Successful business leaders today are faced with mounting pressures of changing consumer demands, quality and safety requirements, and employee expectations. To see how some executives are enabling their organizations to stay relevant, survive, and grow, we're beginning a new blog series in which we'll interview executive leadership in various industry sectors and ask about the challenges they face and what they're doing to rise to the occasion.
Mark: Hi, Karl. Thanks for talking with us today and sharing some of your experiences with us. For folks that aren’t familiar with you and the company, can you introduce yourself and VIBCO – who you are and what you do?
Karl: I’m Karl Wadensten, President of VIBCO Vibrators. What we make is vibration equipment for material handling. We sell globally and we have 1,300 different products. We are a design-build manufacturer of vibration technology, and we’re a US manufacturer.
Mark: And how do you describe your role within VIBCO?
Karl: My role has changed dramatically over the years. My role right now, as it stands, is cheerleader, the guy that runs around and asks a lot of questions, the guy that runs around as says “Well why can’t we? Why can’t we? Why can’t we?” and “How about this?” and hopefully letting it percolate on the factory floor and in the office. Then people come back with amazing solutions that blow me away every single day – they’re even better than I could have imagined. So, what is that? The guy behind the curtain that says “Dorothy, you can get back. Just click your heels; you do it all the time.”
Mark: Yeah. Well, it’s such a great environment you have there, I know from visiting and seeing your people shine and showing off what they’re doing to improve things at VIBCO. But in the context of a successful fast-growing company, what are things that keep you up at night as a leader?
Karl: Number one is getting talent on board here, because as you grow you always need more human resources. You can’t work the human element out of this – but you can work a lot of the waste out. Getting human resources.
Number two is really being able to keep up the pace of continuous improvement, because this is an extremely rigorous pace. You’re really working on all the brain power and all the possible thinking that you could do in your brain, and at times it can get exhausting both for factory workers and managers – not even managers, just people that are helping lead teams and get the best that we can out of it. And the innovation: innovating every day gets taxing on you, so I worry about how much of this can we keep up, you know? How can we keep this pace? It’s a rigorous pace, Mark.
Challenges: Getting talent on board and keeping up the pace of continuous improvement
Mark: And how long have you been using formal continuous improvement strategies and lean so far at VIBCO?
Karl: Well we started in 2000, 2001 – and this is where our story is very, very different, I think, than most of the stories of implementation of lean and continuous improvement. I didn’t even know there were tools, or about all these books, or about the theory of constraints, and about SMAD, and about all these great things that we do in balancing.
What I knew was the power of the right brain and culture, so we did a lot of culture development for three to four years, Mark. We lived culture development, we learned how to speak to each other, how to relate to each other, and how and what the customer wanted, and me trying to really show everybody the simple things that customers wanted – they didn’t want excuses, they wanted product, and they wanted product the way they wanted it, they wanted it at the time they wanted it, and they wanted it at certain costs.
So it wasn’t until 2004, 2005 – somewhere in that range – that we had someone show us “Hey guys, you’ve done all this cool stuff, but what’s your overarching operating premise, and what are you doing?” And I said, “Uh, we’re just trying to get stuff out the door.” That’s when we really started connecting the two and unleashing the connection of the human side and the practical logical side.
Mark: Yeah. Now I think that a lot of people listening, or watching, or reading what you’re saying here, are at a much earlier stage of their continuous improvement journey and they might be thinking “Wow, that would be a great problem to have,” – thinking about how to keep the pace up – because they haven't gotten the flywheel going yet; they don’t have that pace yet. What would be some of your thoughts or advice for people that are trying to create that sort of momentum? What were some of things that helped you get going, and helped you get to the point where you’re now trying to keep the pace up?
Karl: I’m going to use an analogy here, and I’m going to go back to when my wife and I had our first child, Tatum, our daughter who’s 21 now. So if we can think back that when you’re a new parent, or when there’s something new in your life (especially a child), that you have to nurture, both your spouse, yourself, and your child. Your organization isn’t much different than something new in your life. And say there’s a new – I’m going to look at lean as a new infant on board – that you can’t run around yelling and screaming and getting frustrated, because the baby’s going to cry more, right?
You have to understand that you have partners in this – the people on the factory floor, the people in your office; they’re all your partners, they’re all part of your choir. So how do we get a dialogue going so we can all feel that there’s a path to this? So what I’m really saying, Mark, is that we have to open up our sensitive side. Open up our sensitive side, have dialogue, draw pictures, share, and be comfortable enough to open up to the things that scare us, right? The things that scare us, because it’s all very scary, even at the stage we’re at now, there’s scary pieces to this, but I know I have a support network and that I can be open and honest enough to say “I’m nervous about this,” and somebody will take the lead for a little bit. So don’t be afraid if you’re starting out.
Let other people take the lead; if they have the energy or a little bit more stamina, let them take the lead. Follow. Learn. Check in with everybody.
And if you do that, it’s not just practicing it once – that you do this with this new baby for the first week – it’s the rest of your life! My daughter’s 21 now but we still have to care and nurture and coddle and be in tune to what’s going on. So let’s be in tune to our factory. Does that make sense to you, Mark?
Mark: But that’s probably a difficult transition for a lot of business leaders or healthcare executives, when they’re used to being the hard-charging people with the answers, being very directive, and it’s difficult to be vulnerable or humble with the organization. But that’s what I hear you saying. That that vulnerability and humility makes you a stronger leader, right?
Karl: Yeah, it makes you a stronger leader because people can connect to that; people can participate with that. When you want to put up a wall and you know all the answers, why do you want to participate on a team like that, Mark? They know all the answers, so what do they need my input for? But if you can let your guard down a little bit, you’re going to get answers back quicker, better, and probably more accurately then just knowing the answers yourself, because no one knows all the answers.
Karl: And I wish I had a better analogy, but this childhood thing, I remember when we first had our daughter – and think about this, so I’ll do two parallel tracks here: the company worker just came into the company, and the president just addressed all the people and said “We’re going to do a lean charge; we’re going to do continuous improvement throughout the whole organization; life’s going to get better.” Right?
My wife’s just had this baby. We come back from the hospital, and now it’s time for us to raise this baby – it’s time for the organization to start this lean charge – and all of a sudden I say, “Kim, I have to go back to work.” All of a sudden the president says, “Great, that was my address. See you guys later!”
I can remember driving out my driveway, watching my wife at the front door with this baby and her eyes like this [spreads his eyes wide] looking at me saying, “Oh my god. You’re going to leave me now?” It’s no different in the factory! The president just walked out and everybody’s looking with their eyes like that, “Oh my god. We’re going to do what now?”
The president better stay there and say “Guys, I’m going to roll up my sleeves with you - I’m going to participate. I don’t know the answers, but I know this is a direction that we need to go in.”
Mark: Yeah, I mean, it seems like the parallel is that an organization – a company like VIBCO, a leader like yourself – is no more done creating a culture of continuous improvement any more than you’re ever done raising a child and continuing to nurture them and mentor them, even into adulthood.
Karl: Exactly. Exactly. So hopefully people can see that parallel, and even the hard-charging CEO/President – everybody has a human side, Mark. Everybody has a human side, that’s what I’m trying to get at.
Let more of your human side out and you’ll see that the benefits, the rewards, the acceptance, and what people will do for you will go to that next level.
Mark: Yeah. Well, Karl, I want to thank you so much for taking time out to share some of your reflections and your experiences. We’re certainly going to point people to some of the great stories and videos you have on the VIBCO website so they can learn more about the great work that you’ve been doing and continue making happen, so thanks for that, Karl.
Karl: Thanks, Mark. And hopefully people get something from this – and they can always call us to come and visit here; the proof is in the pudding, so come visit. Thank you.
What do you think of Karl's leadership tips? What keeps you or your senior leaders up at night? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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