Excelling in a world of change

By Ben Voss​

I always like to begin stories with a little perspective on history.

I grew up in small-town Saskatchewan at a time when the normal career path was to obtain your education and then leave this great province to pursue your life’s ambition elsewhere. I, unlike many, chose to stay.

I remember attending session after session put on by the local economic development agencies and chambers of commerce, which listed off the many reasons why Saskatchewan was a great place to setup manufacturing businesses. Reasonable wages, a skilled and readily available workforce, cheap real estate (often in small towns with low taxes), and low utility rates were all considered attractive reasons to open a factory here.

Remarkably, in less than two short decades, those low-cost advantages inverted to high-cost challenges. The boom arrived and, with it, a great deal of opportunity and growth. Changebecame the most popular buzzword in many executive offices. ‘Adapt or die,’ they said.

Some have, unfortunately, went the way of the latter. Others have merely survived. But there are those that have persevered — albeit, still looking to adapt. Morris Industries falls into that category.

As a global manufacturer of agricultural seeding and hay hauling equipment now entering its 90th year of business, Morris is far from alone and is uniquely familiar with the necessity of adaptation. Just think of the evolutions that have happened on the farm since your grandparents’ days.

That has required the company to institutionalize change management into our daily routines — understanding change, managing expectations, and dealing with succession. All of this is profoundly impacting our teams and is upending the foundations of what we thought made us prosper.

When we look at what made our company successful five years ago, we must adjust to the new realities of what will make us successful five years from now. We need to dispose of every past assumption.

Assuming low-cost and highly available talent is no longer an option. Assuming people want 40-year careers with a single employer is no longer valid. Assuming our biggest competitive advantage is a low cost of doing business and a low Canadian dollar are no longer what make us global titans. Assuming a single leader at the top has all the answers is no longer what defines success.

What makes manufacturing successful on the Prairies is the willingness to embrace change, diversity, and automation. Most of our strengths 20 years ago were based on undocumented (tribal) knowledge, and corporate leaders who were bold and took risks to find a successful strategy by trial and error. It was the school of hard knocks.

Now, in an era of data and analytics, it is the ability to analyze our way — even as medium-sized companies — into the right solution. Jobs that used to be mainstays, like running a shear or assembly line, are being replaced with higher-skilled, higher-paying positions, such as continuous improvement specialists, CNC programmers, as well as laser nesting and robotics experts.

I like movies, and some of the best lessons for corporate leaders can be in the simplest of stories.

One of my favourites is Moneyball. The scene where the baseball scout tells Brad Pitt he can’t replace 20 years of experience with a spreadsheet and some kid from Yale with an economics degree has long resonated with me. The truth is: It’s a reality we are continuing to face given whatever we thought was sacred five years ago is shifting sand today.

Another is Lone Survivor, based on the true story of navy seals caught in a battle behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. In the most intense of moments, the leader would listen to every idea and the entire team had only seconds to put everything on the table. They would argue and, in the end, what the leader decided — right or wrong — was what the entire team agreed to. There would be no regrets or ‘I told you so.’

In both cases, the characters chose to learn from the experience if it didn’t turn out an immediate success. Diversity of thinking leads to better outcomes.

Where I see the ongoing struggle is when companies harken back to five or 10 years ago, and keep hammering that ‘we always made money that way before.’ Just because we were profitable then — in a low-cost environment or in a top-down leadership model — does not mean we can continue to assume that trajectory will allow for duplication. The environment has changed.

It is the same issue as assuming all good ideas should or must come from the top. Just because someone from within the team brings forward a different idea or has a different opinion does not mean they are challenging the honour or will of the corporate leadership. That may have been a no-no 20 years ago, but not today. Today, good leaders know when to embrace sound thinking and innovative ideas no matter where they come from, and then they know how to manage the change.

Modern manufacturing leadership is about helping your team find a way forward. Learn from the past. Respect it. But, accept that change is good.

Those are the keys to success in a world that, like it or not, will never stop changing.

Ben Voss is the president and CEO of Morris Industries, which has manufacturing operations in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, and Minnedosa, Manitoba, as well as a research and development facility in Saskatoon.