Field Trip to a Digital Leader

I’ve been a change catalyst my whole career, turning around businesses in multiple industries. Bringing companies back from the edge of death creates unique challenges in both financial and cultural management – maximizing cash flows and building strong teams. I’ve been modestly successful and that success reinforces past routines and lock-in to historical approaches.

If we were still working in last decade’s environment, I could coast on my abilities. Instead, technology and exponential change are forcing me to up my game. If I only rely on my historical skills, I will quickly become obsolete. The same is true for everyone in this economy.

It’s especially true in the manufacturing ecosystem. Additive manufacturing, automation, and connected devices will alter the way we make things in the future – and force all of us to retool our skills and approaches. That technology is quickly trending to the place where it will be possible for anyone to become a manufacturer from anywhere in the world – or above it (think International Space Station). New capabilities transcend and transform markets. Amazon, Uber, and Air BNB all transformed their markets. Other visionaries are going after yours!

All of this was driven home by a recent field trip to Midwest Prototyping (MWP) in Blue Mounds. Steve Grundahl and his crew run the ultimate Additive Manufacturing service bureau. At the core, the operation pushes the frontier on numerous additive manufacturing technologies. Beyond that, the organization operates with an intense focus on anticipating and meeting customers’ needs. This passion drives the organization down paths no one could anticipate through a structured planning process. It’s a terrific place!

I was struggling to find a way to describe what makes Midwest Prototyping special. Throughout the course of business, they built multiple virtuous circles – reinforcing processes – encompassing people, customers, and technology. They also make aggressive investments in both new and old technology. Oh…and their customer portfolio is deep and wide across many dimensions: small and large, additive and traditional, prototype and production, and local and worldwide. Midwest Prototyping is a terrific example, but tough to write about.

Then I read Jacques Bughin’s and Tanguy Catlin’s article in the Harvard Business Review called “What Successful Digital Transformations Have in Common.” They outlined six key elements. As I applied them to Steve’s company, suddenly writing became much easier. Let me show you.

  1. They obsess about turbulence on the horizon. MWP leads the charge on additive manufacturing, yet they’re constantly exploring what’s next. They want to make the best better and work hard to make that happen. They align themselves with multiple additive manufacturing leaders to watch what they’re doing. They also engage with emerging companies to scan the horizon. When neither one of these sources cover their customers’ needs, MWP invents their own approaches, creating an MWP brand of turbulence.
  1. Understand all risks, not only those from start-ups. MWP participates across the market continuum – traditional, cutting-edge, and start-up. New approaches to manufacturing processes and service delivery don’t frighten this crew. Several years ago, their exploration found an emerging software that promised integration between order fulfillment, tracking, and production. They piloted the software and now that investment of time and treasure, plus some significant development pains, built a system that puts them far ahead of all their competition in serving their customers and maximizing their efficiencies.
  1. Deliver a dual offensive: core and diversification. MWP’s intense focus on their customers’ needs cause them to follow the most efficient and effective path to meet those needs, no matter where it leads. Sure, the team constantly drives the frontier on new technology, but they also equally aggressively adapt and push traditional manufacturing techniques. MWP finds context for their cutting edge and traditional approaches through their constant, worldwide engagement with diverse markets. This context provides the confidence to stride into uncertainty without hesitation.
  1. Fix leadership skills first. Steve distributes leadership throughout the company. Everyone knows the customers and willingly pushes the frontier, finding new ways to keep them happy. All of this energy creates a culture of constant learning for everyone involved. The engagement, energy, and capability puts MWP in position to literally teach the world, holding sessions for suppliers’ technicians from various continents.
  1. Prioritize demand-centered business play. MWP absolutely zeroes in on market changes by pursuing their customers’ demands. They go out of their way to help companies succeed – even helping clients with their own additive manufacturing installations that pull business away from MWP. Ironically, this activity actually strengthens their business in areas where specialized capabilities are most critical, as those same customers replace lost business with new business that doesn’t fit their new equipment. This experience and interaction provide deep knowledge of which technologies are gaining traction and how they’re being used.
  1. Prioritize demand-centered business play. It’s hard for me to imagine a company more deeply or broadly engaged with business technology. Steve and his team tirelessly follow the frontiers with their time and treasure. They invest in people as well as technology because many of the new business limitations result from a shortage of human imagination. Steve’s support creates a safe environment for people to learn and experiment. MWP is an example for all of us.

We need many more of these examples. Exponential change will affect us all. More great examples will make it easier for us to take the confident steps into uncertainty that these times demand. Passionate and unrelenting pursuit of market trends and customer needs create terrific paths for new adventures.

It’s an outstanding time to be in Wisconsin and engaged on the technology frontier. Modern manufacturing provides the foundation for many of these advances and Wisconsin leads the country in manufacturing. Many leaders like Steve blaze the path for the rest of us. Diverse resources make it possible to explore and expand the future in new directions. GREAT people make the future happen and we have those people all over Wisconsin.

The great wave of the future is heading towards us! Get ready for a wild ride!

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