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Focus on the Workforce: Meeting the Critical Need for Leaders

 Kenneth McGuire

By Kenneth McGuire
Management Excellence Action Coalition
Vice Chairman 
Association for Manufacturing Excellence Institute  

Creative leaders are vital to any organization, especially in this reset economy, but too many organizations are citing a shortage of likely candidates coming from within the thinned-out ranks of their existing managerial workforce. The manufacturing community, which has endured declines in its overall ranks for several decades, is facing an even greater challenge in both numbers and sufficient breadth. Complexity in manufacturing—making things—has been escalating even more quickly than complexity in providing services. In manufacturing, the convergent pressures of globalization, the imperative of immediacy in delivering customer solutions (both process and product), volatility in supply chains, and community demands for sustainability, not to mention the expectation to deal with all this complexity at lower cost, has been gathering into a perfect storm. The managers coping with these stresses often haven’t been exposed to diverse business models outside of their own company.

The next generation of senior leaders needs to be capable of navigating unforeseen changes with strong leadership skills. And, leading is not the same as managing. Leadership connects the dots on the escalating complexities of the current scene and makes sense of it to others by initiating a clear and compelling vision that stimulates accountability in others challenged with achieving it. Leadership skills are aimed at growing the business, even in an ill-defined future state, while the managerial skills resolve known deficiencies to keep the existing business intact. Managerial skills mainly react to the known problems, resolve them, and then streamline processes to prevent further failures. Leadership skills shape the successful vision for the future, navigating through murky waters and making the mission crystal clear.

Managers are not always ready to assume leadership roles because they are inexperienced in leading and lack sufficient exposures to a broad range of good "leadership" models. The demands of managing the day-to-day leave most current managers short on time to nurture their own careers with the traits of leadership prowess. Operations managers routinely carry an 80-hour workload 24/7. They operate on a playing field that is interconnected with handhelds and smart phones for instant accessibility, adjusted for time-zone neutralization for constant worldwide communication. These operating managers must be conversant in customer delight across several cultures where they have operations. And they must be concurrently tuned into team-based improvement processes at home. Furthermore, they need to be committed to process excellence and be fluent in lean practices, in 6-sigma quality, ERP, and supply chain logistics. These senior managers do not have a lot of free time to bone up on new concepts or theories about persuasion and influence while they are caught up in a whirlwind of day-to-day command and control tasks just to keep the business on track.

The sheer complexities managers must cope with, of market and sourcing alternatives, customer relationship strategies, operational strategies, and improvement process choices are the tip of the iceberg. Product complexity has also escalated due to market globalization and the need to localize to customer preferences. Customers are increasing the pressure on managers for immediate delivery and perfect quality. Near perfection in both product and processes reliability, like packaging, shipping, and invoicing, is a given. Technological advances also mean the integration of more and more software into the products they make that traditionally never depended on "invisible" components. And the multiple production alternatives—in-house, offshore, near-shore, or outsourced—require not only different systems, but systems of systems that must be mastered. These are just the production factors that compound the job of the senior manufacturing leader. Mastering competency in these managerial subjects leaves little time for developing a smooth leadership style.

Leaders have a different role; they must make sense of the escalating complexity in which their managers operate. They must set the vision in a way that makes sense throughout the organization without spelling out an "answer". The leader’s vision should catalyze commitment in the organization and initiate the vigorous pursuit, by others, to a clear and compelling future state. While the manager’s role has traditionally been delivering answers, the leader’s role is engaging people with penetrating questions to encourage learning by discovery. The leader must see beyond the known problem and envision the potential in a long-term solution. Leaders must establish high performance standards with short horizons and stretch goals, and then lead by example. Leaders stretch the imagination of what’s possible. Good leaders don’t do what everybody else is doing; they make profound sense of the complex with simple analogies and then demonstrate it themselves by walking the talk. And leaders can say it in "one page" or one phrase, when managers might require a rulebook and a procedure manual.

Great leaders set a tone for freedom of choice for their constituents inside a system of personal accountability and joint shared vision. Great leaders embrace accountability without enveloping it into a set of stringent conditions. They let the good example of their own behavior cascade down the ranks into the good behavior examples of others until it embeds itself into the behaviors of the entire population. This accountability is not enforced with rigorous metrics, mindlessly applied. But make no mistake: the measurement of goal attainment is not abandoned. It’s just not held up as the single threshold to attain.

Leaders refresh the current situation with a different view, where every party to the situation can define and accept accountability for improvement. Leaders do not impose rules-based compliance and then measure conformance to it.

Fulfilling the challenge to groom the next generation of leaders is a daunting task for companies. That’s why the AME Institute took on the challenge of developing a leadership program with Arizona State University. We partnered with ASU to assist AME’s member companies in bridging this obvious leadership development gap. The result was a year-long learning experience, emphasizing peer-to-peer interaction, provocative lectures from industry and academic thought leaders, visits to sites renowned for standout level leadership, a 10-week student intern assignment for each participant, plus an assigned senior management mentor as a sounding board. All these features are calibrated with up-front, on-site capabilities and behavioral assessments conducted by AME & ASU educators. The year-long program is comprehensive and informative. It allows accomplished managers to gain insight and exposure to successful leadership styles. It is then up to them to choose to emulate and test their leadership choices inside their own organization with a dedicated student intern for a summer.

Many large companies can rely on a namesake company university or program to groom their leaders. But too few other companies can afford or are willing to take on the challenge of this huge educational effort. The first year of the AME-ASU Leadership Development for the innovative Enterprise program was successfully completed with a small group of participants who concluded that it was a great success.

The year-long program for 2012 will build on the success by repeating the same features, but it has been expanded to five workshops to improve peer networking.

See for more information. ME


The Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME) has been working to help members find practical ways to improve their companies for 26 years. The AME Institute is the not-for-profit education and research arm of AME. For more information, please visit The "Leadership Development for the Innovative Enterprise" program was developed because the AME Institute was hearing from mid-market companies that their capable managers were short on solid leadership traits.


This article was first published in the December 2011 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF



Published Date : 12/1/2011

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