Yesterday I gave the opening keynote for the annual manufacturers meeting of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. Most of the folks in attendance were CEO’s and senior management with a wide variety of companies, and they were keen for insight into what they should be doing beyond knowing that the world is flat.
There was quite a bit of information to share with them. In the last few years, I have hosted a dozen or more sessions on behalf of the global computer giant SAP. I’ve interviewed the CFOs and CIO’s of a wide range of major manufacturing companies such as Purdue Pharma, Hunt Oil, J Crew, Fossil Watches, Lennox Furnaces, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Adaptec and more. I’ve studied and analyzed what it is that these companies are doing to ensure that they can thrive in a world of rapidly changing markets.
Several key themes have emerged.
- Concentrate on rapid replenishment: smart supply chains are the bare minimum for today’s manufacturers. What you really need to do is build an information-partnership with your suppliers and customers, ensuring that you stay lean and mean at the same time that you meet very tight delivery expectations. It’s not about building-to-inventory — it’s about building to demand and build-to-order.
- Meet the raised bar of expectations : The new math is easy: that purchasing manager you are dealing with is often dealing with the best and the brightest companies on the planet. They will expect and demand the same level of service from you. The bar of expectations is pretty high, and it gets higher every day. At the very least, you’ve got to be able to provide instant, 110% service with everything you do — support, order status, bid prices, dispute resolution. If you don’t, you are increasingly out of the game. Today’s customer has options, and they won’t hang around waiting for you to fix your problems.
- Focus on planning agility: Gone are the days of sitting back and figuring out how to crank out a production run of 700,000 items. Markets and demand are changing so rapidly that you might need to retool, rework and redo your production capabilities, so that you can respond to something new that is going to happen next week. That’s why you’ve got to ensure that you make agility — the ability to change your own goalposts — the cornerstone of your manufacturing capability.
- Go maximum on flexibility: Here’s your new production mantra: volatility is the new normal. The last five years have taught us that unpredictability now comes at us in regular waves. If you are a food manufacturer and can’t instantly respond to sudden, new food traceability requirements, you’ll be faced with whopping, new, unmanageable excess costs. If you can’t provide detailed new logistics information to respond to some sudden new security concern, you don’t have the right flexibility. Today’s manufacturers live with the new unknown, and plan for it.
- Transition single source labor to multi-source skills: Old line manufacturers have different workers that do different stuff. The new guys have transitioned themselves with an investment in training and attitude so that their production team members can take on multiple different projects and assignments. It’s not about single-sourced skills — it’s about ingrained capabilities to instantly shift skills and resources to meet sudden new demands.
- Have deep insight into rapidity: With the collapse of product lifecycles and wildly fluctuating consumer / customer attitudes, you’ve got to stay on top of how quickly demand might change. All of the manufacturers I’ve studied with have ensured that they have the systems and technology that provide them deep, deep insight into how quickly their markets are changing. This includes CEO’s and executive management who can access real time, high-level snapshots of all kinds of key operating metrics. Sales force and marketing and production teams who know exactly what is going on in the marketplace, minute by minute by minute, and plan accordingly.
- Concentrate on commonality of business / manufacturing processes: Most manufacturing companies of any scope and scale have had multiple, independently operated plants and facilities, with countless numbers of different production control, manufacturing, planning, logistics and supply chain systems. Anyone with any degree of smarts today has ripped out the junk, and has gone to one, single, comprehensive system to do it all. Time should not be spent on trying to make different bits of code work — time needs to be spent in focusing on the competitive challenges in the marketplace!
- Implement flexible, just in time processes: What will your customers be buying six months from now? What new products might come out that will blow away your market position? If you don’t know, you should — and you should have the capability to quickly revamp, refocus and redo your business and manufacturing processes on an on-demand basis. The companies I’ve studied have pursued two key goals: ensuring that they can quickly redirect their manufacturing process, and in addition, having an IT staff that can quickly roll out sophisticated new business applications at the drop of a hat. Hand in hand, these two factors allow the organization to respond to the rapidity of market change that is a reality today.
- Develop better bid or service costing: Forget flying by the seat of your pants when you are putting out a bid on a contract. With margins so tight and with everyone becoming religious on cost management, that’s a surefire way of ensuring that you’ll lose money. Smart manufacturers have put in place the intelligent information backbones that let them bid and cost with a precision that matches the quality of their manufacturing process.
- Work to become the “supplier of choice: Your key goal today? You want to make it as easy as possible for your customers — whether they are wholesalers, retailers, distributors, end users or other manufacturers — to do business with you. Think of instilling “electronic glue” in your relationship — it’s all about partnering with them and putting in place business processes that makes it so easy for them to do business with you, that they will be unlikely to take their business elsewhere.
- Be relentless on operational excellence: Globalization means that being great is no longer enough — you have to be even greater. That’s why pursuing and achieving absolutely pure excellence within every aspect of the manufacturing operation is critical — you’ve got to go beyond greatness, to excellence, in order to compete in the massively global, increasingly flat, ever more rapid, customer-empowered marketplace that is today. It’s only by aiming for the highest that you can begin to hope to do what needs to be done.
All of the CFO’s and CIO’s and senior management teams at the companies I’ve studied have concentrated their efforts on three key words: agility, insight and execution. Pretty cool stuff!