plant, in the company. Get those experts involved in teaching and learning, decision making and planning, problem solving, and innovation. The cost is low but the advantages are substantial.  I found that to be true firsthand during that class forty-five years ago.

Carl Livesay—General Manager, Mercury Plastics, Inc.

The first opportunity came when I approached the Maryland Secretary for the Department of Business and Economic Development to complain because the State was not doing enough to support manufacturers. The result was the Maryland was shedding jobs and manufacturing companies for the previous eight years.

Manufacturers are the bedrock of business for economic development and ours was crumbling at an alarming rate. When a manufacturer sets up shop in a location, they are very unlikely to leave. The cost to move manufacturing equipment is staggering, as is the cost to recruit and train a new workforce. Both of which are extremely disruptive to business. For this reason, manufacturers grow a “tap root” in their location and they invest heavily in the workforce and community. It takes a lot of frustration for a manufacturer to decide to move.

I wrote a very detailed unsolicited report and presented it to the Secretary. After a very brief review, the Secretary asked me if I could fix it. I responded that I believed I could with his help and the help of some others, but I did not come to him looking for a job. I came to complain to him. His response was humbling, he said “Carl, there is a line of people stretching around the building wanting to complain about something. I need people who are willing to fix things. If you are willing to fix the problem, I would like to discuss this further but if you are not, I have a busy schedule and I am running late.” We continued to talk, and I joined DBED as the Director of Manufacturing for the State responsible for the Manufacturing Industry.

My experience and relationships with manufacturers provided ideal access to business owners and my influence and my position with the State provided an opportunity to educate legislators about the challenges facing manufacturers and I provided explanations of potential unintended consequences in certain situations. For the next few years, my co-worker and I traveled around the state advocating for manufacturers and convincing manufacturers to stay in the State. We helped drive business and businesses from outside of Maryland into the state by presenting and communicating the many advantages for manufacturers in Maryland. We were also provided the opportunity to interact with many of State agencies helping to improve their understanding of manufacturers and the challenges they face. We were surprised by how little many of the people in regulatory positions knew about the industries they were regulating. We spent a lot of time advocating and educating.

Together with the help of several legislators, agencies, a few cabinet members, and most of all the manufacturers, we reversed the decline in manufacturers and manufacturing workers growing the manufacturing industry for the first time in several years. I am personally grateful to the Secretary of DBED for providing the opportunity to serve the interest of manufacturers and the State. It was a great time. I learned later when the administration changed parties, the new administration was not excited about manufacturing, so we consequently parted ways. 

About the Author

IW Talent Advisory Board

An expert panel of manufacturing leaders offering advice on how to advance your career.

Beginning a career in any industry is challenging, and many people early in their journeys in manufacturing need advice on how to advance and reach the next milestone. IndustryWeek’s Talent Advisory Board collects manufacturing leaders who rose through the ranks and are happy to share stories and advice on how they got to where they are now. This group includes senior-level people and young leaders who advanced quickly in their organizations. They work for large companies or run their own businesses, representing a wide swathe of careers within manufacturing. 

Every month, we ask the group a new question about their careers or life experiences. If you have a question for the group, please send it to IndustryWeek [email protected].

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