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international perspectives By Michael Diliberto

There’s Nothing Like Being There

O

ver the course of my career, I’ve witnessed the emergence of countless technical tools that have improved communication and reduced the perceived distance between my overseas colleagues and myself. I keep in touch using Skype, manage projects with Basecamp, and even fight homesickness by keeping up with my favorite shows on Netflix and Hulu. In just minutes, my smartphone lets me send photos and videos from our production lines to a project manager 10,000 miles away. With 3G internet in just about every corner of the world, I am rarely, if ever, out of touch. This always-on, hyperconnected world brings with it complexities that we could not have even dreamed of just five or 10 years ago. It changes our expectations of how fast and to what degree information flows into and out of our organization. It is easy in this increasingly connected world to dismiss the advantages of proximity in the management of our worldwide projects. After all, if these modern technological tools allow us to be virtually present just about anywhere at any time, it is natural to question the need to continuously send project managers, engineers, and quality control staff to our global manu­ facturing sites. While it may be right to question the need for physical travel, the conclusion that we have reached is that technology is still a poor substitute for being on-site in person. While the world may be getting flatter, it is far from flat. There have always been clear advantages to having staff located in close proximity to our suppliers and customers, and all of the technology in the world cannot replace the gains that we make by having our fingers on the proverbial pulse. TRAVEL IN A WORLD THAT’S FAR FROM FLAT Having our people on the ground, close both to our suppliers and to our customers, brings many advantages. In fact, I would argue, having key people in the right loca-

tions is essential to the success of our business. The tools we use today empower our overseas staff but certainly do not supplant the need to have traveling and expatriate employees. I have seen many case studies and demonstrations that argue that we can use technology to replace people on the ground. From long-distance, virtual whiteboards to tele-presence robots, it seems like there is always some new piece of technology promising to replicate the advantages of being on location without actually being on location. In almost every case that I have seen, there are trade-offs. Perhaps the information does not come through quite as clearly, or problems with a product may not be detected until later in the manufacturing cycle. We work in retail, and retailers are often rewarded when they maintain a fast-moving and nimble set of capabilities. We, in the service of these retailers, similarly are rewarded for our speed and agility. Therefore, we should be unwilling to make trade-offs that sacrifice a great deal of our speed and agility for a small amount of cost savings.  We live by the mantra of keeping our design resource as close to our customers

as possible and our engineering resource as close to our manufacturing as possible. But to say it that way is an oversimplification. Because what is equally important is that each side understands the other. In order to do so, it is crucial that we have these traveling managers and expatriates spend time in each other’s geographic areas. It behooves us to ensure that our designers understand the constraints of the processes we use during manufacturing. Similarly, the better our manufac­ turing team can understand our customer, the better equipped they will be to make decisions on the manufacturing floor. As our teams grow, and especially as we add team members who might only visit the home office a few times per year, it is vital that we invest in making sure that no matter how often team members are face to face, no matter which of our offices they work in, we always reinforce the knowledge that we are all one team. It is too easy, at times, to blame the issues before us on the people who are farthest away. Rather than looking at how we might have failed together, the instinct is, at times, to blame bad quality on our factory QC staff, or to blame missed deadlines
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“I would argue that ­
having key people in the right locations is essential to the success of our business.”
to our regional staff after spending time in that retailer’s stores or even meeting their customers face to face. AT THE INTERSECTION These days we are all becoming global organizations. Our customers are growing in their multinational aspirations, our suppliers are becoming more and more geographically dispersed, and we stand at the intersection. We balance the demands of our customers, who want one supplier to support their worldwide retail deployments, and our vendors, who are increasingly diversifying their manufacturing locations to maximize the advantages of a global talent pool. We would be crazy to think that we could manage this careful balance from the comfort of our home office, with perhaps the occasional Skype call or teleconference. Technology is great. The tools we have will continue to provide an ever-growing level of help and assistance to our remote team members. But nothing will ever substitute for being there.

on our regional production planners. It is essential to remind everyone that we succeed as a group and we fail as a group, and we all have to work together to overcome our issues. It is amazing how dramatically the outlook of our home office staff can change once they have spent some time working alongside a project manager in a factory overseas. Similarly, the sometimes obtuse demands of the customer become clearer

Mike Diliberto is ­general manager, China, for Bloomington, Minn.-based Lynx Innovation Inc. Contact him at miked@ lynxinnovation.com.

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