The imperative of ‘big, innately silly ideas’

By Derek Lothian. 

Back in June, I attended the Saskatchewan Construction Association’s annual conference near Waskesiu, on the fringes of Prince Albert National Park. Maybe it was the three straight days of sun, maybe it was the unwelcome remnants of the Great Western Pilsner, but there I found myself — bright and early Saturday morning — oddly indifferent to the lucky foursome teeing off only yards away. Instead, I sat spellbound, listening to business commentator Paul Martin hash out his ‘big ideas’ for the future of Saskatchewan prosperity.

The first I really enjoyed: ‘Pulling a Newfoundland’ and inviting the Northwest Territories to join the provincial brotherhood as an extension of Saskatchewan. Instantaneously, our region’s natural resources would have access to tidewater, and we would have a hammered stake in the mineral-rich north for the next 50-plus years of exploration.

The second I liked even more (and continue to take credit for whenever Paul isn’t around to hear): Capping lifetime personal income tax. Let’s just say we do so at $1 million dollars (or whatever number makes sense) — $750,000 if you pay in one lump sum. The province would have the money up-front to invest in things like critical infrastructure, and Saskatchewan would, overnight, become the Switzerland of North America. High net-worth investors would flock here to park their money, and we would have the capital network necessary for new entrepreneurs to thrive.

Why do I bring these up? Because they are such big, outlandish ideas, they teeter between absurdity and genius. And that’s exactly what we need — in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, and right across this great land we call Canada. The status quo is no longer enough.

Our inaugural issue of Prairie Manufacturer Magazine was all about just that — thinking big, from exploring the new role of Indigenous economic development in manufacturing, to questioning everything we thought we knew about motivating people. This pursuit of transformative — and, at times, uncomfortable — innovation must find its way into our everyday creed as a manufacturing community.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to visit some truly amazing places. One that jumps to mind is the cozy village of Hallstatt, tucked away deep in the Austrian Alps. It was here my now-fiancée and I had the chance to hike along the trail of the world’s oldest active pipeline — a 40-kilometre-long chain of hollowed-out tree trunks (now replaced by plastic pipes), built in 1597 to transport salt brine from nearby mines.

I can’t help but to wonder how innately silly the idea must have seemed at the time, yet at how that very concept helped to eventually transform our entire economy on the Prairies, and our manufacturing sector as we know it.

I’m reminded of William McKnight, former president and chairman of 3M, who once mused: “Listen to anyone with an original idea, no matter how absurd it may sound at first. If you put fences around people, you get sheep.”

These big, ‘innately silly’ ideas will be the difference between leading and following in the new global economy. There’s no doubt that manufacturing is changing — and at a pace we haven’t seen since the Industrial Revolution. The forefront will belong to those recognizing the trends, embracing the challenges, and innovating as a cultural imperative.

Here are three of those trends I believe are ripe for big ideas in manufacturing:

The ongoing decentralization of products and services

If you haven’t already seen the infographic making the rounds on social media, consider this:

Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s largest media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the world’s most valuable retailer, carries no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns virtually no real estate. Something very interesting is happening.

In manufacturing, we have disruptors of our own. More than half of global manufacturing production already takes place near the consumer. Add in the fact that 3D printing — which we take a closer look at in this issue (Page 62) — is expected to grow to a $21 billion industry by the end of the decade, and we can be sure the nature of supply chains is about to change forever.

The rise of data-driven decision-making

We’ve all heard the term big data. But how ‘big’ are we talking?

More than 90 per cent of all the data that exists in the world has been created in the past three years. That comes from structured data — databases, ERP systems, CRMs — as well as unstructured data — social media, videos, online blogs. Digital content is doubling every 18 months.

Now, I know you’re probably thinking: So friggen what? Well, let’s look at four new business value propositions that have stemmed from big data:

Cloud-connected cars are now helping insurance companies set premiums based on information collected on driver habits, including speed, rate of acceleration, rate of breaking, and time spent on the road. Facebook now analyzes location data, as well as voluntary details, such as your ‘likes’ and hobbies to customize advertising. In 2012, during Superstorm Sandy, Twitter hashtags were leveraged to find out where power, fuel, water, and emergency goods were urgently needed. And then there are smart factories. Industrial powerhouses like Pepsi, Siemens, and GE are harnessing unprecedented connectivity, embedded sensors, and integrated software to collect data from plant and supply chain operations, analyze that data, and drive real-time improvements in production, procurement, and processes.

The globalization of education

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to tour through one of the fastest-growing farm equipment manufacturers on the Prairies, located in a town with roughly the same population as the company’s workforce.

In speaking with their CEO, he showed me a handful of job postings the organization had available. Out of eight positions, six involved international travel, and four required foreign language capability, from Mandarin to German.

Globally, the number of workers being assigned by their employers to roles outside of their home country has increased 25 per cent over the past decade, and is projected to increase by another 50 per cent by the year 2020.

While the grips of nationalism have tightened in many markets around the world, we cannot ignore or unlink the interdependency of global economies.

Take China. Chinese construction projects will use more concrete in the next five years than the United States has used, ever. You cannot simply tell a person that and have them truly understand the magnitude of what it means. You need to be there. You need to see it first-hand for yourself.

And that is exactly why our education efforts — internal to companies, as well as externally in our schools — must remain focused on borders beyond simply our own. If I had it my way, every professional diploma or degree program in Canada would be mandated to contain an optional international co-op component.

Is that realistic? I don’t know. One thing I am sure of, however, is the rest of the world will not wait for us. We need more ‘big, innately silly ideas’ right now.