Remember the Customer

Om Malik’s writing has inspired and influenced me for decades. He’s a thoughtful observer of the technology scene and a good photographer. He recently posted a piece about Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the new Meta–his replacement for Facebook when it finally fades. After quoting from Zuckerberg’s talk about where Meta is going, Om points out that it’s all about what Meta can get from its customers. Nothing about serving customers and society.

During this morning’s workout, my podcast picked up Andy Stanley’s Leadership Podcast. His theme began with a story from a management meeting at Chick-fil-A many years ago. A new restaurant chain had popped onto the radar. Executives viewed it as a threat. The discussion centered on growth. Like a race, they wanted to grow faster than the opponent.

Founder and chairman Truett Cathy pounded on the table to obtain attention. The room quieted. He looked around the room and said, “First, we work on improving quality. If we are always improving quality, then our customers will tell us to grow.”

Two polar opposite views of the market.

Do customers serve us? Do we serve customers?

I am weaning off Facebook. It truly is evil making money by trying to entice us toward posting ever more extreme (and stupid) stuff to capture attention. I have never been in a Chick-fil-A. That’s because I don’t eat chicken. But if I did, I’d patronize the place that is trying its best to serve me. I’d shun the place that is cynically using me to make more billions.

Now–you are going to glance at this brief essay and return to work. What are you going to do? Figure out how to improve quality in order to better serve customers? I hope you choose wisely.

NI Corporate Impact Report

The first NI Week in Austin, TX I attended was 1998. I hit every year until maybe 2015. The clear vision of leadership around building a company with solid ethics and focus on having a positive impact on the world impressed me from the very beginning.

The company has grown from that startup scrappiness I first witnessed to the corporation it is today, yet the vision persists through the third generation of leaders.

Recently I interviewed Tabitha Upshaw, senior director of Brand, Reputation and Impact to learn more about the results reported in the 2021 Corporate Impact report just announced about a month ago. She emphasized the Three Pillars of the program: Changing the Faces of Engineering, Building an Equitable and Thriving Society, and Engineering a Healthy Planet. These were created to reflect where the company can have the greatest influence and impact as a test and measurement engineering leader.

Some of the results noted in the report include:

  • The launch of a rigorous grant-making process with $2.7 million in grants to nine nonprofit partners who are advancing diversity in STEM education, including the Girls in Engineering and Technology program in Malaysia and the Women at Tech program in Hungary.
  • Improved equity in base pay across NI, with ratios of 99% for women to men (global), 101% for people of color to white (U.S.), 100% for Black to white (U.S.) and 101% for Latinx to white (U.S.).
  • 35.5% of electricity sourced from renewables, plus 113,542 square feet of new buildings and remodels designed to LEED/WELL standards.

A particular point of pride according to Upshaw came from tracking pay equity goals and reporting that the company was beating these goals handily.

The company has placed dollars, executive time, and other emphases on STEM education at all levels of schooling as long as I’ve known it.

The report also puts forth a new goal: By 2030, NI will become a climate-neutral company with an ongoing commitment to protecting biodiversity. The company’s ambition is to operate in a way that produces no net greenhouse gas emissions (Scope 1 and 2).

“We are living through a period of rapid evolution. We see it with our customers who are accelerating the digital transformation of our world, and we see it in our society and across our planet,” said Eric Starkloff, CEO of NI. “Our 2030 Corporate Impact Strategy reflects our desire to be a driver of positive change.”

One of NI’s key drivers of positive transformation in 2021 was its announcement of $2.7 million in grants to STEM education initiatives that advance diversity in STEM education globally. The company formed nine new partnerships with nonprofits to bring hands-on programs and mentoring to girls and women, people of color and economically disadvantaged populations.

“We’ve had to put in extra effort to keep Corporate Impact top of mind in the face of macro challenges such as the pandemic, supply chain disruption, and our transformation as a company,” concluded Upshaw. “And I’m so proud of what we’ve worked together across the company to achieve this year.”

New Generation Leadership At Inductive Automation

Bringing in a new generation of leadership to an organization when you’ve groomed people with potential to realize that potential brings rejuvenation and excitement. The leadership at Inductive Automation is transitioning to the next generation.

I met Steve Hechtman in probably 2003 or 2004 at a trade show. A quiet software guy he told me he had started a new company with many new ways of approaching the HMI/SCADA market. The software was built from the ground up to be IT friendly. Pricing would be totally different from what was common at the time.

With much skepticism, I dived into learning about the new approach. Gotta say he moved the market forward. I met the co-developers of Inductive Automation’s Ignition Colby Clegg and Carl Gould a year or so later to interview for my new podcast called Automation Minutes. I just blew a half-hour trying to find that in the archives without success. 

The reason for this reminiscing comes from notice of a leadership transition at Inductive Automation. The full story is on its blog.

After dealing with inferior software and inadequate support for 25 years in the integration business, Steve started this company in 2003 to provide a new and better user experience for industrial professionals. Ever since, we’ve worked to provide our customers with the industry’s best SCADA software and equally excellent customer service.

Together, the two of us [Steve and Wendi-Lynn Hechtman] serve as the Executive Chairmen of our Board of Directors, and we’ve both also held C-level positions since the company started.

And today, we are very excited to announce that the time has come. While we will both continue to lead the company as the Executive Chairmen of the Board of Directors, Colby Clegg will take over as the Chief Executive Officer, and Kat Robinett will assume the role of Chief Operating Officer. Kat and Colby have been preparing for this moment for years, and we have every confidence in their ability to lead the company in our mission to empower our customers with the best software and services in the industry.

And some brief bios of the new leadership team. I wish them well. 

As Inductive Automation’s new CEO, Colby Clegg will oversee the company’s strategic vision and execution, ensuring that the goals set forth by the Board of Directors are achieved and maintained. Colby has been with Inductive since its very beginning, serving most recently as Vice President of Technology.

During his time here, Colby has created great strategic plans and executed practical solutions not just for technology problems but for sales, support, marketing, and organizational challenges as well. Colby has also had extensive first-hand experience working with integrators in the field and seeing the challenges our customers face. We think he is the perfect person to take on this role.

As the new COO, Kat Robinett will oversee the tactical execution of strategic goals and projects. Kat will be responsible for the company’s daily operations and facilities, as she continues to work to create a great company culture that encourages collaboration, fosters community, and provides growth opportunities.

Kat has been preparing for this new role for years. She has worked directly with both of us, learning the ins and outs of the company, learning directly from Wendi-Lynn about finding and cultivating superb talent, and working daily with leaders and contributors across the organization to carry out the executive strategies and plans that keep our operational efficiency at the highest level. 

With Colby now turning his attention to the company’s strategic management as CEO, we are promoting Carl Gould to the new role of Chief Technology Officer to ensure the continued success of our technology efforts.

Serving most recently as the Director of Software Engineering, Carl has been a driving force behind the creation of Ignition, from its foundations to the most recent innovations. He is a master software engineer, a great collaborator, and a natural leader, all qualities he’s employed to make Ignition the leader in our marketplace. Like Colby, Carl has also worked in the field, learning our customers’ pain points first-hand and developing practical solutions to real problems. We’re fully confident that Carl will excel in his new role as CTO.

Frank Blake On Leadership Vision Or The Inverted Pyramid

Andy Stanley’s Leadership podcast is the best place on the Web to find consistent advice and teaching about leadership from leaders.

While listening to today’s episode—a replay of a conversation with retired CEO/chairman of Home Depot, Frank Blake, I had a flashback to a time when I had a vice president role with a small automation equipment designer and builder. Everyone was gone at the end of the day. I walked from the offices to the shop floor noticing all the machines sitting there in various stages of completion. A feeling of responsibility and burden infused me. I felt responsibility for employees’ jobs and customers’ successes. I thought, I need to get this right.

This reflects the feeling expressed by Blake about the Inverted Pyramid. In place of the usual organization structure pictured by a pyramid with customers (or employees) at the bottom and successive layers building up to the CEO sitting at the top. Blake inverted it at Home Depot. The pyramid starts with the point at the bottom inhabited by the CEO. Then the layers build to the employees and then the customers at the top. One interpretation of the graphic is that the CEO supports everyone, not the other way around.

Early in my product development training mentors drilled into me customer first. When we developed a new feature or option or product it was in response to solving a customer need. We didn’t do it because there was a cool new technology we could force through the system. “We do this technology because the customer…”

Thought of the day, whom do you support?

Supply Chain Solution Provider Verusan Adds Executive Talent

I keep telling PR people that I’m not the supply chain specialist, but they assume among the 150,000 monthly viewers (estimated from my service provider) of this blog many will be involved with supply chain issues. I also seldom report on executive hires. In this case, I had an opportunity for a conversation with Christine Barnhart, new VP Product Strategy and Go-To-Market at Verusen, to discuss the career path of a woman in engineering.

Christine has an engineering degree. I related that in my freshman engineering class of 700 there were 7 women. One was in my engineering drawing class. The grad assistant would come in and give us the problem of the day. He’d leave a bunch of 18-year-olds (well, I was 17) alone for two hours. One guy was outspoken. He never directly harassed her, but he would say things generally designed to embarrass her. She just sat in the back corner quietly doing her work. Christine didn’t relate stories, but she did acknowledge that she had to develop the right attitude and learn to relate to a variety of other personalities.

That helped her in her first job following graduation working in maintenance at Whirlpool. I’ve could understand. Degreed engineers are already suspect among the workers. Go back 20-some years and women were also a rarity. She told me, “I never had the attitude that I knew more than other people.” That outlook on life will carry you a long way.

She also helped me understand more about what the PR people mean referring to supply chain. Her career path moved into materials management—inventory control, purchasing, and the like. I could understand that, because that’s where I began. She also lived through an SAP installation. Moving into the supplier side, she worked at Infor before leaving for this opportunity with a new company trying to forge a new path in the market.

In 2021 and 2018, Supply and Demand Chain Executive recognized Christine as one of the Top Women in Supply Chain. Christine has a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Evansville and she completed her MBA with distinction at the University of Louisville. She is certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM) through APICs (ASCM) and as a Project Management Professional (PMP) from the Project Management Institute.

In her new role, Christine will work closely with Verusen’s product management, sales, and marketing teams as the company continues to expand upon its delivery of industry-leading innovation for its customers. Verusen’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform digitally transforms the connected supply chain, helping global organizations take a more digital approach to their materials management strategy and challenges. Christine will report directly to Paul Noble, Verusen Founder and CEO.

“Christine’s deep background in supply chain management and extensive engineering experience in building data-driven systems is a huge asset to Verusen,” said Noble. “We are thrilled to have such a visionary product leader join our team as we continue to innovate by combining data + human intelligence to accelerate resilient supply chains.”

“Verusen is an incredibly innovative and disruptive force in the supply chain industry,” said Christine Barnhart. “I am excited to be a part of the team, delivering material truth for data, inventory optimization, and procurement intelligence to complex global supply chains. It’s a pivotal time in our industry right now, and I am looking forward to building on the company’s success and the unique opportunities we have to accelerate growth and drive further efficiencies.”

Verusen is a Supply Chain Intelligence company focused on materials management that uses AI to provide complex global supply chains material truth for data, inventory optimization, and procurement intelligence. The company’s platform harmonizes disparate material data across legacy systems and processes while providing trusted data across the enterprise to reduce supplier and operational risk. The result is a data foundation organizations can trust to fuel digital transformation and support related Industry 4.0 initiatives.

Solving Manufacturing Problems Case Study

Working on the factory floor early in my career taught me how much typical manufacturing workers know and care about the company’s products. Consultants came from time to time, studied, rearranged, left. Not much useful happened. But the individual guys (in those days) on the line knew more about what was going on than most of the supervisors and all of management.

Therefore, an opportunity to talk with Paul Vragel, Founder and President of 4aBetterBusiness in Evanston, IL to discuss his experiences as a project engineer and integrator was too good to pass up. After all, the values he learned and still implements include these:

  • Listen to people
  • Engage employees
  • Respect
  • Ask everyone to look for problems with no fault issued
  • Assume employees have needed knowledge

Vragel told me, “My initial education and experience is in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering – that is, ship design and construction. Building a ship involves building a hotel, a restaurant, a huge warehouse and a power plant, putting them all together, putting a propeller on it and sending it out on the ocean where there are no service stations. Ship design and construction is essentially a demanding, large-scale systems engineering project.”

After graduation from Webb Institute of Naval Architecture, he worked at Newport News Shipbuilding. After a year, 2 prior graduates of Webb Institute, working for Amoco Corporation, hired him, at the age of 22, to manage ship construction programs in Spain. “A couple weeks after I was hired, I was on a plane to Spain with my instruction set being, essentially, ‘figure out what you’re supposed to do, and do that’ ”.

After a year, one of the earlier ships built in the series came in to Lisbon for its guarantee drydocking and inspection. When we opened one of the crankshaft bearings of the 30,000 hp main diesel engine, we saw the bearing material, which was supposed to be in the bearing, was lying on the crankshaft journal, in pieces.

Talk about a complex situation—the ship was built by a company controlled by the Spanish Government. They were the holder of the guarantee. The engine was built by a different company, also controlled by the Spanish Government. Amoco had a contract with the shipyard, not the engine builder. And the engine was built under license from a company in Denmark.

Vragel was there as an observer for the new construction department. The ship was under the control of the operations department. I had no authority and no staff reporting to me. “I had no technical knowledge of poured metal bearings in high-powered diesel engines, I didn’t speak Portuguese or Spanish, I was 23 years old, and the instruction from my boss was very simple: ‘Fix It!’ To add to the urgency of the ship being out of service, the shipyard in Lisbon, where the ship was located, was charging $30,000/day (about $250,000 in today’s dollars), just for being there.”

Vragel went to the engine builder in Spain who said, “We don’t think we have a problem – we think the Danes have a problem. They designed the engine, we just built it according to their instructions.”

Figuring that getting the Danish engineers down to Spain for a meeting wouldn’t be productive, he decided the only thing to do was to go into the plant and talk to the people who made the bearings. One problem – they only spoke Spanish, and he only spoke English. But there are lots of ways to communicate if you really want to. “I observed what they were doing, pointed, asked a lot of questions – they learned a little English, I learned a little Spanish – and we sketched out how the bearings were made.”

After a couple of days, he thought he had figured out the cause of the problem, but “I had the good sense to shut up. While our communication had become pretty good, I was sure that there were other parts of the process they knew about that we hadn’t touched on that might be part of the problem or solution. If I just told them what I thought, everything would stop there without awareness of those elements and we wouldn’t get an effective solution. But if I could work with them through the process so they saw the issues, the employees would bring those additional elements to the table. We would have a full understanding of the system, the employees would be part of the solution. In this way, employees would have ownership in the results.”

“And that’s exactly what happened. With a little more effort we found and fixed the causes of the problem (which was causing porosity in the bearing).”

I had no authority, no technical expertise, no staff, I was 23 years old, I didn’t speak Portuguese or Spanish, and in a few days, working cross language and cross culture in an overseas plant I had never seen in a technology in which I had no experience, we together achieved a solution that permanently raised their manufacturing capability – that they owned.

This key formative experience led to the beliefs on which 4aBetter Business was founded:

  • We believe that employees are the world’s experts at knowing what they actually do every day – their local systems
  • We believe that 90% of the issues in a company are embedded in the way these local systems work and work together

This lesson applies to 22-year-olds and 52-year-olds alike. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own ideas that we overlook an obvious source of great expertise.