This year I’ll celebrate my 40th year in the manufacturing industry. As I think back through my career, there were many challenging events and hurdles along the way. But the Coronavirus global pandemic is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. In times of crisis, looking back on lessons learned can be helpful as we find our way forward.
I recall being on a sales call in Toronto on September 11, 2001, while I was working for a company called Nematron, a provider of PC-based CNC systems. As my colleague and I walked in to meet with the owner of our Toronto distributor, the 9/11 attacks started to unfold. We left the sales call and immediately headed back to the U.S., having to stop to spend the night in our car at the Blue Water Bridge crossing from Ontario to Michigan. At 2:00 a.m. they finally opened the border to allow us to return home.
During this surreal day, I felt helpless. I think our whole country felt helpless. We came to realize how vulnerable we were to external threats, and wondered about when and if we’d ever be able to fly or travel safely again. As time went on, this period of upheaval ultimately resulted in a transformation of airport security practices that remain largely intact today.
Fast forward to the financial crisis of 2008/2009, when a different vulnerability was exposed, followed by a similar transformational cycle. Prior to that time, most Americans never questioned the viability of banks. But as banks failed and people lost their homes, it became clear that even the wealthiest nation on earth was not immune to financial disaster. The eventual outcome was that we addressed the weaknesses in our system and implemented solid banking regulations and healthier lending practices. Processes and systems were improved, and culturally we changed.
Like some other industries, the manufacturing industry goes through deep cycles. When business is strong, everyone is focused on taking care of customers, acquiring new business opportunities, installing machines and all the details that go along with that. There’s very little time spent on growth, nurturing and tightening up the organization. When we go through a slow period, this is the time to work on internal processes so we can strengthen the company in preparation for the next upswing.
Today at Okuma America, first and foremost we’re taking the utmost care of our employees, customers, distributors and partners. Beyond that, we’re finding ways to enhance our processes. We’re spending more time on training, and using technology far more than ever before. Our distributors are ramping up virtual sales calls and setting up cameras in their showrooms to do virtual demos. Ultimately, having these processes in place will compress the time and resources needed to sell our products and services. I believe this operational “new normal” will continue after the current situation ends, resulting in higher efficiency for all of us.
My thoughts go out to all those who are suffering tragic losses during these dark times. I’m encouraged to see so many who are reaching out to lend a hand or a shoulder to lean on. Even through all this hardship and isolation, we’re becoming better connected in many ways, and perhaps even more human in a virtual world.
In this time of crisis, it may be helpful to remain aware that this is also a time of transformation that can take us to an improved way of functioning. I admit, I do get accused of being an optimist. But we must find our way forward. Now is the time to take care of yourself and your families, take care of your company, and look to the other side of the bridge for the possibilities that lie ahead.
About Jim King Jim King is President and COO, Okuma America Corporation.