Manufacturing AUTOMATION

The even bigger picture

November 16, 2007
By Paul Hogendoorn

Much has been said of late about the need for a national manufacturing strategy, including a great article in the September 2007 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION (“WANTED: Manufacturing Strategy“). Leadership is certainly central to this topic and has been a favorite subject of mine over the past the years. We need our leaders to do more than simply develop strategies for survival. We need leaders with a better vision of the future; leaders who can find ways to prosper and grow, not just in changing and challenging times, but also in response to the opportunities that arise from those changes and challenges. We need all our leaders to be engaged, not just the company leaders; we need our government leaders, labour leaders, as well as our company and management leaders, to be engaged.

Historically, we have required our leaders to know a lot about issues like productivity, quality and, more recently, innovation. Now we need leaders with completely different skills and strengths in areas like marketing and vision casting. They don’t just need to look at the big picture–today’s leaders need to be able to think about the “even bigger picture.” Traditionally, looking at the big picture meant devising strategies to remain competitive in your marketplace, both now and in the future. Looking at the “even bigger picture” means so much more; it can mean redefining your marketplace, or redefining how you see your competitors, or even who your competitors are.

There are plenty more examples. Thinking “big picture” means being able to find a win-win agreement between labour and management, satisfying the needs and demands of the workers while still allowing the company to be profitable.

Thinking “even bigger picture” means completely redefining the relationship between management and labour, looking to restore (or enhance) the extremely valuable but impossible to quantify intangibles such as flexibility, individual initiative and team spirit.
For purchasing, “big picture” thinking means looking at more than just cost and quality. It means considering certainty of supply, convenience, reliability and warranty–in other words, the true cost of the product over its whole life cycle. But “even bigger picture” thinking means considering how the vendor selection and buying decision process affects the company’s newly adopted goal to be innovative.
All too often I encounter companies that recite the “innovation holds the key to our success” mantra while completely abdicating their vendor relationship management to a purchasing department that places little, if any, value on innovation. Recognizing the real value an innovative supplier may bring to your organization would be very difficult; quantifying would be even harder–especially for managers that have always had the luxury of measuring things in absolute terms. For a company to be truly focused on innovation means including the purchasing department in the pursuit of innovation.
They also have to think “even bigger picture.”
Marketing people have always believed they are “big picture” thinkers. They frequently think in abstract and conceptual terms. Their jobs are to try to define the emotional and logical factors that affect someone’s buying decision, then use that insight to differentiate their product from the competition. Some people, myself included, believe the manufacturing sector has not paid nearly enough attention to the value of marketing; but as far as marketing is concerned, the sector may as well skip right over “big picture” thinking and jump right into “even bigger picture” thinking. For instance, rather than differentiating ourselves from our competition, perhaps we should differentiate ourselves with our competition. At a recent trade show, I noticed a number of equipment exhibitors from Switzerland scattered throughout the exhibit hall. Although many of them were competitors, all of them displayed a small banner with the slogan “Swiss Precision” in their exhibits.
In the same way the phrase “German Engineering” benefits all German manufacturers, these Swiss companies are working together to differentiate their manufacturing industry from the rest of the world. Finding, then adopting, such a defining characteristic for the Canadian manufacturing industry requires “even bigger picture” thinking. (Perhaps if we are truly serious about innovation, one day we might be able to adopt the slogan “Canadian innovation.”)
Even though innovation is most commonly associated with technology, technical people also regularly slide into patterns or ruts. Explanations like “this is the way we have always done it,” or, “this is the (plug your company name in here) way,” indicate the company may have been innovative at one time, but is not any longer.
“Big picture” thinking might encourage personnel to learn the best practices from other departments or divisions of the company. “Even bigger picture” thinking would encourage you to learn from your competitors. Consider Harley-Davidson. A few decades back, the company was in serious trouble. Its competition had surpassed it in all critical areas, including performance, reliability, features and price. Company officials determined it still had a loyal following–its biggest problem was the quality of its product. Rather than try to improve existing processes, officials opened their minds and decided to learn from the competitor who was best at manufacturing a motorcycle–Honda. The company went to Japan and put those same best practices into place in all the Harley-Davidson factories. The rest is history.
In today’s challenging manufacturing world, “big picture” thinking might help our industry and companies survive. But to thrive in today’s economy, companies must look to “even bigger picture” thinking and seek out the opportunities within the current challenges.

Paul Hogendoorn is president of OES, Inc. and chair of the London Region Manufacturing Council (LRMC). He can be reached at For more information about the LRMC, visit


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