Recent Blog Posts
I had the great pleasure of spending most of the last two weeks in India. My wife and I were invited to attend the wedding of the son of a former work colleague. Besides the chance to spend time with an old friend and to absorb the fantastic cultural experience of an Indian wedding, we also toured many of the famous sites throughout the country. An added treat was a plant tour of my friend’s company, Pradeep Metals, Ltd. Started with his father over 30 years ago, the company has evolved from humble beginnings to become a world class supplier of nuclear grade steel forgings. This journey involved a dramatic change in markets served, additions of many quality standards, an ongoing lean manufacturing effort, constant reinvestment in new equipment and methods, investment in his employees, and a commitment to social responsibility. You could tell this story in any industrialized country and instantly identify the type of company this is – a modern, progressive manufacturing company committed to customer service and employee empowerment. This level of sophistication is not unique in Indian manufacturing. This level of energy is also not unique.
Throughout India, in addition to the many palaces, forts, and monuments such as the Taj Mahal, you can feel an incredible energy. You see the little stores packed on top of each other in the crowded cities and in the smallest towns. A whole nation of entrepreneurs at work, with few breaks or downtime. The roads are packed with trucks, cars, scooters, camel carts, bicycles, pedestrians, and the occasional cow or monkey. You’ll see a hand operated water pump next to a bank of solar cells. Universities advertise their degree programs on billboards along the highways. While you can’t escape the broad contrasts of luxury hotels located next to people living in the streets, there is a surging economy gradually making life better for many in this country of over 1 billion people. There are challenges of bureaucracy and corruption working against growth, but not enough to stop it. With a well educated work force, a familiarity with western business practices, and the rule of law prevailing, this seems like a country well positioned to be a focal point for expanding global businesses. I saw a huge difference in the country since my last visit of twenty years ago. I left feeling that even greater changes are at work and India is poised to be a major player in the global economy.
Many manufacturers are concerned about the next generation of manufacturing workers. What if we have a manufacturing renaissance and nobody comes? The issues of relevant education, workforce preparedness, and employee demographics have been some of the topics discussed at every gathering of manufacturers in the last decade. We can’t blame the education system completely. They may be on the wrong path in the eyes of manufacturers, but a question remains. What have manufacturers done to change the situation? Besides a lot of complaining, I think the answer is, not much. You need to get involved with the education process or there will be no change, or change not necessarily in your favor. So, what can you do? There are a number of opportunities if you just put in some time and dedication.
The first is to go visit your local schools, talk to the teachers and administrators, visit a class, invite teachers and students to visit your facility. We know from experience that educators know very little about manufacturing. They think it’s a dead end. Once they have a better understanding of what you do and the needs and opportunities available in manufacturing, they begin to realize that the headlines are not all true. The oohs and aahs you get from students seeing a manufacturing plant in operation are cherished responses. They had no idea how or what was happening in your factory.
Once past the introduction to manufacturing, we’ve found that working with educators to identify programs and courses to better prepare students for careers in manufacturing is a positive exercise. Although the wheels of education turn slower than those of industry, change is possible. Being a curriculum adviser to a program at your local high school or Career and Technical Education center is a rewarding experience and helps build trust and understanding between the business and educational communities.
Next, you need to make a commitment to educating the next generation. Internships, job shadowing, and apprenticeships are all appropriate methods for engaging with students. Even a small company, such as Graphicast, can have an impact. We have a college student from Keene State College doing an internship for us. She’s in their Industrial Safety and Environmental program and is helping us comply with the newest safety standards. We also have a high school student doing a job shadowing program. He comes in two afternoons per week to learn about manufacturing. His expressed interest in engineering is getting a real world test, and he’ll know much more about what he wants to do and where he wants to go to college after his time with us.
There are many other areas of advocacy where we can help improve the perception of manufacturing. Developing relationships with local colleges and universities, getting to know your legislators, and testifying on behalf of manufacturing related legislation are several areas of value. As manufacturers, we are faced with many daily challenges that we overcome to advance our companies. The educational and training issue is just another challenge we need to address if we are to prosper in the future.
I had a meeting of my CEO Peer Group on Monday. As a treat to ourselves at the end of our 2012/2013 meetings, we met on the sailboat of one of our members, a 38 foot Catalina. Moored at an ideal spot in Portsmouth, NH harbor, we boarded quickly and were soon in the Gulf of Maine sailing out to the Isle of Shoals, about ten miles off the New Hampshire coast. The weather was spectacular – a light breeze, calm seas, and sunny, with a few puffy clouds. The forecast was for the possibility of scattered thunderstorms later in the afternoon. No problem. It took about two hours to get out to the islands, and looking back we could see some darkening, but nothing too concerning. We spent the next hour conducting our meeting, enjoying the cool breezes and the slight rock to the boat. Getting ready to go back, we noticed a significant change toward shore. Scattered thunderstorms was not quite correct. A dark mass with some ugly clouds, indicative of a front rather than isolated thermal storms, was covering the shore. Now we were concerned that the weather was going to be much worse than forecast. We decided to head back, stowing the sails and motoring at full speed. The seas and winds picked up. We headed in toward the coast, then turned to run with the storm a little to give us more maneuvering room. By the time we turned toward the coast again, the storm was upon us and we headed through it. The seas rose to six to eight foot waves and the winds exceeded 70 knots. It was more like being in a hurricane than a scattered thunderstorm. Even without the sails, the boat heeled in the swirling wind. Waves crashed over the bow. Our helmsman kept his eye on the seas and the weather, applied his knowledge of sailing and his boat, and got us through in good shape. When we re-entered Portsmouth harbor the water was calm, and the sun was out. Damage on shore was significant, including parts of a nearby dock which had fallen into the harbor. Our experienced captain said it was the worst weather he had ever sailed.
The business metaphor of this trip is too hard to avoid. Know you business. Know your markets. Look at the forecasts. Enjoy the propitious weather and the profits of a good run. Be prepared for changes. Use your skills to navigate the worst economic storms, surviving with your business and bringing it to calmer times to prepare for another profitable journey. This sounds a lot like the last five years. There couldn’t have been a better lesson for a boat full of business owners.
We run a sales forecasting model every month to try to predict how we’ll do for bookings one and two months out. Our model is a neural network model based on company performance, econometric data, and market trends. This type of model uses years of historical information to try to develop predictive trends. We run the model multiple times to get a range of predictions. Sometimes they are tightly grouped, and other times, they can bounce around. This happens even though the same data are used. When things bounce around, there are usually conflicting data. Data that usually move together begin to come apart. That’s what happened in December. Good econometric information was clashing with negative emotional measures and the predictions bounced back and forth between dismal and pretty good. The real, numerical data was showing growth, but people were still negative on the economy.
We were expecting that the emotions would begin to turn to mirror the numbers, and that began to happen in January. Prior to January, most of of our bookings had been from recently added customers, seemingly unaffected by the slow economy, while our legacy customers, more affected by the economy, were not ordering. That changed in January. We began to see orders from companies who had been dormant for the past few years. Additionally, the newer customers started ordering larger quantities of parts. This is beginning to feel more “normal”, if such a term can describe our post recession economy. In any event, we’re enjoying the change. Hopefully, it will continue. Maybe the forecasting model will start showing more stable numbers and operate as if the world has returned to a more predictive mode.
Being a manufacturer and the owner of a company, I should be in the perfect demographic category for being a Republican. The Republicans lost me a decade ago. The Republicans went from being pragmatic problem solvers, with a Main Street business mentality and little concern about what you did in your personal relationships, to fiscally reckless moralists who want to control your personal life. They say they want smaller, less intrusive government, but want to legislatively impose a morality at odds with most of the country. Increasingly, they cannot put forth a message that resonates with the country in national elections, are having trouble in statewide elections, and are only able to capture voters in isolated congressional districts. Hence, they lost the Presidential election, lost Senate seats, and lost some congressional seats, only able to keep control of the House through gerrymandered congressional districts. It’s not that I am a through and through Democrat, I just find the current day Democrats more realistic problem solvers than the current day Republicans.
I have a suggestion for the Republicans – split the party and come back to your roots. Let the radical wing nuts form their own party. They can call it the Tea Party, the Arrogant Know it All Party, or whatever suits them. They will be happier and the moderate Republicans won’t agonize over trying to coddle the vocal minority. The new Republican party will actually recognize problems, not ignore them, and offer prudent, moderate, rational, pragmatic solutions to problems. Many independents will join them. Many moderate Democrats will join them. Many lapsed Republicans will join them. They will offer real alternatives to our nation’s issues. They will stay out of our bedrooms and doctor’s offices. They will start to win elections and begin to rebuild themselves as a respected voice in the national dialogue.
Without some change to the tone and substance of their message, I think the Republicans will become increasingly irrelevant. I, for one, do not want a one party monopoly. Please come back.