The Right Approach: Leadership Lessons I Learned From Sonny Barger

Countless books have been written about the great leaders throughout history who have served as role models for generations of business executives. But what about the lessons that can be learned from the names you won’t typically find in the business section of your local bookstore? Much can be learned from them, too. In this column, I discuss leadership lessons I learned from Sonny Barger.
 
sonny.jpgBackground
For over 50 years, Ralph Hubert “Sonny” Barger presided over one of the most violent and successful operations in organized crime history: the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC). Born on October 8, 1938, Barger’s mother left him with his alcoholic father and older sister when he was just four months old. His violent tendencies surfaced early with several school suspensions for assaulting teachers and fighting with his classmates. In 1955, he enlisted in the army at age 16 and was discharged 14 months later when it was discovered that he had forged his birth certificate to be able to join. 

After returning from the Army, Barger rode with some small local motorcycle clubs but quickly left, disappointed in the lack of “brotherhood” and courage in the membership—two attributes that would become guiding principles of the Hells Angels. He began riding with some friends who shared his vision, and one of the bikers, Boots Don Reeves, wore a patch he had found in Sacramento of a small skull wearing an aviator cap with a set of wings. Boots suggested they name their new club the Hells Angels after the patch. They went to a local trophy shop and had a set of patches made in April of 1957, not knowing that their actions that day would be the origin of one of the most notorious motorcycle clubs in history, and one that is still going strong today. 

At the time, there were numerous independent Hells Angels motorcycle clubs throughout California, often not even knowing about each other. Barger founded the Oakland Chapter of the HAMC in 1958 as president and quickly moved up the ranks to become the national president. Sonny Barger is widely credited with organizing the disparate groups under one “mothership,” and for the tremendous international growth under his leadership. Barger also engineered the movement of the HAMC from crimes against public order to organized crime for profit.

Barger organized the HAMC like a traditional business with an organizational structure, including chapter and national positions of president, vice president, treasurer, intelligence officer, and sergeant in arms (security). Members pay fees, hold fundraisers, and also make money legitimately. They trademarked their images and make a significant amount of money selling trademarked merchandise like T-shirts and other branded gear. The Hells Angels are big business, and while exact numbers are difficult to attain for obvious reasons, it is thought that worldwide revenue is in the billions of dollars.

Today, the HAMC has over 2,500 members in over 200 charters across 29 countries and six continents. The Hells Angels’ brand is so strong that they have actually become a business, formally incorporated in both the U.S. and Canada. Local, federal, and international law enforcement agencies allege that the Hells Angels are in the business of a range of illicit activity, including drug distribution, trafficking of firearms and stolen goods, prostitution, arson, robbery and other violence, extortion, and money laundering. In 2011, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security added The Hells Angels to a list of criminal organizations that includes the Mafia, the Chinese Triads, and the Japanese syndicate Yakuza. 

At the age of 77, Sonny Barger remains an active member of the Hells Angels in the Cave Creek Arizona Chapter since moving there from Oakland in 1998. In the interest of full disclosure, the Hells Angels claim they are just a group “of motorcycle enthusiasts who have joined to ride motorcycles together, organize social events, fundraisers, parties, and motorcycle rallies.”

Lesson #1: Great Leaders Know They Don’t Have All the Answers
“Leaders accept dissent. The tyrant goes it alone.” –Sonny Barger

Modern Business Application
In any business organization, a leadership mistake may result in a financial loss, product failure, or employee defection. In Sonny Barger’s world, a leadership mistake may result in people dying. These kinds of stakes certainly come with their own set of elevated pressures and challenges, and business can take a lesson from Barger’s masterful leadership under extreme conditions.

Many leaders surround themselves with extremely bright and loyal followers who either are uncomfortable with disagreement or have chosen sycophancy from a political standpoint. Truly great leaders have the courage and confidence to surround themselves with the most honest people. Autocrats are always right because they insist they are. They rarely listen to anyone other than themselves anyway. Leaders listen and act accordingly. 

We are taught that conflict is bad and should be avoided, and most certainly conflict can be destructive and create dysfunction in an organization. However, an environment that encourages new ideas, viewpoints and constructive criticism can turn conflict into a very powerful decision-making tool. This is not to say that a leader will always, or even occasionally, heed the advice of trusted advisors, but a great leader will welcome this discussion as a means to making the best possible decision for the organization. What frequently happens is that in the course of a healthy discussion with constructive dissent, differing perspectives will organically generate thoughts and ideas that would not have occurred to anyone on their own.
 
Leadership Nuggets

  • Create an environment that encourages constructive dissent
  • Don’t be afraid to shake up the status quo
  • 1 + 1 = 3
  • Don’t confuse honest dissent with disloyalty or subversion
  • Diversity of opinion makes us smarter; groupthink makes us dumber
  • Harmony is overrated
  • Express disagreement respectfully, always
  • Exercise an open mind; use the Socratic method to encourage critical thinking
  • Ask for advice when you need it, and listen when it is offered
  • Accept genuine dissent and criticism as it’s intended and learn from it
  • Remember that disagreement does not equal disloyalty
  • Listen first, talk second
  • Sometimes, the best decisions are made by coloring outside the lines
  • Part of a leader’s job is to play the role of devil’s advocate
  • Conflict is an unavoidable part of human nature; great leaders manage conflict to drive positive organizational improvement

 
Lesson #2: Create an Environment of Empowerment
“We learn from our mistakes—pure and simple. Most of us can only improve after we know what it feels like to have screwed up. You have to give your people the freedom to screw up.” –Sonny Barger
 
Modern Business Application
This may seem like an odd statement coming from the leader of a band of ruthless criminals, but Sonny understood that ruling with an iron fist and instilling the fear of failure just wouldn’t work. Whether you are leading a group of tough and violent bikers or a team of factory workers, to be productive and creative, people need the freedom to make their own decisions, even when they are wrong. Expecting people to come up with the only solution acceptable to the leader is not empowerment; it is called politics, which is counterproductive.
 
Leadership Nuggets

  • Training and resources build the foundation for an empowered environment
  • Don’t micromanage; encourage empowerment but require accountability
  • Clearly define roles and boundaries to avoid inefficiency through redundancy
  • Challenge your employees, align on objectives, and then get out of their way
  • Give credit where credit is due, taking credit for others’ accomplishments will  
destroy an empowering environment
  • Focus on results, not just actions; people must be made to feel like owners and entrepreneurs of their process, project, etc.
  • Don’t just celebrate success; also celebrate the employees who failed but took  
a calculated risk
  • Delegation is not empowerment unless accompanied by the authority, resources, and support required to be successful
  • Providing continual feedback, both positive and constructive, is a key building block for improvement and future success
  • Remove barriers that limit employees to act in an empowered way
  • Transparency builds trust; share pertinent information early and often
  • Develop an empowering leadership style that nurtures, coaches, mentors, encourages and supports, even (especially) in difficult situations
  • Training + trust = empowerment
  • Demonstrate the calculated risk-taking behavior you want your teams to emulate
  • Communicate the vision, goals, and objectives so that everyone involved is on the same page

In Closing
Being a Harley enthusiast for over a dozen years, I have been fascinated with the outlaw biker culture, in general, and Sonny Barger, in particular. During my research into the man and his exploits, it became clear to me that the leadership skills Sonny Barger has honed over the past half-century managing the international Hells Angels organization can be just as effective in today’s business environment.  

This column originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of PCB007 Magazine.

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2020

The Right Approach: Leadership Lessons I Learned From Sonny Barger

09-01-2020

Countless books have been written about the great leaders throughout history who have served as role models for generations of business executives. But what about the lessons that can be learned from the names you won’t typically find in the business section of your local bookstore? Steve Williams discusses leadership lessons he learned from Sonny Barger.

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The Right Approach: Guerilla Tactics to Pass Any QMS Audit, Part 4

07-27-2020

Concluding Steve Williams' four-part series on “Guerilla Tactics to Pass Any QMS Audit,” he shares Tactic 10 on techniques to reverse a finding.

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The Right Approach: Guerilla Tactics to Pass Any QMS Audit, Part 3

06-29-2020

Continuing the series, “Guerilla Tactics to Pass Any QMS Audit,” Steve Williams shares Tactic 9, which includes documentation tips to avoid audit "dings."

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The Right Approach: 5 Reasons I Am Already Over Our ‘New Normal’

06-09-2020

Steve Williams captures his perspective on COVID-19 changes and shares his top five reasons why he is over the "new normal" based on his experiences over the last few weeks, indicating what the near future is going to look like.

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The Right Approach: Guerilla Tactics to Pass Any QMS Audit, Part 2

05-26-2020

Continuing March’s Part 1 column on “Guerilla Tactics to Pass Any QMS Audit,” Steve Williams covers tactics 5–8 and hopes you find a number of solid strategies you can apply immediately to improve your audit success.

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The Right Approach: Guerilla Tactics to Pass Any QMS Audit, Part 1

03-25-2020

"Guerrilla tactics" was chosen as the name for this series to reflect a number of nontraditional, take-no-prisoner concepts, techniques, and tactics that were born in the quality trenches and will guide any company to a successful audit result. In Part 1, Steve Williams covers four tactics to pass any QMS audit.

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The Right Approach: The Founding Fathers of Quality—Ishikawa and Shewhart

02-15-2020

This column continues the series of installments, each highlighting one of the seven founding fathers of quality (as selected by the author). It is important to understand and acknowledge their revolutionary contributions that still form the foundation of modern quality practices.

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The Right Approach: The Founding Fathers of Quality–Juran and Crosby

01-18-2020

This column continues the series of installments, each highlighting one of the seven founding fathers of quality (as selected by the author). It is important to understand and acknowledge their revolutionary contributions that still form the foundation of modern quality practices.

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2019

The Right Approach: The Founding Fathers of Quality—W. Edwards Deming

12-26-2019

This column begins a series of seven installments, each highlighting one of the seven founding fathers of quality (as selected by the author). Steve Williams explains why it is important to understand and acknowledge their revolutionary contributions that still form the foundation of modern quality practices.

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The Right Approach: Making Quality Initiatives Fun

12-13-2019

How do you overcome resistance and gain employee buy-in when implementing a new initiative, especially one that is generally seen as dry and boring, such as a quality management system? Follow Law 2 from Quality 101 Handbook: The Biggest Little Book on Quality You’ll Ever Need. For the sake of continuity, Law 1 states, “Never fear an unexpected customer visit.” If every employee lives and breathes the quality system every day, there will never be a need for an audit-prep panic. In this column, I will focus on Law 2.

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The Right Approach: A Conversation With Prototron’s Van Chiem

09-16-2019

I recently spoke with Van Chiem, a process engineer with Prototron Circuits, about developing in-house flex and rigid-flex processes and capabilities at their facility in Tucson, Arizona.

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A Conversation With Prototron's Van Chiem

07-30-2019

Van Chiem, a process engineer with Prototron Circuits, recently spoke with Steve Williams about developing in-house flex and rigid-flex processes and capabilities at their facility in Tucson, Arizona.

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Help Wanted! How to Train New Employees in Today’s Digital World

06-07-2019

In six short years, millennials will make up around 50% of the global working population. With our ever-increasing culture of information overload since the mobile revolution began, attention spans have been shrinking. While millennials seem to be the subject of much of the reporting on Digital-Age attention spans, the effect can be seen across all age ranges. How can you train anyone in this environment? Read on.

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The New Frontier of Manufacturing

04-18-2019

While M2M and H2M connectivity are the primary focus of Industry 4.0, the true underlying benefit of Industry 4.0 comes in the form of machine-to-business (M2B) connectivity or the "machine-as-a-service" concept. This is changing the way we purchase equipment.

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The Right Approach: Industry 5.0—Can We Learn From Other Industries?

03-01-2019

The last few IPC APEX EXPO events have focused heavily on Industry 4.0, which is all about the Internet of Things (IoT), automation, and data exchange between machines.

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The Right Approach: Star Trek Inspires Medical Technology—An Update

02-06-2019

Today, most of us have used some kind of wearable device to monitor our steps, exercise, heart rate, etc. However, as an eight-year-old watching Star Trek with my dad and younger brother in the late 1960s, this wearable technology would have been thought to be crazy.

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2018

Global Sourcing: The 5 Cs of Choosing the Right PCB Supplier

10-30-2018

Global sourcing is a complex process and choosing a supplier is always an important decision. The higher the technology, the more important the process for choosing the right one. Considering the highly complicated process of manufacturing printed circuit boards, these guidelines will assist in your decision.

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The Right Approach: The Value of Coopetition

07-17-2018

As our industry continues to evolve and shape-shift, printed circuit board manufacturing continues to shrink through consolidations and attrition. Unfortunately, this trend will most likely continue, albeit at a slower pace than over the last decade. In what has truly become a global economy, partnering with worldclass suppliers is mandatory, and excluding a sub-set of this dwindling supply base because they also happen to be in a crossover business will severely hinder this effort.

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The Right Approach: International Automotive Task Force (IATF) 16949 Standard, Explained

05-22-2018

While this list is not all-inclusive, it will give organizations an idea of what they are signing up for by pursuing IATF 16949 QMS certification. The standard is very demanding and requires a high level of discipline, but as they say, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger!”

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The Right Approach: The Rebirth of Made in America

05-04-2018

I have been on the record for the past 10 years saying that jobs we lost overseas may move out of China to a new low-cost country, but they were never coming back. I have never been happier to be wrong! I talk to a lot of CEOs, and the first question I ask is, “How’s business?” The answers are overwhelmingly positive, and it is clear that their optimism is at a level not seen for over a decade. America as a low-cost country. Think about that.

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Willy Wonka: The Lean Case Study

02-16-2018

No matter where my travels take me, I hear a wide and limitless supply of excuses for why Lean will not work in “my” organization. One of my favorite ways of illustrating that Lean will indeed work anywhere is to take a Lean look at a very unlikely organization, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

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The Right Approach: Culture Shift is Key to Quality Improvement

01-03-2018

Any major initiative, whether implementing ISO, lean manufacturing or introducing a new product, requires culture change. How this change is managed will be the difference between success or failure of the project. This column will offer some fundamental elements that will help navigate your next major implementation by shifting the culture.

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2017

The Right Approach: Steve’s Particular Set of Skills (to become a World-Class Quality Manager)

11-14-2017

Being a quality professional today is nothing like it was 20 or 25 years ago; on a personal level, I can attest to this fact. It is no longer adequate to appoint a quality manager simply based on a person’s command of acceptance criteria and industry specifications; in the 21st century, a truly hybrid executive is needed.

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The Right Approach: Navigating Process Change? TPC is the Key

10-02-2017

Change is a given. While this adage may be quite true and normally a good thing, it can wreak process engineering havoc in a printed circuit operation. Change is good, but the operative word is controlled change relative to the complex processes involved in manufacturing a printed circuit board.

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The Right Approach: Is Exceptional Service Worth a 40% Cost Increase?

06-23-2017

“When did this happen?” I asked myself during a recent visit to my men’s only barber shop as I noticed that my $10 haircut was now $14. While I vaguely remember the price going up a little every couple of years, I really hadn’t been paying attention. This caused me to revisit an article I wrote 10 years ago and research whether this 40% cost increase was reasonable.

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The Right Approach: Finding the Next Generation of 'Board Rats'

05-10-2017

Owners of printed circuit board shops across the country are united in their top concern for their businesses: finding new talent. While this problem crosses all industries, what is unique is the complexity and learning curve of our business.

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The Right Approach: Why Trump Will Be Good for Our Industry

02-22-2017

Regardless of which side of the political fence you fall on, what matters most around any election are the policy implications. Taking the partisanship out of politics and looking strictly at the Trump policy promises, there is cause for optimism in business.

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2016

The Right Approach: My Leadership Journey

10-20-2016

I have been in leadership positions for the majority of my 40-year career, but it has not always been a smooth and natural relationship. With the following three stories, I will attempt to share the lessons learned on my journey as a lifelong student in pursuit of the art of leadership.

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The Right Approach: FOD and the Aerospace Industry

10-06-2016

Unless you are currently building aerospace product to AS9100[1] you are probably saying, “What the heck is FOD?” What started out as a requirement to prevent damage to aircraft parts such as engines has been flowed down to any component or assembly including PCBs.

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The Right Approach: Our IoT Lives

06-08-2016

In March, at the 2016 IPC APEX EXPO show in Las Vegas, the next big thing everyone was talking about was the Internet of Things (IoT). Equipment manufacturers were standing in line to tout their machines as IoT-capable and just waiting for the industry to catch up. But the IoT has been at play in our personal lives for quite a while…

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The Right Approach: Quick & Easy 6S to Reduce Handling Issues

05-19-2016

Handling is often the source of many pain points for PCB fabricators, resulting in rework, scrap and customer returns. Quick & Easy 6S is a fantastic tool to minimize handling risk by reducing product travel and improving shop cleanliness.

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The Right Approach: Best Practices: It’s Only Common Sense

04-29-2016

One of the fascinating things about Best Practices is that it is occurring everywhere—and many times without the knowledge of the person or organization doing it! How can this be? Most best practice principles fall under a very old-fashioned ideal that some of us still remember: common sense.

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The Right Approach: Increase Profits by Minimizing Inspection

04-19-2016

Identifying and fixing problems instead of foolishly trying to “inspect in quality” by sorting will have a greater impact on profit than raising prices your product, hammering your suppliers for lower costs or most any other traditional profit enhancement initiatives an organization can implement.

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2015

Data Analytics through Statistical Techniques

11-30-2015

Many companies get caught in data traps. They focus so heavily on cost and survival that they end up using data as merely a marketing and sales tool. In doing so, they fail to realize the true power of data: It can transform every aspect of a business.

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Cycle Time Reduction with WORK, Part I

10-27-2015

Lean, theory of constraints, quick response manufacturing, cross training, and SPC are powerful, tried and true methodologies for process improvement--but they are rooted in high-volume manufacturing environments and don't always play nice in a high-mix, low-volume operation. This article talks about the new WORK manufacturing strategy specifically developed to overcome these shortcomings while capitalizing on their strengths.

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Computer on Wheels

10-05-2015

You could say that today's automobile is a "computer on wheels," but from a point of accuracy it would be more like 35 computers on wheels. With printed circuit boards being the backbone of our electronic products, this is major market segment for our industry. In this article, Steve Williams writes about the evolution of automotive electronics, and the future of the industry.

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Supply Chain in the 21st Century

07-28-2015

The shift away from vertical integration has pushed the topic of supply chain management to the forefront of strategic planning for many manufacturers. This wide-ranging article talks about supply chain management, a brief history of supply chain innovation, managing supply chain risk, as well as presents the "7 Rights" of supply chain management.

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Best Practices 101: Part 6

05-26-2015

One roadblock to achieving the true benefits of best practices is that traditional improvement efforts have always focused on reducing the time of value-added steps; in other words, reducing the amount of time it takes to do something to a product, or touch time.

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Best Practices 101, Part 5: Process Capability

04-06-2015

Not every process is a good candidate for statistical control, and that in these instances, alternate process control methods may be required. Steven Williams talks about continuous improvement when it comes to process capability.

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2014

Star Trek Inspires Medical Tech for 2015

11-30-2014

Close to 50 years after Dr. Leonard H. "Bones" McCoy of the Starship Enterprise first used a fictional tricorder to scan patients for ailments and anomalies, real-world medical science is turning that science fiction into a reality.

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Best Practices 101, Part 4

11-23-2014

"Looking back through the annals of the U.S. PCB industry, when it comes to quality, we have evolved from a reactive, to a proactive mindset. This evolution has led to what is loosely called the zero-defects methodology. The old gold standard of three sigma is no longer acceptable and has gone the way of the dinosaur," writes Columnist Steve Williams.

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Best Practices 101, Part 3

10-16-2014

Columnist Steve Williams writes, "Fresh out of training, the value stream mapping (VSM) team often runs out and starts mapping the first process they see. While VSM, if anything, is better than nothing, efforts should be focused on the critical processes having the greatest impact on the product."

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Best Practices 101, Part 2

09-09-2014

Process flow diagrams are a great first step, but they don't tell the entire story. Value stream maps add one critical ingredient that standard process flowcharts don't have: Time. Process flowcharts do not capture this important element. They simply present a snapshot of the sequence of steps in the process. Time is essential to understanding how one operation affects another and where your resources are being spent.

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Best Practices 101, Part 1

07-17-2014

In the global economy that is today's business environment, there are no guarantees. The need for best practices is present in every industry, but mandatory in technology industries such as PCB manufacturing. In this new series, Columnist Steve Williams conveys personal lessons gained through his involvement with more than 1,000 manufacturing companies.

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Customer Feedback: Perception is Reality

05-29-2014

What does it mean to be world-class? It means being on par with the top performers globally in your chosen craft. There are, of course, numerous quantitative metrics used to measure this, such as turnover, quality certifications, productivity, and the requisite financial ratios. But perhaps the most important metric is qualitative: How do your customers think you're doing?

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Capturing Tribal Knowledge

04-03-2014

Elizabeth II, Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, made the following salient proclamation more than 50 years ago: "It's all to do with the training: You can do a lot if you're properly trained." What has held true through the ages is not a secret; people perform better when properly trained.

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Time for a 'Lean Diet'

02-20-2014

In the drive to continuous improvement, while Lean is one of the most powerful tools available to organizations, it is also one of the most underutilized. Columnist Steve Williams offers a primer for companies considering the Lean journey.

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2013: A Look Back

01-10-2014

After a very challenging year for the domestic PCB industry, global business conditions are slowly improving. Columnist Steve Williams takes a look back at 2013 and also looks forward to what we can expect for the rest of 2014.

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2013

Point of View: The Value of a Strategic Consultant

12-12-2013

New blood, a fresh set of eyes, or an outside perspective: No matter what you call it, the right consultant can add exponential value to any organization. How can you make sure you choose the right consultant and avoid the wrong one?

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Point of View: 3D Printing - Tales from the Road

11-14-2013

In September of last year, columnist Steve Williams wrote about the potential of 3D printing to "save" American manufacturing, as it was quickly becoming the new industry buzzword. Fast forward a year and it is clear that 3D printing may be here to stay and not just another passing fad.

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Temporary Process Change

10-13-2013

Change is a given. While this adage may be quite true and normally a good thing, it can cause havoc in the documentation system of a printed circuit operation. To be successful, there must be a formal methodology to handle process change.

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Lessons from Lombardi - Not Just for Football Anymore

08-23-2013

Columnist Steve Williams writes, "It occurred to me after reading an article in a local paper recently that solid management fundamentals are timeless and cross all industries. It is critical that an organization have a foundation based on a practical management game plan to be in the chase for excellence."

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POV: Operational Excellence Through Continuous Improvement

08-07-2013

Continuous improvement is a journey, and as with most things worthwhile, needs to be an integral part of an organization's everyday life. It can only come from people, motivated and committed, learning what they can learn, solving problems that they can solve, and implementing solutions that they develop.

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Point of View: What Do Customers Want?

07-03-2013

Mel Gibson was able to read women's minds in the movie "What Women Want." Columnist Steve Williams, on the other hand, believes that he can offer guidance on what customers want.

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Point of View: Unleashing the Power of Teams

06-14-2013

One of the most powerful tools in the operational improvement toolbox is not something you can put your hands around, but, if mastered, it can take organizational performance to a new level. Highly-effective teams can make the difference between step function improvement and abject failure.

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2012

Manufacturing Advantage: Japan! Where is the Love for Kanban and Lot Size of One in the U.S.?

12-01-2012

More than 50 years ago, American industry rejected the manufacturing tools and techniques of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, while most of Asia welcomed and ran with this guidance. While this has slowly changed, a couple of important concepts still have not been embraced here in the U.S.

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Point of View: RoHS: Six Years After

11-08-2012

It is worth taking a look back at the span of six years, and the regulatory implications to our industry stemming from one regulation that has impacted the electronics industry in a mighty big way: RoHS.

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Will 'Old' PCB Technology Save American Manufacturing?

10-11-2012

3D printing is a hot topic right now, especially with equipment prices dropping and reports of this incredible technology entering the consumer marketplace. With its origin in the additive process of PCB manufacturing, will this technology save American manufacturing?

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Point of View: A Cautionary Tale

03-08-2012

As we all look to improve our manufacturing organizations in 2012 and become leaner and meaner, the fictitious canoe story is a reminder to focus on the right things and concentrate on activities that will improve the bottom line.

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