Most of the innovative companies Bill Taylor has written about since leaving Fast Company, the magazine he co-founded in 1995, were Silicon Valley-type businesses.
His latest book, “Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways,” focuses on companies that don’t fit the stereotypical startups, with latte-drinkers working in high-tech environments. Many of the innovative companies he features have endured for generations in more traditional industries, including manufacturing.
“Yes, it’s manufacturing, but you can think just as creatively, just as open-mindedly about what it means to be a colleague at your company and the kind of environment you’re trying to create,” Taylor says.
Taylor will bring that message to manufacturers as the keynote speaker Oct. 26 at the Manufacturing First Expo & Conference at the KI Convention Center in Green Bay.
“He isn’t somebody who just talks about it, but has done it,” says Ann Franz, director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, a co-sponsor of the conference with First Business Bank and Insight Publications. “What he’s talking about is, you have to be different, really talking about your organization in a unique way.”
After spending almost 20 years researching and writing about companies in Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas, or Boston, “the kind of digital, razzle-dazzle parts of the economy, where everything was about Google and Facebook and self-driving cars,” Taylor says he began to realize they represented just a slice of the nation’s economy.
“I said to myself, I’m ignoring the 90 percent of the economy that is not run by people who are 20 years old pulling all-nighters and writing code. Most importantly, most of the audiences I speak to are like the audience I will be speaking to in Green Bay.”
He finds it interesting the venue for Manufacturing First is named for a company that was among his most notable case studies in his first book 10 years ago.
Real life ‘Mavericks at Work’
“One of the companies I featured in ‘Mavericks at Work’ was in fact KI in Green Bay, and we’ll be doing this at the KI Center, so it’s a bit of a homecoming for me — I spent a bunch of time in Green Bay doing research,” Taylor says. “I know (KI CEO) Dick Resch very well.”
In “Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win,” co-authors Taylor and Polly LaBarre credited Resch with leading the company in innovative approaches to customer collaboration and product development, and building furniture and wall system solutions for colleges and universities, health care organizations, government and corporate markets worldwide.
The book describes KI’s “Market-of-One” strategy, which encourages employees to work closely with clients to customize their products to meet their unique needs, and a companywide goal to teach every employee to think like a CEO, with an incentive to excel.
Resch had grown the company from $4 million in annual sales when he joined it in 1964 to $600 million
at the time the book was published in 2008.
“He urges people to aim a little bit higher, to push themselves to think a little bigger and to open their minds to imagining what is possible in their world,” Taylor says about Resch.
“Simply Brilliant” presents several case studies about how to unleash breakthrough creativity and cutting-edge performance in mature and traditional industries. For example:
• Miami Beach’s dazzling 1111 Lincoln Road reimagined the humble parking garage as a high-profile public space that hosts weddings, yoga classes and celebrity gatherings.
• USAA, the financial-services giant, provides soldiers and their families with insurance and banking products, and inspires frontline employees to deliver legendary service by immersing them in military culture.
• Pal’s Sudden Service, a fast-food chain with a cult following, serves up burgers and fries with such speed and accuracy that companies from other industries pay to learn from its astonishing discipline.
Setting themselves apart
Taylor also delves into some notable, longtime manufacturing companies that completely buck the system of doing business the same old way.
For example, Lincoln Electric, a manufacturer based in Euclid, Ohio, stands out for its fierce devotion to quality and productivity. Its key to success? A share-the-wealth model that not only gives employees a sense of security, but a share of the wealth. It has maintained a strict no-layoff pledge since 1958, even through
the Great Recession. In “Simply Brilliant,” Taylor writes:
“Almost from the beginning, and continuing to the present day, work at its flagship production complex in suburban Cleveland has been organized around a pay-for-performance system that measures individual productivity in exacting detail, compares the output of each employee with that of a peer group, and rewards people based on their results. Individual ratings also determine how big a bonus each employee receives, so star performers have a chance to benefit twice, with higher pay during the year and a larger bonus at the end of the year.”
Taylor quotes Lincoln Electric CEO Christopher Mapes:
“We are diligent about the ways we measure, analyze, and talk about individual performance. We ask everyone to give their best every day. But that only works if there’s a mindset that all of us are in the same game.”
Taylor says he was impressed by an enormous sign hung in Lincoln Electric’s building, put up by the founder. It reads: “The Actual is Limited, the Possible is Immense.”
Another case study in “Simply Brilliant” focuses on Winona, Minn.-based Fastenal, one of the country’s largest distributors of industrial supplies such as nuts and bolts, cutting tools, safety equipment and electrical parts. Taylor quotes Lee Hein, Fastenal’s senior executive vice president of sales:
“The No. 1 thing for me is the people aspect. The goal is to unleash entrepreneurial passion, a commitment that I will be self-driven to do better than what you can expect. It’s a mindset: Run your business like you own it. When you trust people to solve problems and make decisions, and then let them go, that’s when the magic happens. That is the story of this company.”
Taylor likes to talk about what he calls “the paradox of expertise.” By this, he means the longer you’ve done something, the more time you’ve spent at the same company, the better you have become at your job, the harder it becomes to open your mind to new ways of thinking.
“Often, without intending to, we as individuals allow everything we know to limit what we can imagine going forward,” he says.
This is why the most effective leaders are the most insatiable learners, he points out.
“They are always pushing themselves to study other industries and learn from them, talking to the younger generation, and trying to get a sense of technology skills and ways of looking at the world that comes so naturally to young people that grew up in the digital age.”
Ironically, Taylor adds, “Oftentimes people who are competing in industries that have been a little too ordinary, for too long, have the greatest opportunities.”
Wednesday, Oct. 25 – Thursday, Oct. 26
KI Convention Center