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October 22, 2015 Article 2 min read

Last month, Women in Manufacturing (WIM) held its fifth annual summit in Minneapolis. It featured keynote speakers and presenters from companies like Valspar, Amazon, Medtronic, and Intuitive Surgical, as well as manufacturing associations like the Manufacturing Leadership Council and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.

Plante Moran supported the summit as a sponsor for a CEO Fishbowl, which I was honored to facilitate. Here are my four key takeaways from that discussion.

1. Talent management remains a hot topic.

CEOs at the Fishbowl put talent management at the top of the importance scale and discussed several non-traditional options and roles for employees, including leveraging skilled, part-time staff; flexing volume with offsite staff; engaging students in community colleges in non-technical fields like graphic design; and making them aware of apprentice programs. We also discussed how to recruit millennial women into manufacturing positions. Manufacturers need to paint the picture for millennials—how will they fit into the role?—and engage them with tours, websites, and videos. Millennials long for an insider’s view and authentic relationships; tell them what works at your company.   

2. Innovation was a critical focus.

 During the Fishbowl, we discussed innovation through the lenses of diversity and technology—the importance of building teams with diverse backgrounds and the use of technology and automation. But innovation was a theme that ran throughout the entire summit. The Manufacturing 4.0 session — where we dissected the digitally connected plant, including digitization of all processes, digital manufacturing simulation, 3d printing, even 4D printing! — was particularly memorable.  We discussed the limitless possibilities of 3D technology, but mass production scale is still hindered by environmental issues and energy use needed for industrial 3D printers. 

3. Corporate culture is key.

 It’s one thing to successfully recruit women into a manufacturing organization; it’s another to retain them. That’s where culture becomes so critical. One recommendation involved developing an entrepreneurial operating system—a more formalized plan for company culture so that it survives from one generation to the next—that includes room for growth and evolution. After all, we have an owner’s manual for nearly every tool out there, but how many of us have a manual for our business? Employee engagement was another area of focus. One attendee used the phrase, “write up or light up,” a variation on the old carrot vs. stick argument, as in, “Would you rather write your employees up or light them up?” We agreed that a strong culture isn’t just about perks or parties but instead about understanding what motivates employees and what they’re passionate about and then igniting those passions—lighting them up. 

4. Exercise caution when considering an international presence.

“Caution” was the word of the day when considering international operations. One attendee relayed a personal experience where a customer had asked her to open a site in Mexico to produce a new product. She explored the opportunity and was close to signing a lease when the customer cancelled the contract. Just because a customer asks you to go global doesn’t mean you should. One suggestion was to locate a site in Texas, close to the Mexico border. Another was to house inventory in Mexico versus having a site there. 
Throughout the two-and-a-half days, approximately 290 women engaged in discussions, education, and networking, and the GE Foundation awarded WIM $100,000 for scholarships. The future continues to look bright for women in manufacturing.