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Managing for growth in the manufacturing sector

The latest productivity data suggests that manufacturing in Britain is booming, with output and new orders growing at the fastest rate for almost 19 years. Whilst undoubtedly positive news, this upturn will present renewed challenges for factory leaders accustomed to managing in a depressed market.

Recessions lead to periods of down trading for most companies, which places significant pressure on manufacturing leaders to consolidate and cut costs quickly. This is usually achieved by remodelling and restructuring the organisation to align overheads with falling demand, whilst seeking ways to protect margin by eliminating waste in other areas. Managing during a crisis requires a particular, ‘needs-must’ style of leadership often characterised by directness, limited consultation, urgency and unrelenting drive focused on the achievement of what are typically relatively short term objectives. Whilst this approach can be perceived by some as negative, it is clearly effective in certain circumstances. There is no doubt that this controlled management approach is responsible for the survival of many UK manufacturers.

However, is this approach sustainable over the medium and long-term? As companies emerge from a downturn and prepare for growth, the management team will be required to adapt its behaviour in order to reflect the new operating environment.  For Operations Directors and Plant Managers this means adopting a more expansive leadership style, generating and implementing business plans through consultation and involvement. Success is dependent on the ability think and act strategically, to engage extensively with stakeholders across the business and to contribute from a broader commercial (as opposed to a purely cost-focused) perspective. The horizon shifts to the long-term with an emphasis upon delivering sustainable change by developing capability and seeking ways to differentiate and create value. Managing for growth, therefore, requires innovation and fresh-thinking along with the ability to generate support and buy-in from others to a clear and compelling vision.

Given the demands associated with leading at different points in the economic cycle, is it realistic to expect those managers who have excelled in lean times to be as effective into the upswing? Our experience suggests that, although some managers can become set in their ways and do find it difficult to break out of the siege mentality, many more accomplished senior operations people are able to flex their approach to suit both sets of challenges.

Absolutely essential however, in our view, is the need for such leaders to consciously recognise that their environment is changing, and to take a step back and review their own leadership style, in order to determine which particular behaviours need to be continued, and which they should stop. What new skills and behaviours do they need to demonstrate in order to succeed in the new organisational context? A leadership development event (eg a workshop or development centre) can provide the ideal forum for articulating and embedding the required new behaviours. Wickland Westcott has extensive experience of designing and running such events, particularly in the manufacturing sector, helping leaders develop the full repertoire of skills, from tactical cost containment to strategic growth. As a final point, we would also emphasise the critical importance of not simply abandoning the vital skills honed during the tougher times. These hard-earned skills will be needed again, sooner or later.

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