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Manufacturing Success at the Intersection of IT and Industry with Craig James of Cat-Strat Services
Episode 3321st June 2021 • The Manufacturers' Network • Lisa Ryan
00:00:00 00:24:51

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Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturers Network podcast. I'm delighted to introduce you to our guest today, Craig James. Craig is a man who wears many hats. Among them, executive coach, writer, speaker, modern philosopher, information technology industry veteran and co-founder, co-managing partner of Catalyst Strategies, also known as Cat Strat Services, a strategic advisory firm that helps organizations stop and think. He is the host and co-executive producer of the podcast Big Audacious Idea. 

And he and his partner, Sue James, are launching a new podcast called The Possibility Zone. Both Sue and Craig are active in the disciplines of rethinking, reflection, and strategic planning. They've also been active in nonprofit and community organizations, and currently, they serve as co-presidents of the northeastern Ohio chapter of Conscious Capitalism. Welcome to the show, Craig. 

Craig James: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me. , you should probably go into speaking or something where you energetically and eloquently said you make me sound good.

Lisa Ryan: Well, thank you. I think I'll do that—just a crazy idea. Well, Craig, I know that in your intro, it sounds like you have done lots of things. So share a bit of your background and what led you to the journey you found yourself on?

Craig James: Well, jeez, thanks for the personal interest. Try to think about making this relevant to your listeners—one of the things that characterize my background in information technology. I grew up in the I.T. industry, and that's relevant to our chat today. But going back a little bit further, I suppose there's an entrepreneurial gene or two in the blood.

My folks were a mom-and-pop shop back in the 50s, working virtually before that was even an idea. Sure enough, in the last 20 years, Sue and I started our firm. We're entrepreneurs. We're thinkers and philosophers, but we're business people, too. We bring a blend of other stuff. I'm a loner in a way, but I love to connect with people.

I grew up as an only child. Some of the things that resonate with me playing guitar, skiing, individual experiences yet connected with other humans. That's the quick one, too. 

Lisa Ryan: Well, and I know that this is the Manufacturers Network podcast, and you've spent most of your career in I.T. So when people are thinking, why does she have an I.T. guy on, what is it that you're finding as far as how is manufacturing similar? Because that's why we're having this whole conversation.

Craig James: Well, I appreciate you clarifying that, and I appreciate you having me on the show, even though I'm not a manufacturing guy. However, what's constant across manufacturing or I.T. or other services and industries is I'm a businessperson.

And, one of the things that I'm not when I look back at my days is I'm not a technologist either. There's a lot of things I'm not. I never did programming. I wasn't a tech guy. I was a sales guy, business guy, growth guy, leader within I.T., So those concepts apply both in manufacturing and information technology. I think what's interesting right now is the convergence and similarities and how this is blurring.

If we looked at information technology back, I won't date myself. Long ago, when I sold big computers, it was manufacturing. I mean, a five-million-dollar computer took weeks to produce on the line. We called them assemblies because the computers were assembled on an extensive manufacturing line, and 12 guys and white coats their blue coats came into a clean room and installed the thing over a matter of days.

So the physicality of computing, the manual manufacturing, the tangibility, the materiality of where it began is where and how in the early days it in manufacturing, I won't say were one in the same, but very similar.

Lisa Ryan: Well, the interesting thing about that is you just talked about the assemblies and these computers that took up an entire room or an entire building, and right now we have that capacity in the palm of our hand, if not even more powerful computers than we're back in the day. But we're seeing so many changes in technology changing in manufacturing because of technology and what's possible. So, where have you seen that convergence?

Craig James: So I probably don't have to be the first one to inform your listeners around the concepts of IoT or sensors or 3D printing. Chances are, with Industry 4.0, your listenership is well-tuned in better than I might be in terms of what's happening from a macro trans trend standpoint. But the implications are significant.

Today, we think about a manufacturing line, a product designed, developed, manufactured, and distributed; it's indivisible NMR anymore from those things like sensors, networks, technology, and software—embedded algorithms, machine learning, A.I., all that now is baked into what manufacturing is. So the lines are blurring even more. And what's the implication? , when we think about, OK, I'm listening to the show, the theory's interesting, but how do I adapt?

What do I do? One of the first things we need to be thinking about is how to become aware of technology and enable our teams and upskill. And that's not to make a judgment of what manufacturing staff might have been years ago. But the fact is it's shifting and changing. So the need for tech-savvy, adaptive, more intangible workers that think and do will become essential as we look to the future.

Lisa Ryan: And even in the last year of the pandemic, when it has speeded up technology quite a bit, we're so far ahead from where we were just a year ago. But if you're looking at your older workers who were averse to technology before, it's become a lot easier. Technology, today versus just a year ago, seems to be a lot more user-friendly. It was so encouraging your employees to get that fear out of the way and just try it for goodness sake because it's here to stay.

Craig James: Well, I think you hit on a key thing. And sometimes, when we think about what we do, especially as we emerge out of a pandemic, we think about all the tangible things we need to do, maybe retool, rethink. But are emotion around what's happened, what's happening, and about to happen becomes key? Fear is a crucial word for sure. And no matter how bullish and strong we think we are as business leaders, let's face it, the last year has been rather significant.

It's been a once in 100 year set of circumstances. So our ability to put our feeling and thinking off to the side for a second. We have to react. We have to be quick. We have to be adaptive and responsive. This might sound contradictory, yet at the same time, we need to be reflective, stop and think. Hold the fort for a second and make sure we reassess the landscape because it's changed.

I was just having some flashbacks as far as what this year has meant personally and professionally. That has been one of the gifts, and probably one of the struggles, not only in manufacturing but also about the employees. It's not just about the work. It's how are you doing? Let's take time and reflect on this. Let's take time for self-care and take care of ourselves, but making sure that the leaders connect with their employees on a more personal level than maybe they ever have been before.

Lisa Ryan: And sometimes we look at these as soft skills or touchy-feely or airy-fairy stuff, and it is certainly the farthest from the truth, especially now.

Craig James: I'm going to remember that because quite often, as consultants and advisers and executive coaches sometimes are accused of airy-fairy and woo woo. And I would say our practice tends to lean on the human side. We have to translate and make tangible some of these conceptual things that often are discarded. But you're hitting at such an important point as a leader now more than ever before, special care for our team and care for ourselves. Check into them and check into ourselves.

I had the gift of interviewing a fabulous fellow named Lawrence Ganti. He's the chief business officer of a company that makes the things that go into the stuff that makes the vial that the vaccine goes into before it goes in your arm. So a pretty important deployment tool, the vial. And it can go into how interesting it is from a technology and manufacturing standpoint. It's a nanofilm of glass that goes inside a polymer. So you have both the glass and the plastic benefits of holding back. Anyway, there's a lot to that story. So here's a guy who had a hundred team members a year ago and now has five hundred and fifty, had one facility and now has four, made 10 million vials a year now makes one hundred and twenty all in months.

And I said, Lawrence, we've got some other things to do here. How can I provide value? Because you probably have a thousand things that are waiting for you by the time we're done with our chat. He said, Craig, are you kidding? The gift to me right now is to stop for a second and to reflect. So I know it's important for your listeners to know what I can do with the stuff? One is to take the time, dare to stop, and reflect.

Because what's happening now is we're all in a hyperdrive to get back right back to normal. Yeah, we need to take a breath. And that's counterintuitive again, because hell heck, sorry. I'm a strategic planner and thought leader. I'm proud to say so.


That sounds arrogant. It just comes from experience to lead. I thought you have to learn. And what I've learned. Some of the planning stuff just a year ago we advised it's all undone and so stop. Reflect. Yes, but react at the same time. We have to do both. We have to be adaptive, reactive. But the idea of planning is almost out the window because you can't plan and count on anything.

Lisa Ryan: You've got to be not so surprised by surprises because they're going to happen. So it's a really interesting time right now. I know with me, and with lots of people, we have the zoom burnout. We are not only on camera but also attending meetings and now doing virtual conferences. We're not moving much. Taking care of our employees from a personal standpoint and giving the gift of getting away from technology in that point of reflection. Being able to walk away and turn off all technology and be in a room by yourself away from devices and give yourself the gift of just thinking and reflecting.

Craig James: Because when you take the time to listen to yourself, it really because we have so many things trying to get our attention all day long that we don't take the time to listen and reflect. So again, we can't take care of others unless we're taking care of ourselves.

One of the things that we use in executive coaching, that's a little tool or tip that your listeners might want to try, is simple. I've always got a whiteboard for conveying some thoughts. Here's a visual in your mind's eye. If you're making about technology invasion, and that's what it is, it's people who work hard to figure out a way to get your attention.

It's compelling. It's seductive. And here's the thing. Take a hiatus and turn technology off. One of the techniques we use is this picture on a whiteboard. Many arrows go in one direction and a bunch of arrows going in the other. When you look at a day's activity, you then ask yourself to stop and reflect on how many arrows came at you? How many arrows did you issue and fire upon your own volition around something that needed to happen that was important. I can tell you nine times out of nine, the arrows coming in outwait and outnumber the arrows going out. And so a little a slight tweak of that can be helpful. Consciousness and awareness of what's coming in and what am I initiating can go a long way in shifting our behaviors a little bit.

Lisa Ryan: Yeah, and being comfortable with connecting with employees, especially in manufacturing. We're used to focusing on whatever that end product is. But now reaching out and saying, so how are you doing? How are you dealing with that? I mean, thankfully, we're finally getting to hopefully the end seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

I mean, I am fully vaccinated now. Thank God we do it for you. But it was a year in the making. I don't want to call it PTSD, but we're looking back on a year. I kept referring to 2020 as the year that wasn't. I got to hug my father for the first time in a year this week. And I am not the only one. Thankfully, I have my own company. But look at your employees because many people are still suffering and still having these repercussions from everything that we've gone through.


Craig James: You're hitting on some so important things to remember. It's not anyone thing, Lisa. It's a combination of a notion of care, the human touch, the soft skills. The ante has been up for sure. I read an article not too long ago. I think it was in Forbes suggesting that the key ingredient to the innovation ecosystem right now is emotional intelligence. Interesting you think A.I. or some other technology term in terms of innovation and design? No, it's the human stuff.

I think the other thing to Lisa on a human level, but maybe not a softer touch, a realistic look at our behaviors and our skills, again, repeating is the notion of adaptation and agility being unsurprised by the surprising. So that has to do with stopping, thinking and projecting, imagining things that could or may not happen. But just imagine, worst case, the best case most likely and take that time, not so much to think and plan, but to hone adaptation skills and not be surprised by surprise.

The other thing that we've found fascinating right now is what we call the counterintuitive effect. What's been fascinating in the last year is that the human touch thing is the need for it, but the business dynamics are shifting. We talked about it in manufacturing and business, in general, a little bit earlier in our chat. There are sensors embedded, let's say, in manufacturing processes, but the fact that the market shift is so different be to be used to be manufacturing.

We worked with a client, unnamed in their client, unnamed in apparel. And they used to design the stuff, make it, ship it, outsource production and have retail partners. Their thinking has to be all about deals to see how they make the stuff, design it, have a personal relationship with the consumer, and direct to consumer sell and transact with those consumers. OK, now a manufacturer designer has to be distributor marketer, social media expert, subject matter expert, retail distribution, website, experts and manufacturer to that is significant.

Back to counterintuitive, and then I'll do it here. The counterintuitive thing is fascinating. One of my favorites, I almost use it to a fault examples is Purell Gojo Industries. OK, so through the pandemic, good news or bad news for Purell right now when people are trying to keep their hands clean. The answer is a great time for business. Bad time question for you. Question. Good. Bad. I think it's both good because they make hand sanitizers, but it's bad because making beer yesterday is also making hand sanitizers.

So not only is there all kinds of stuff changing landscapes, changing competitive land, fields changing, yet at the same time, both are happening. At the same time. Good things are bad things. Bad things are good things. A friend who's in the OEM parts business for aircraft, OK, crap business bad because planes aren't flying business. Good because planes don't fly. The parts go bad. Good. Well, wait, bad because they won't buy them from us because there's an idle plane next door to get the parts from.

There are all kinds of things happening when we turn industries and markets upside down back to what do we do, what can we do? We have to be unsurprised by the surprising.


Lisa Ryan: We need to be anticipatory and think about the crazy things that won't happen because they just might. Absolutely, when I think back again a year ago, at the end of twenty nineteen, going into 2020, if I would have sat and thought about the surprises and asked myself the question, what would happen if the speaking industry completely disappeared overnight? What would happen if the meeting and travel industry? Because it's something that it's unfathomable. 

It would have been something that wouldn't have been even crossed my mind—so challenging yourself to think about the unthinkable, not to be surprised by the surprising. I think that's a great activity because if nothing else, we've learned from this past year that literally, anything can happen.


Craig James: Absolutely. And there's some good stuff out there to read. This is a little bit more on the would you call it airy-fairy, but it's tangible called mind site. It's a great book that allows you to put your thinking and set it over there and look at it. And I think not only are we thinking, but we are thinking about our thinking needs to shift, and we need to be able to examine it, not judge it. That's what we do in coaching.

 You don't judge it. Just pay attention. I read an excellent article, I think in Inc. that was talking about the little subtleties of the language and stories we tell ourselves. One sentence equals this. How am I ever going to fix that problem? The second sentence is, how am I going to fix the problem? Sounds the same. Maybe even similar. Hugely different. How am I ever going to solve this problem?

 Essentially is saying I blanked - I can't do it. What do I do? Oh, God, whereas how am I going to fix this problem is simply asking a question. See so little subtle things like this can serve us in shifting, adapting, and being proactive as best we can.


Lisa Ryan: Wow. That is powerful. And just that one little word ever takes it from almost a despondency to a possibility. Well said. So, Craig, as we're getting to the end of our time together, your firm provides strategic advisory services and business development, growth consulting, executive coaching. I mean, you pretty much do everything so well. I don't know. But how is that? How is the game-changing for you? And how do you work with your clients?


Craig James: Well, thanks for the opportunity to speak to it in your kind words. In many ways, executive coaching, strategy, work, business development, sales, coaching is not like brand new technology. There's a lot of folks that do it. And that's great. There's plenty for many where we're a little bit different. Perhaps a little is that we're boardroom but high touch, robotic and flexible and adaptive. The big thing for us right now is executive coaching.


That personally brings a lot of joy. That's a great gratification. You see the material impact. It's a privilege to be part of someone's leadership journey and growth. One of the things that's game-changing right now or shifting for sure is this moment in time in history. We went in the last year from deer in the headlights to hold down the fort to now let's regroup and do something about this and then do something about this. Now, back to that reflection conversation we had is to almost all of our clients. All of them are going through some reset right now.


And it's an opportune time for us to reset beating a dead horse on this and to rethink and reflect, because before we know it and this is good news, but there's a double-edged sword to everything, we're going to be back in the rat race. We're going to be running from maybe not zoom to zoom, but meeting the meeting, and we might lose our way and go into old habits.


Now's a chance to recalibrate. That would be my probably number one advice if I had No. Two for manufacturers thinking, OK, now how do I bone up on some of the things that aren't traditional manufacturing? It's a pretty simple answer. There's not like one publication. Force yourself to read nonmanufacturing. However, you characterize that stuff. I mean, it's so interesting right now that manufacturing is in many ways digital and dematerialized. And so read about machine learning and A.I. and other technologies.

 It just might give you a gem or two that you can put into play into practice tomorrow.


Lisa Ryan: Wonderful. And if someone listening today would like to connect with you, what's the best way for them to do that?


Craig James: So Catalyst Strategies is big, long word phrase, hard to spell type, remember. So catstrat is nice and easy. Our website is Cat Cat, like Meow Hyphen, but no reference to feline's cat hyphen Strat straight dot com.

 Do you want to kick me an email? 

 Lisa Ryan: Well, Craig, it has been just delightful having you on the show. Thanks for being with me today.

 Craig James: It's been a delight to be with you, Lisa. Thanks so much.

 Lisa Ryan: I'm Lisa Ryan, and this is the Manufacturers Network podcast. See you next time.