Make Your Message Survive Its Trek to the Top

July 1, 2001
Today's top managers (generals) need more of the information only their plant managers (line commanders) can provide. Be sure your input reaches them.

Make Your Message Survive Its Trek to the Top

Today's top managers (generals) need more of the information only their plant managers (line commanders) can provide. Be sure your input reaches them.

by George Weimer, contributing editor

Not too many years ago, the model for an industrial company was military; the structure was line and staff; the chain of command was a pretty rigid network, and jobs were defined, definite and determined. The president presided and the plant manager managed the plant. Once a year, they both met for cocktails at the annual Christmas party. Times have changed and the biggest source of that change is technology itself.

Today, the cost of capital, the complexity of technology and the speed of globalization mean no chairman and no plant manager can afford to be out of each others' information networks for a day, let alone a year between drinks. In this age of the Web, the idea that strategic thinking is the exclusive role of top management seems not only quaint, but dangerous.

"We use a global information network so there is access for everyone to everyone in Swisslog," points out Bjoern Berg, Swisslog North America senior vice president -- corporate marketing, Denver, Colorado. "We also use a skill map."

What's a skill map? Such tools make it easy for all managers in a company, top to bottom, to communicate efficiently. Such communication becomes part of the organization's routine.

Make meetings productive

The supreme issue of a modern manufacturing company today is flexibility; therefore, companies simply cannot rely on the ancient military hierarchies of the past. Thus, even strategic planning has to be flexible. Keeping all managers in the loop in terms of corporate goals almost all the time has become standard in business and manufacturing. Swisslog, like many companies today, holds various kinds of meetings and presentations all over the world.

"We operate on five continents, and everywhere our challenge is the same," says Berg. "We reflect the customer's culture. We think globally and act locally. In other words, there is no unique, uniform way to implement strategies. Our customers rule our strategies. Our boss is the customer. The difficult outlay in terms of strategy is anticipating market needs. Walkman? Who knew?"

Berg is representative of other international managers when it comes to formulating strategy and developing systems for strategic thinking that aim at inclusiveness. They use the culture of the United States as a model for their own corporate citizens worldwide. Berg notes that when an American is asked where he is from, he says USA, and then Ohio or Idaho or Florida, and then some city. He seeks a Swisslog culture that brings out a similar hierarchy of identity in all its employees.

Many manufacturers worldwide seek similar success in their international operations because the United States is already a multicultural, multiethnic country, and its people are accustomed to accommodation, and live within such a mix with relative ease. Other countries are less diverse and produce people who may have more difficulty adjusting to other cultures.

The upshot of all of this is strategic thinking that is supposed to include contributions from all levels of management. This is particularly difficult in national environments where citizens are used to a single type of people, or a single religion or set of customs.

Customers in command

One of the special strategic problems middle managers share is that their talents are spread all over the world. "I have manufacturing responsibility for 10 plants and 10 general managers," says Roger Ellis, vice president -- manufacturing, The Timken Company, Canton, Ohio. "Six of those plants are in North America. One is in Brazil; one each in France, England and Poland."

Like many modern top managers in global manufacturing companies, Ellis functions in a business world defined by corporate strategies and local matters. In all cases, and with all management matters, Ellis says the company operates as a "customer-centric" organization.

"Customers have recurrent and future needs," he explains. "Engineering and manufacturing provide innovative solutions to meet those needs. So some ideas are matters of manufacturing excellence, but others are strategically effective as well."

The basic strategy at Timken, as well as other well-managed industrial corporations, is to deliver world-class products on time with globally competitive prices. Middle managers contribute to the implementation of that strategy as well as the constant updating of it with their own observations from their own locations.

Timken and other companies have a broad range of customers all over the world. One way they stay customer-centric is to listen to their sales and marketing managers. Much of that input drives our strategic thinking, Ellis explains. Timken has strategy sessions where "tactics are developed as well. A lot of communication takes place in our company on an annual basis."

Plant managers, he adds, have a key role in tactics as well as input to more strategic matters and the corporate planning function. "We try to meet quarterly, face-to-face," the Timken executive says. The company uses those meetings as well as teleconferences, videoconferences, audio, the Internet and the Timken Web site to keep communications lines open and well used. Timken also uses a version of the matrix approach that many companies use as a guiding tool in terms of strategies, tactics, skills and resources. "We use what is called a cascading X matrix, which helps us in terms of tactics and goals that drive performance," Ellis adds.

Even in this age of the Internet and computers, companies need to focus on human ingenuity and creativity to come up with ideas and how to implement them. Middle managers at Fanuc Robotics point to their system, which brings a great deal of analysis to bear on the strategic issue of new products and market share. Notes Marianne Stokes, director of marketing for Fanuc Robotics, "We have a specific campaign targeted toward market growth."

Under a group Fanuc calls "Industry Marketing Management," it is constantly evaluating markets. "Once we decide that an idea or suggestion is within our core competence," Stokes explains, "middle management then proceeds to work on market definition and further analysis."

The Fanuc approach then leads to customer discussions, market gaps and competitive analysis. Through several more layers of analysis, Fanuc always tries to find a hook, a place where it can add value. "If we do, then we perform a distribution analysis," Stokes adds. The company continues into pricing forecasts, product requirements and market share objectives analysis.

The point is that corporate strategy needs to be formed with the constant and detailed research and analysis of middle managers. Outlining the details of appropriate corporate goals is perhaps the middle manager's most important role.

The line officer must make sure the generals' strategies are realistic. It works at Fanuc. Look at that manufacturer's newest large robot products to see how.

Real war is hell, but adopting a business model with a bi-directional chain of command can result in a successful campaign to defeat your competition.

About the author

George Weimer is senior consultant with Watt/Fleishman-Hillard International Communications and a contributing editor to Material Handling Management. He can be reached at (216) 566-7019, or via e-mail at [email protected].