Planting productivity ideas

As executive director of Technology Visits Program – Innovation Insights (TVP-ii) at Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME), Jon Fenwick co-ordinates the program in which Canadian manufacturers divulge their success secrets to a group of manufacturers that could include potential customers and suppliers but never competitors. These shop floor visits are intended to encourage Canadian firms to apply innovation and technology to increase productivity, lower costs, improve quality and boost market share. Funded primarily by the National Research Council – Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP) and delivered through CME’s cross-Canada regional offices since 1994, the TVP-ii has led more than 15,000 senior level executives through host plants. We asked Fenwick about these tours and some of the trends he sees happening in Canadian manufacturing.

IT Focus: How would you describe these tours?

Jon Fenwick: The Innovation Insights tours typically are a group of 15 to 20 senior people visiting a host company for three-quarters of a day. We do 100 visits a year in Canada and two international benchmarking visits to see world-class companies in action. We tour the very best and most innovative companies. These host companies are doing neat, innovative things and as a result are growing like crazy and selling around the world.

The host gives presentations on two or three of their best practices. Visitors have a chance to dialogue with the host company and talk to people on the shop floor. People can see where the rubber hits the road, find out how a new process or piece of equipment was implemented, learn how to get the culture of a company changed. It centres on information and technology but it comes down to people. This is an opportunity to network. It encourages participants to get all fired up and take back ideas to their own shops.

We have 2,000 people a year participate in Innovation Insights tours. The tours include different best practices that can be applied under lean manufacturing which is based on the Toyota production system. A major focus is the elimination of waste. It is not necessarily that they have to put in a new MRP or other expensive system. We also cover: continuous improvement, advanced manufacturing, supply chain management, global markets, Six Sigma quality program and human resources.

People issues are a big part of innovative practices. We’ll talk about recruiting, overcoming skills shortage, finding the right skills, how to determine and produce enlightened leadership, how to implement culture change throughout your company to give empowerment to your employees, as well as training and motivating staff.

Sustainable development is one that’s requested more and more. And customer-centric. You have to make the customer successful. You can’t just give them what they want; they expect that; that’s not good enough. You have to give them even more somehow and to do that, you have to get to know them much better.

IT Focus: What would be some of the major concerns you see with regard to IT?

Fenwick: A lot (of smaller manufacturers) are really worried about spending several million dollars on an MRP II system or stats system. They get very discouraged quickly and the thing dies an early death often at the risk of a lot of money.

They embrace IT and what it can do for them…They realize they have to do it. Even if they aren’t changing very quickly and finding out what the newest and best is, you can bet their competitors are, so they are trying to get any little edge they can in terms of boosting productivity and cutting costs. They are hungry for the information on ‘how do I do that, how do I approach it, what should I watch out for, how much should I spend?’

IT Focus: Is it a case that on top of the challenge of choosing between the many IT products and vendors, they are daunted by the tougher obstacle of figuring out where to begin and how to implement it?

Fenwick: Exactly right. If you’re president of a company and you know you want to change and you have a fairly good idea of what your problems are, where do you go and how do you go about this? So you start perhaps calling in three or four or five vendors of different products. How then do you evaluate all that, trying to figure out who is scamming me; who isn’t; what would be good? Eventually you will have to do all that, but I think it is a heck of a lot more comfortable if you can go to a company that from our program advertising, for example, showcases a company who’s actually done this.

Maybe the company they are visiting has installed this system and they’ve already gone through it or they’re going through it. The host may say ‘we tried such and such and we wasted six months on that; don’t go down that road.’ Or, ‘I wish we’d done this differently.’ That is an invaluable thing to learn ahead of time. We’re always trying to find the neat, unusual stories and showcase those and inspire others.

IT Focus: Do the large companies go on these tours?

Fenwick: Oh yes. Most of those companies are broken down into business units. When you break it down to a business unit, everybody’s got the same big issues and they’re dealing with the same concerns and the question of how to deal with them.

All those large companies have a ton of suppliers. The key for them obviously is how can they best work with their suppliers to achieve more? ‘How can my supplier help me be successful?’ And in turn, ‘what do I need to do to give him/her the resources to do that?’ We do see a lot more of this supply chain management and supply chain process going on between the larger customers and tier one, tier two suppliers in parts. They are becoming very close in working together and walking into each other’s shops, almost as if they are employees of each other’s shops. It is wonderful.

Obviously that is a big win for the big guys. They are cutting down the number of suppliers – that’s a big trend – maybe 500 suppliers are going down to 200, but those 200 are going to be very very close and involved with the company in all kinds of ways besides just shipping something to the back door. ‘Can you think of a way you can produce this large widget thing cheaper because of your manufacturing process? If so, we will change the design a bit if it means it allows you to manufacture the product in that manner. Then we will all win.’

You couldn’t have run this program 15 or 20 years ago because companies then were much more close to the vest. But today, the environment is much more one of partnering, doing joint ventures of building products together.

IT Focus: What other trend have you observed?

Fenwick: Whether business is good or business is bad, time is the new commodity. These guys will tell me all the time: steal my money but not my time. They’re so busy either trying to look for new business or in some cases there are companies that are really going gang busters in their particular market — like anybody who supplies the U.S. military with different parts. So time is absolutely key.

So anything they can learn or come up with that will help them, such as our Innovation Insights program, is very valuable to them, especially when it is low cost.

To network with people that you can talk to and call back later – it is unbelievable. I’ve seen them open their books to people. I call it the open kimono effect. They’ll say ‘here’s how we really goofed up and it cost us big time and if I were you, I wouldn’t go down this road.’ It is fantastic to have that kind of insight with someone who has gone through what you’re thinking about going through. And often they’ll call back later. It is very, very valuable.

Passion is the key word – the passion to change. You have to do all these things to make the change happen, but you really have to want to. It really requires a ‘change champion’ in your company, with the right mindset.

The good, innovative manufacturing leaders know that and are doing it. Unfortunately, I do see a lot of senior management in this country that, frankly, in my opinion need a good swift kick to understand the urgency of the problem. I just think we’re falling behind much of the world in terms of productivity; we’re tentative; we’re worried – certainly compared to an American psyche. I can see when I travel internationally a different philosophy or approach. The world is changing rapidly. Canadians need to embrace change and lead the pack, not follow it!