It’s nearly the end of Q3. And it’s been quite a roller coaster ride for American manufacturing, engineering, technology and service industries. And no, we are not in Kansas anymore, Toto. If you or your employer have been in denial that we are heading towards a new global manufacturing paradigm, it’s time to wake up. Doing the same things the same way will, to paraphrase Einstein, still result in the same outcomes. So don’t -insanely – think you are going to get different results by holding true to your status-quo.
As end-of-quarter paranoia sets in, once again, and belts are tightened and names taken, start incorporating a plan of action to prevent your becoming a casualty of this inevitable paradigm shift. Instead of taking a defensive and protective posture, think pro-actively towards building upon what you already do well.
- Keep your ear to the rail
The engineering and manufacturing sectors on LinkedIn have started to pick up the banner with some truly provocative discussions. The Association for Manufacturing Technology’s Ron Schildge addresses “What is needed to support manufacturing in the US and the creation of new jobs? Is it tax policy or is an industrial policy needed at this time?” This discussion is providing a forum on the dialectic between government incentives and the current industrial business development paradigm. If you are not currently a member of this LinkedIn group, I strongly suggest you join.
Maintaining a siloed approach to where and how you receive engineering, technical and business knowledge may keep you, well, siloed. Put yourself in a different situation. If you find yourself out of a job tomorrow, are you prepared to run your own business? Or will you be left looking for same old, same old in this devastated job market?As I’ve recommended in one of my recent blog posts: cross-train. Cross-training involves information gathering that allows you to incorporate WHAT YOU ARE LEARNING into WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW to create a hybridized outcome that is stronger, more resilient and certainly robust.
If you enjoy these LinkedIn discussions I’ve referenced, join other groups such as NTMA, NAM, SPE, etc. Keep your ear to the rail and learn from listening to the Voices of the Customer: your peers. Think about how you can incorporate this information into how you evaluate engineering solutions for your company. Learn to put things into a bigger perspective than just your own backyard. The solutions you recommend will be more robust and impactful for your company.
- Understand your role as innovator, not order taker
In my original blog post for Sales Aerobics for Engineers, I wrote about listening for the broader implications of every tactical solution you are asked to work on. Engineers, by nature, tend to take a tactical – as well as siloed – approach to problem solving. Root causes can have really large contexts. Let a discussion proceed beyond the identification of a tactical project and see what other projects develop because of issues being identified.
I read an interesting blog post from Industrial Interface recently, titled Cultivate Innovation: What Companies, Managers and Engineers Can Do. The blog post talks about the engineering persona and the areas of frustration for both engineers and employers with their companies. It’s written from an inside-out perspective, a view from the trenches, as it were. Read what your peers have to say. Depending on where we all sit around the table, we see the same things from similar – as well as strikingly different – perspectives.
The workforce and workplace was changing long before the financial debacle of October 2008.The current state of the economy has underscored, if not completely accelerated, this paradigm shift. There is no job security. There is no job security in maintaining the status quo. And Gen Y’s, and some Gen X’s – particularly in the business – marketing and sales – arena have no problem with a fast-forward pace to career development. Which stands in glaring contrast to how engineers think.
So if you are feeling like you are standing in the middle of the Autobahn watching cars go whizzing by you at 130 k/hr, you should get out of the center lane and decide whether you are going to be a spectator, participant or victim. Because this trend is not going to come to a grinding halt anytime soon.
Innovation drives revenue. Work towards understanding your company’s revenue stream. Who are the players? Who are your company’s major customers? What is the volume of work that these major customers bring to your company and what is the nature of this work: short term, low profit, rapid turnaround? Or are these projects longer term, highly engineered deliverables that require initial investment of raw materials and development of tooling on the part of your company which nets out to greater profitability over the long run?
What factors are impacting your company’s revenue stream? Do customers pay you net 90 or net 120, regardless of whether your employer likes it or not? How does this prolonged accounts payable situation impact cash flow for your organization, especially if your company has to fork out upon receipt or net 30 terms for purchase of raw materials?
Are the cars on the Autobahn starting to slow down? Can you begin to identify various makes and models? These factors, and many others, impact the daily running of your company and its future. Start to understand the critical factors impacting every project you work on. Think about developing innovative solutions that not only solve the tactical problem but also may positively impact revenue stream.
- Differentiate between Project Management and psycho-drama
Whether you are an Owner, Manager or support engineer, your job is to bring in a project on-time, under budget, first and foremost. Incorporating innovation into project outcome must be weighed against timeliness and finances. Especially in this new economic paradigm. Dumbing down a project is not an option. And sometimes the best solution is not the “perfect solution.” Keep in mind that you are not problem-solving inside a vacuum. You are in the middle of that Autobahn, remember? If presented to management in the context of how trade-off of deadline can result in greater cost-savings and productivity, your solution may just become the “best” or “optimal” solution. The more your solutions support your company’s bottom line and take revenue generation into consideration, the more value you to bring to your organization.
Project management is not about managing personalities or finding issues project team members have and focusing on those. It’s not about managing people. It’s about managing engineering outcomes. You’ve seen it yourself in project team meetings that degenerate due to difficult personalities and endless pushbacks. When personalities are the focal point of a project, instead of the well-being of your customer, this tactic is the fastest way to destructive and toxic work relationships and less-than-brilliant project outcomes. And you’d be surprised how many managers misunderstand this dynamic of the workplace. The business section of your local bookstore has lots of books on this subject. Whether you are a manager or not, learn to work and think like one.
- Do your own work and own promotion
Relying on other people to champion your thoughts and present them to upper level management is never the same as doing it on your own. And you don’t need to make end runs or play politics. Manipulation is NEVER an option. Find a way to incorporate (or at least invite) your manager into the presentation so it is a win-win proposition. He/she may share other information that helps your presentation become even more impactful. Are there other individuals in your organization who are tremendous resources to innovation and successful project outcomes?
Keep in mind when presenting your solution to higher ups that you are demonstrating you have a broad-based context in problem-solving. You are differentiating yourself from the rest of the folks sequestered in cubicles, focusing on tactical issues and short-order problem solving. You are allowing yourself to become a more versatile team member within your organization – which starts to create greater value for your organization. Learning and incorporating this strategy, while crediting all others who assisted you in your work, moves you from one skill set into multiple skill sets.
- Learn to think on your feet
The next time you are going into a project meeting, create a list of potential push-backs and objections. Then write down your answers. Even if these issues never surface during the meeting, you will be prepared. And being prepared in advance of the meeting, rather than winging it or being a spectator, differentiates you in your primary role as engineer.
If you think no one in your organization rehearses prior to a presentation to a new customer, think again. Do your homework. Learn how to present your homework in an honest and convincing manner, in a style that is natural, that is “you”. And learn that it’s better to say “I don’t know the answer to that question” than “Yes we can do this.” Being a “yes” man or woman does not make you a resource. Letting folks know you are not Mr. Fixit – but you will research the issue and report back in a timely manner to all disciplines involved – adds to your value within that project team.
The next time you are in a project meeting, take note of who is well-versed, confident and rehearsed. Who preps well for meetings? Perhaps they can become a resource for you in developing your own version of this skill set. Perhaps this individual comes from the sales or marketing department. Cross those departmental lines and interview them! This strategy is not “asking for help.” In fact, you are acknowledging their skills. Who isn’t going to be flattered about being asked for input on how they do what they do so well? And this strategy also builds partners for you in other departments. Which in turn may result in information sharing that assists you in more robust and timely presentations which are in-tune with the critical factors impacting your company’s longevity in today’s global marketplace.
The 5 strategies I present are cost-free, especially if you get business books from the library and access other source material online. And of course, do your own leg work. All these strategies take is a bit of your time and commitment. And if you are not committed to your career, who else do you expect will be?
Who is the first person you have to convince that you are “worth it” You already know the answer: YOURSELF.
What are you waiting for?