No Strategy = No Future.

Getting the North American PCB industry off death row: part two

My column last week Let’s Get off Death Row, woke a few people up. I heard from a number of people, and for the most part the response was positive. People let me know that my words made them feel better. That it made them believe that yes, there is hope for the North American PCB industry.

That was all good, it is always heartwarming when you reach people, when something you wrote makes a difference. But I also kind of painted myself into a corner with people asking, what do we do now? What’s the next step?

I had listed some steps that I was going to write about in the next few columns. But still there was something missing…I have written about those things before. How to hire better people. How to hire younger people. How to work in partnerships with other PCB fab houses. I have said some of those things before and I will again because they are all part of the plan, of our journey back to a position of dominance in the world market.

But something was bothering me. Those things were all important tactics to making a comeback, to getting off “death row,” but there was something else. We could do all of those things: we could meet and solve all of those challenges…but so what? 

What was the cause? What was the reason we have let our leadership get away from us?

And then it hit me. It was still the same thing I had been writing about for years. It was marketing. ”Oh, come on!” I can hear you say, “you’ve been writing about marketing for twenty years, we get it, you like marketing, okay it’s important, but so what? It still bores the heck out of us.”

Yes, I get that and that is the problem. It is not so much marketing in the sense of branding, and advertising and social media and all of those things that are a part of a marketing plan. No, the real thing that marketing is about is strategy.

To develop a great marketing program, you have to actually sit down and think about your company. You have to study the market, and your position in that market, and your customers and your competition. You have to intensively study all of the aspects of your business to the point where you know it all cold.

It is not unlike an NFL team studying their competition and figuring out how they are going to put the best team on the field and how that team is going to execute and find the other team’s weak spots so that they can beat them.

And I realized that out of everything I do to help companies, getting them to sit down and think about their company’s direction, their strategies both short and long term, just does not happen that often. In fact, most of the time I have to practically wrestle my customers to the ground to get them to stop for even a day and take the time to really pay attention to where their company is headed.

At best, I can convince them to sit down once a year for a day – one stinking day – to talk about their company’s strategy. There is just no great motivation in doing that.

Maybe it’s because we are primarily an operations/ engineering industry? Maybe it is just the fact that people just are not too into that. I know when I finally get people to sit down and talk about their company’s direction, someone will bring up some PCB design they built a few years ago and that gets everyone else to perk up and join the old “toughest board we ever built contest.” And everyone in the room is off on war stories and any talk about their company’s direction is gone with the wind.

Give that some thought: a complete absence of strategy. And actually it’s much more than that. Without a strong desire to develop and continually work on a company strategy, there is no direction, there is no looking into the future. Worst of all there is no future. It’s just groundhog day, every day.

It’s pretty straightforward. Companies in our industry are not interested in marketing enough to devote the right amount of time to it. And without marketing there is no strategy and no direction, and that is what I believe is the single most important reason that we have lost our global dominance.

Think about great companies like Apple…they spend hours and days and years and decades on their strategy, they are working on their direction all the time. As are most other modern companies. They have people working all day every day on their companies strategic direction.

You don’t think the Chinese are doing this as well? Or the Japanese? Those of us who have worked with these companies have experienced first hand the kind of multi-year strategic plans they are always working on. Frankly we are proverbial babes in the woods compared to those countries and those companies.

So yeah, let’s get off death row, let’s start working together to bring our industry back to where it once was. And beyond. And the first step in doing that is for our North American companies to start paying  attention to our strategy and hence direction and hence the future. More to come…It’s only common sense.