July, 2006

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Article Index

Diversified Plastics: Finding a Balance in Business
Article by: Justin Dorsey
Diversified Plastics, Inc., is a custom injection molder whose niche is, including prototypes, small-to-medium runs of technically challenging designs. Two high school friends, Jim Dow and Bill Cullen, founded Diversified Plastics in 1977 after both had established careers in other businesses (Jim at Buckbee-Mears, and Bill at Norwest Bank). In 1998, Jim bought out his partner and is now the sole owner. What began with a baker's dozen employees has now grown to seventy. (Of the original 13, eight still work there.) Its manufacturing facility has grown from 2,500 square feet to more than 42,000 today.
Problem Solving Begins and Ends With Logic and Persistence
Article by: Lynn Moline & Mike Braun
Long ago, at a company that shall remain nameless to protect the guilty from further, but deserved humiliation, a senior manager told me with confidence that the solution to a regulatory filing process problem he had was to make the process electronic.
Critical Thinking or Critical Condition?
Article by: Rod Greder
Thomas Watson, former president of IBM, said, "All the problems of the world could be solved easily if men were only willing to think." New product development is an area ripe for more critical thinking. An increasing number of companies are lapsing into critical condition due to their lack of life-supporting breakthrough products. Sloppy market analysis, seat-of-the-pants development processes, and shoddy launch planning (which all reflect a lack of critical thinking) are at the root of their declining corporate health.
New Product Stewardship Expectations
Author Unknown
No one wants to buy from a company that isn't managing its environmental, health and safety issues. Show you practice Product Stewardship.
Minnesota Economic Condition
Article by: Manufacturers Alliance
For the month of July 2006, reported August 1, 2006
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Diversified Plastics: Finding a Balance in Business
Diversified Plastics, Inc., is a custom injection molder whose niche is, including prototypes, small-to-medium runs of technically challenging designs. Two high school friends, Jim Dow and Bill Cullen, founded Diversified Plastics in 1977 after both had established careers in other businesses (Jim at Buckbee-Mears, and Bill at Norwest Bank). In 1998, Jim bought out his partner and is now the sole owner. What began with a baker's dozen employees has now grown to seventy. (Of the original 13, eight still work there.) Its manufacturing facility has grown from 2,500 square feet to more than 42,000 today.

Diversified is a company that is at peace with itself. Perhaps the best example of this is its attitude about China. China has made inroads in manufacturing molds. The plastic injection molding business has been heavily affected by that competition. But Diversified has accepted this reality - and moved on. As Jim explains, "There is no doubt about it - China makes molds for a fraction of what we would charge. Still, not all of our clients want China-made molds. Some have had quality issues. Many others want to be able to tweak their mold. So, we have arrived at a place where we continue to make some of our own molds-and have others made for us overseas. In the end, our clients hire us to solve problems that are more involved than just mold making."

Another example of Diversified's state of tranquility is the absence of pushing growth for the sake of growth. Concerning this, Jim says, "For as long as I can remember, we've grown at 10-15% per year. And that's enough. We're smart enough to know that we can't stand still or we'll get run over. But we also want to make sure we don't forsake our core values in order to get big. We started this company in Brooklyn Park, and while we have outgrown several facilities, we've never wanted to leave this community. We like being a corporate partner here. This is where many of our employees live, and they give back to the community. On their own initiative, our employees have sponsored blood and food-shelf drives, participated in Relay For Life, Working For Poor, and even Minnesota Nice, which prepares care packages for soldiers overseas. My own belief is that community involvement is an absolutely essential part of the life of a corporation."

Jim is a steadfast and enthusiastic proponent of the Manufacturers Alliance. "Being willing to share experiences - good and bad - is also part of what makes a corporation healthy. I've been in this business for 29 years and don't presume to know all the answers. Frankly, I am still learning. The Manufacturers Alliance is a great place to do just that."

Concerning lean manufacturing, Jim says, "For us, 'lean' isn't a buzz word, it's a way of life. You don't have to look any further than our raw material, plastic resin, to appreciate its significance. Resin costs are skyrocketing, but we can't pass those costs on to our clients willy-nilly. There's too much competition. So, improving productivity is the only way we can maintain profitability, and by embracing lean, our employees have been up to the challenge. We've improved efficiencies dramatically over just the past few years. In fact, looking at our plant today and remembering when we started - well, it's just night and day."

When asked if there was anything in particular he would like to tell prospective customers, Jim says, "I know it is a cliche, but our people are what make this company great. They have a 'can do' attitude and will take on any challenge presented by our customers or prospects. Examples of this would be the mold we successfully built for a water purification company that three other mold shops in the area said could not be built and the sonic welding job we did for an automotive customer which the welding machine supplier said could not be done. I'd also tell them that our employees understand the true meaning of service and quality. They know their jobs depend on how well we meet our customers' needs."
Justin Dorsey, Director of Sales & Marketing, Advanced Capital Group located at 50 South Sixth Street, #975 Minneapolis, MN 55402. call (612) 230-3009, email jdorsey@acgbiz.com, or visit www.acgbiz.com.

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Problem Solving Begins and Ends With Logic and Persistence
Long ago, at a company that shall remain nameless to protect the guilty from further, but deserved humiliation, a senior manager told me with confidence that the solution to a regulatory filing process problem he had was to make the process electronic.

"But what's the problem?" I asked. He said that he had too much data and not enough information and the process had too many confusing steps. An electronic filing system would surely correct that, he declared.

"But what's the problem?" I reasserted. His eyes hardened with annoyance. "I mean, what's not happening that should be happening, or what is happening that's not meeting your expectations?" I tried to clarify.

That started a conversation in which he more or less defined some real issues. The process took too long and was error-prone. Staff was befuddled about what data to gather in the first place, and regulators always had a galaxy of questions and objections after every filing, thus delaying the decision.

"So how will digitizing the entire thing help? Won't you just have the same system and all the same issues except that now you'll be able to turn out inadequate filings faster? If you don't correct the process first, won't the problem just continue?"

For just a brief moment, he had that look people get when they glimpse a bright flash of insight but still can't see very clearly. Then he walked away.

Pity that poor manager. As I recall, he did automate the process, but the company continued to churn out bad filings. Where did he go wrong? He did what many business leaders do: in a heroic sprint to correct an ill-defined problem, he rushed to the first fix he could think of without taking time to think it through logically.

Good problem solving begins with clearly defining the gap between what is happening and what should be happening-the difference between the desired outcome and what you're actually getting. Our manager didn't do this. Instead, he defined his problem as the lack of some solution, namely, an automated filing process. Had he defined his problem as having a process that took weeks instead of days and produced dozens of errors, he might have looked for an entirely different solution.

In addition, effective problem solvers take time early on to understand the situation surrounding the problem, including its magnitude, severity, location, symptoms, timing, and other factors to help diagnose it accurately. They also determine measures or indicators that will help later in ascertaining the effectiveness of the solution.

Next, logical, persistent problem solvers engage people who know the problem to search for the root cause. Like detectives, they try to determine the contributing factors and check them out in a process of elimination to narrow down the most likely causes. The manager in our example blew off this step entirely. Had he done it, he might have realized that he and his staff were completing unnecessary or duplicated steps or that the regulatory requirements were unclear or that the raw data they received was flawed to begin with.

Once the most likely root cause is identified, the problem solvers consider all possible solutions, recognizing that the first one they conjure may not be the best one. When a team of people who live with the problem understand its likely causes, they can be quite creative about how to fix it. Had our manager done this step with his team, they might have come up with six or seven ways to eliminate errors and save time. The hassle and expense of automating the process might not even have made the cut.

Finally, the problem solvers carefully test their solution against the measures they selected earlier. If it works, they standardize the fix and celebrate. If it doesn't work, they either modify it or select and methodically test a second solution until they find what works.

Granted, this process isn't always speedy. But neither is it speedy to have to continuously put duct tape and bailing twine on a piece of machinery that keeps breaking down. Sooner or later, it needs to be fixed once and for all.
Lynn Moline, owner of Lynn Moline Associates, Inc., is a consultant and trainer who specializes in executive development, executive team alignment, and planning. Mike Braun is a partner at CLG, a company that provides behavior-based strategy execution and performance improvement services.

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Critical Thinking or Critical Condition?
Thomas Watson, former president of IBM, said, "All the problems of the world could be solved easily if men were only willing to think." New product development is an area ripe for more critical thinking. An increasing number of companies are lapsing into critical condition due to their lack of life-supporting breakthrough products. Sloppy market analysis, seat-of-the-pants development processes, and shoddy launch planning (which all reflect a lack of critical thinking) are at the root of their declining corporate health.

Critical Thinking and New Product Development
The probability that a new product concept will become commercially successful is less than 10 percent. This success rate can be improved by implementing rigid stage-gate development processes to force go/kill data-driven decisions before launch. In addition, critical thinking by trained gatekeepers can address ever-changing market conditions, aggressive competitors, and evolving company circumstances that demand agility and flexibility. Thriving companies will use a simple and flexible problem-solving process in conjunction with a hard-wired stage-gate development protocol to harness their employees' inventiveness and critical thinking capabilities at key decision points.

Process: Seven-Step Problem-Solving Method
You can significantly improve the define, design, and develop phases of your new product development by clearly defining the problem, taking a wide-open survey of potential solutions, and using a data-driven analysis of the best alternatives. A seven-step problem-solving process like the following can work for most product development challenges.

7-Step Problem Solving

  1. Define the problem.

  2. Background the problem.

  3. Identify possible solutions.

  4. Evaluate solutions.

  5. Analyze the best solutions.

  6. Develop the action plan.

  7. Track results.


People: A Balance of Problem-Solving Styles
While using the right process is crucial for good critical thinking, having the right people engaged is equally important. To think decisively about multifaceted problems and to drive innovation, companies need a team of individuals with a diversity of experience, divergent thinking patterns, and offsetting behavioral styles (that sometimes becomes off-putting!) The C.A.R.E. Profile® from Inscape Publishing is a useful assessment tool for identifying potential team members and their best roles.

Innovate with C.A.R.E. Profile®
Creator: Generates concepts and ideas.
Advancer: Recognizes potential early and begins to promote.
Refiner: Plays "devil's advocate."
Executor: Implements ideas and solutions.
Facilitator: Manages the process and the team.

Place: A Conducive Environment for Thinking
Most of us claim to do our best thinking during our morning shower. Why? Because it is one of the few quiet refuges in our typically sensory-saturated day. Undistracted thought time is a powerful prerequisite for creative problem solving. Thomas Edison, when stumped by a puzzling problem, would go fishing by himself. Often times he would not bait his hook. When asked about this peculiar practice, he replied, "I do not want to be disturbed by man or fish."

Tying It All Together: Process, People, Place
Companies that want to avoid critical condition and the next step - the corporate-equivalent of the toe tag-will conduct training for their innovation teams on effective problem-solving, provide ample time for thinking, and use tough love to encourage use of available process tools. The leading innovative companies will also incorporate the explosive intuition of their own world-class living and breathing problem - solving machines-their people. Just think about the possibilities!
Rod Greder, Ph.D. founded Breakthrough Forum, an innovation dialogue and accountability group, for product developers and marketers to tap the collective intelligence of their peers who have been there and done that. rgreder@improveproducts.com, (763)443-1531.

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New Product Stewardship Expectations
No one wants to buy from a company that isn't managing its environmental, health and safety issues. Show you practice Product Stewardship.

Most customers simply assume you are in compliance with regulations and you won't be shut down because you had a major environmental release or a worker death; i.e. your operations are in control. They assume your products are safe. Used to be, you just had to keep a low profile and keep your fingers crossed.

But an increasing number of companies who value their reputations want up front assurance. They want suppliers who will help them meet their high environmental, health and safety standards. Chemical (Rohm and Haas), electronic (Texas Instruments, GE), automobile (Toyota), and consumer (Kodak, Wal-Mart) industries and government procurers are under significant regulatory and public pressure to eliminate environmental, health and safety (EHS) risks. Leadership in environmental, health and safety responsibility is seen as key to business success - building reputation and loyalty, while at the same time avoiding costly regulations.

The linchpin is a shared commitment throughout the supply chain for product stewardship of the life cycle of a product - from design to materials acquisition, manufacture, use and final disposal. Each party needs to think about and reduce EHS impacts resulting from their actions:
  • Get and share the best information you can on what hazards are present?

  • What exposures can happen?

  • Design processes and products to minimize hazards and exposures, especially at the end of the product's life.

  • Keep aware of new information and make improvements.

You can make better EHS decisions regardless of your company's size. Design EHS advantages into your product and processes. Think of it as another set of specs. Design is the most cost-effective time to practice product stewardship. To find ways to improve your existing operations and products, use your standard management techniques (lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, QFD, etc.), analyze where you need to set priorities and make the management commitment to execute. Track progress and changes. Make improvements. Product stewardship is an ongoing management process and should be an integral part of your business.

Resources: Set priorities and hire expert consultants in environmental, health and safety, if you need help. But you can also get low cost help from government-supported small business advisors on how to prevent pollution and improve safety practices. See if your state environment and health agencies or extension programs have services. Check with your trade associations on training they may offer. Some of your large company customers or suppliers may also offer to help you learn better EHS management.

A strong product stewardship program helps you set the bar for competitive advantage. And it's the right thing to do.
Author Unknown

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Minnesota Economic Condition
For the month of July 2006, reported August 1, 2006



For a second consecutive month, Minnesota's Business Conditions Index moved lower. However, July's robust reading of 60.3 points to continuing growth for the state well into the final quarter of this year. The index, a leading economic indicator from a survey of supply managers and business leaders in the state, declined from June's 69.4 and May's record 74.8. Components of the overall index for July were new orders at 66.3, production at 61.6, delivery lead time at 52.3, inventories at 60.5 and employment at 55.8. Price increases for raw materials and supplies remains a problem in the state. As reported by Minnesota supply manager, Orick Otterness of Ritrama, "Costs continue to rise and cost cutting is at a point that little can be done. Consolidation of suppliers is moving at a very fast pace. This will push the prices up even more in the near future."
The mission of the Manufacturers Alliance is to provide peer-to-peer training, education, and resources which inspire manufacturing companies to continuously grow, improve, and stay competitive.

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