Forestry (logging) and archeological digs were fascinating job roles post-college, but for John Paul Williams the true calling for his career arrived when he walked into a little bookstore in Boston and picked up a guide on Shingo’s manufacturing processes. For National Manufacturing Day on Oct. 3, we sat down with John Paul to learn more about the path that took him from forest ranger to archeologist to an award-winning manufacturing expert.
What was your career path to Polycom?
I’ve worked in manufacturing for over 25 years in plants around Europe, Asia and the US, but before that I started out at New York State Ranger School where I received a degree in Forestry.
My First Management Lesson:
As one of my first jobs, I was overseeing a logging expedition. I went up to one of the cutters (loggers)—these guys spend their lives in the woods lifting a huge amount of weight—and I told him he was stacking his logs a little too far from the road so the trucks were getting stuck trying to get them. That was the last thing I remember. I woke up lying in a ditch next to the logs with a huge swollen eye and cheek. His reaction to my management suggestion was to knock me out with a punch!
My next move was a master’s degree in archeology. I did some archeological work in a Mayan civilization in Guatemala through National Geographic. Some of the work in that expedition actually changed the timelines for some of the Mayan civilization. I later went on to get a degree in Engineering and a master’s in Marketing. My varied background helps a lot in problem solving.
One of the first companies I worked for in the manufacturing sector was United Electric Controls. They made process controls for refineries and chemical plants, those kinds of areas. One day I was roaming around Boston and wandered into a bookstore and bought books by Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo, not knowing at the time that they were the founders of Toyota’s production system. It was a recipe on how to run a factory. We spent 3 years revamping our factory based on their principles. As a result, we reduced 6-8 week lead time down to 2 days. And that of course dramatically increased sales. We continued to improve by reducing quality defects by 90%. We were one of the first factories to win the Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing. That was in ‘79 and ’80.
Shingo himself flew over from Japan to tour our factory and coach us. Some of the elements we learned included questioning the rules and thinking differently by collaborating closely with people in engineering and on the floor. We had to change the way things had been done for 30-40 years. That was difficult, but I gained great skills in that process.
I later moved to Tandberg, which was then acquired by Cisco. I worked with them for a couple years. It was a large company and I longed for the entrepreneurial atmosphere that we had at the smaller Tandberg. I understood Polycom was looking to develop their manufacturing and oil and gas markets and that’s what led me here to Polycom. At heart, I’m an old operations guy by background. I like talking to customers on the ground floor, working out problems. Polycom gave me a chance to stay connected to that.
Describe a trending topic in manufacturing today. How do you see Polycom playing a role?
One of the big trends is the barbell effect. Products are getting more complex, requiring many engineering disciplines to bring them to life. And on the other extreme the market for simple products can form in a very short time and companies need to move very fast to take advantage of the opportunity. For example, the knowledge for designing aircraft and supporting avionics doesn’t exist in just one enterprise. The challenge becomes: how do you manage a design process where the chief design engineers might be in 4-5 different enterprises? Our video collaboration solutions can help simplify the design process. In a rich collaborative environment, teams can design products together. They can all see CAD drawings, and jump up and annotate on them. Our EagleEye Director makes it so that the other office locations know who’s speaking, even if they’re moving around the room. This makes collaboration seamless.
Another trend is re-shoring or next-shoring. (Note: see John Paul’s related blog posts.) The concept is that manufacturers used to set up in Mexico or Southeast Asia because labor costs were less expensive. Now, it’s about total cost including the access to market, changes, agility, and having manufacturing right next to the point of consumption. With next-shoring, the manufacturers can understand and respond to customer needs much faster. Being able to predict customer demands also helps with competitive advantage.
How do you see manufacturing operations working in the future? E.g., in the year 2020.
There’s going to be quite a few technologies coming out that we can’t even anticipate now. I think there will be a trend of manufacturing a ‘unit of one.’ For example, with the advent of the 3D printer, you can even print with powdered metals. Customers can make the one part they need for a particular application and never have to make it again. Before the 3D printer, that was not typical.
Another advent is the move toward shared ownership and maintenance of manufacturing equipment. For example, German cranes are phenomenally expensive, but if various construction firms share the equipment and the cost, they can all make use of the reliable, high quality equipment. This model is more cost efficient and will continue to move through the industry.
Can you give an example of a surprising or unexpected use-case where Polycom video technology was used in the manufacturing sector?
One of my favorite stories is about using video to see and solve problems in context. A company that makes medical equipment in California has a factory in Mexico. It’s a blood-gas analyzer that has to be extremely sterile. They were getting contamination, so most of the production line was shut down for assessment. The drilling operation part of the line kept running, though.
An engineer in California was on a video call with his team in Mexico examining a machine with high contamination. As they were talking, the engineer in California happened to see the assembler reach down to a shelf and grab a spray can of lubricant for the drill bit operation. It turns out the foreman wanted to extend the life of a drill bit, so the assembler had brought in lubricant from home, and that was the source of the contamination. No one was looking at the early-stage processes. The engineer in California just happened to notice this in real-time. It’s very powerful to have the ability to solve problems in context.
What do you like to do in your free time?
On Saturday morning I play football with my neighborhood crew. Afterwards, on Sunday, I complain to my family about my injuries!
I also like to ride my Honda CTX700 motorcycle. It’s an unusual, high-tech bike. My two sons have motorcycle licenses as well, so we like to go riding around Maryland’s beautiful roads.