Frank Blake On Leadership Vision Or The Inverted Pyramid

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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.

Industry Conferences

The latest Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast featured Sangram Vajre, co-founder and chief evangelist of startup company Terminus. That company specializes in B2B marketing.

Vajre talked about several things the company’s founders did at startup.

They wrote a book. They autographed 1,000 copies and sent to executives at prospective clients. Instant credibility.

They put together a conference. Many industry influencers were invited to speak. Terminus had a booth. Competitors were also invited to have a booth. The conference was not branded for Terminus, rather Flip My Funnel. There was no keynote from Terminus promoting the company. It was an “Industry Conference.”

Made me pause and think about our market, or industry. Perhaps the closest we have to and industry conference is ARC Industry Forum. Except that it is really about ARC and its clients. Many companies (almost all?) run conference for its customers and prospects. A couple of magazines run conferences. They are mostly centered on advertisers. Speakers are either conference sponsors or a customer of a sponsor. That doesn’t mean in any of those cases the speakers will simply give sales pitches. But it’s not the same as having independent influencers as speakers. Maybe we just don’t have enough of us?

I would do an independent industry conference, but there is only one of me.

Back to Vajre. He developed the PEAK methodology. From the show notes:

  • P – Picture of Success: The image of the collective win that rallies the community
  • E – Extreme Focus: Identifying the one thing your business focuses on
  • A – Authenticity: Being true to your word, revealing your motives and demonstrating that youcan be trusted by your employees and customers
  • K – Kindness: Caring for your team and community and keeping your customers in focus insuch a way that everyone on your team sees and feels how they contribute to the win

Leadership

Here is a look at where leadership can take you. This features Pat Gelsinger, new CEO of Intel. He recently left VMware to return to Intel to lead the company. Intel definitely needed new leadership. It has been dropped by Apple in favor of ARM system-on-a-chip. It has been unable to get its 10 nM manufacturing process ironed out, let alone 7 nM. It has fallen behind in the chip race.

Obviously, many things Gelsinger talks about in this message started before he got there. But a good leader brings things and people together, focuses on the essential, and can articulate the company, its mission, and its vision. The meat of the talk is about 25 minutes.

Collaboration and Access to Experts

Yesterday, I sat in on a Webinar from Honeywell about a plant optimization project with Woodside. Here are a few takeaways.

Supplier/Customer Collaboration–from the earliest phase of the project, the customer brought in experts from the supplier to assist planning, specifying, scheduling, and the like.

Planning–not a surprise to any of us who have done any project in manufacturing (or around the house) that success was correlated with good planning.

Access to remote experts–we now have good tools for bringing in experts from wherever they are to consult with the project. Video tools mean they can see and be seen. This saves time, money, headaches.