Business Leaders Need to Up Their Game

Dec. 3, 2018
In an age driven by data and information, leaders need to drive their organizations to seek better answers to more penetrating questions.

I believe the role of business leadership is changing. Information explosion makes it necessary for leaders to ask better questions—to drive faster and smarter decisions. In my experience, too few leaders possess this skill.

A few years ago, I was the operations leader at a GE startup, run by a CEO—Johanna Wellington—who embraced a different execution model. She hired a strong, technical commercial and operations team that had the creativity and analytical skills to take full advantage of the data available in each of their areas of expertise. What she did differently than most leaders was leverage those skills more effectively by asking better questions. Her leadership drove significant gains in the speed of problem solving and performance improvement.

Johanna held weekly meetings of the core business team—with staff from operations, engineering and marketing. When we experienced a defect in one of our products, we would review data showing conditions before, during and after the failure. But she pushed us further.

She would ask the team how recent design changes might have impacted manufacturing. She probed about inspection data from suppliers. She asked to see overlays of machine performance data (feeds, speeds, temperatures, electrical feedback) on the population of parts produced to identify potential root causes. In our first few meetings, we didn’t have those answers. Gradually, we understood that the solution to technical issues lived in the connection of information sources—not in isolated analyses.

We became efficient at connecting data and drawing conclusions. We structured our databases to see how design, supplier, machine, inspection and performance data related to one another, giving us insight we never could have gained from any of those sources independently. This allowed our design team to accelerate their projects, achieving a product development cycle that was one-quarter as long as our competitors. Process yields improved and we had to adjust our product performance expectations upwards.

Johanna didn’t do the work, nor did she own every decision. She adopted a different leadership style based on penetrating questions that forced us to work differently, more collaboratively. We became familiar with company-wide information assets and how to exploit them to anticipate issues collectively. We became better at execution and closer as a team. Her intuition about information was pioneering, and it was the first time I saw this new leadership skill set in action.

Most companies have some form of advanced manufacturing initiative aimed at instrumenting processes and capturing data within systems. Many companies query that data to better understand what is happening locally within processes to improve quality. But very few look at dependencies across the plant, supply chain or engineering value chain to identify potential sources of incremental value.

I know several companies that collect data from every piece of equipment on the shop floor, yet lack the skills in their leadership and engineering teams to derive much value from that data. And, since leadership isn’t asking probing questions, engineering doesn’t feel the need to change their behavior or augment their skill sets.

If we are to realize the full potential of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and smart manufacturing, it will require more than just technology. Engineering and operations teams are not naturally inclined to consider data outside their sphere of control and few have visibility to cross-business interdependencies. It falls upon leaders to drive different behavior within their organizations—seeking better answers to more penetrating questions. The information-rich business world demands that leaders up their game.

Pete Kalish is director of business development at O’Brien & Gere, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about O’Brien & Gere, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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