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Developing learning culture key for manufacturing firms

Learning from mistakes has never been more important as the European manufacturing sector looks for success in a competitive global industry.

Pharma firms call it “failing fast”: the idea that if a product in development is not working out, you’re better off canning it an early stage of development before spending a tonne of time and money on it. And increasingly, instilling a culture of continuous learning into manufacturing organisations is an integral part of ensuring development teams are able to quickly discover issues earlier and identify potential solutions.

“Most of us learn through trial and error,” confirms Steve Spear, senior lecturer at MIT and author of the critically acclaimed book on A-list organisations Chasing the Rabbit. He has spent his career studying high-performing companies and working out what makes them tick, and believes that nurturing a culture of – and passion for – self-discovery throughout the organisation is top of the list.

“If you’re truly trying to create a high-performing manufacturing organisation, you need to teach a group of people who are engaged in highly integrated, highly orchestrated and highly harmonised work how to perform so that collectively they’re learning from their successes and mistakes at an accelerated rate,” he explains.

According to Spear, that means incorporating all the layers connecting the shop floor to the production manager, the plant manager, the company president, right up to the top of the organisation. “If we can teach each element how to discover collectively, they can generate products, services, processes and systems that fit their own context. What we have to do is make sure that we create a good learning environment in the first place.”

It’s a model that has proved successful at a number of industry leading organisations across industry verticals, from Toyota to aluminium producer Alcoa, from Southwest Airlines to engine-maker Pratt & Whitney, from the US Navy’s Nuclear Reactor Programme to some of the world’s leading hospitals. In each case, success has been driven by a culture of self-discovery. “Draw attention to failure because only by drawing attention to the disruption, the difficulty or the problem can we discover what we don’t know,” says Spear. “And only by discovering what we don’t know can we convert that into an opportunity for improvement.”

Such a journey becomes particularly important in a period of economic uncertainty. The need for organisations to focus on execution, identify what’s not working for them and their customers, and have the posture, the structure and the dynamics to cope with very rapid improvement, innovation and adaptation is imperative, says Spear. “The stakes are much higher and the slack is much less,” he admits. “As both the technical systems and the organisations that deliver the technology get more complex, the need to be able to discover good solutions as opposed to just designing good solutions has gone up. Very few companies have caught up with that reality, so there’s still ample opportunity for most organisations to catch up.”

Nurturing a culture of learning and collaboration as a means of driving greater and faster innovation is an issue that will be top of the agenda at the Next Generation Manufacturing Europe Summit 2011, which takes place from 20-22 September in Valencia, Spain. This closed-door summit, hosted by GDS International, features some of the leading voices in the European manufacturing sector, including Brian Chesterman, Global Head of Supply Chain Management at BP; Gerald Weber, EVP Operations at Airbus; and Ton Guerts, Chief Procurement Officer at AkzoNobel.

Along with fostering greater collaboration and learning, other key topics for discussion include streamlining the supply chain, smart manufacturing, operational excellence, the business case for green manufacturing, and improving collaboration between IT, process automation vendors and customers.

Next Generation Manufacturing Europe Summit 2011 is an exclusive C-level event reserved for 100 participants that includes expert workshops, facilitated roundtables, peer-to-peer networks and co-ordinated meetings.

For more information, visit http://www.ngmanufacturingeu.com

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GDS International is a leading business-to-business events company. We offer financial, healthcare, IT service management, telecoms and oil and gas summits for senior executives throughout the Asia Pacific, Africa, China, Europe, North America and Russia markets. Our value proposition is simple: we deliver real results. And we’re very good at it. www.gdsinternational.com <http://www.gdsinternational.com  

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