An industrial design engineer who became a corporate executive and management consultant offers words of wisdom to engineers, as well as sourcing and supply chain managers.
By Mark Shortt
Regular readers of Design-2-Part magazine will, no doubt, recognize the name of author Peter Christian, a founding partner and former president of Enterprise Systems Partners Inc. (espi), a prominent business consulting company in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. A management consultant who began his career as an industrial engineer, Peter has contributed a series of articles to D2P, including Why Communication Is the Driving Force to Successful Project Management, How to Develop a Well-Honed Strategy for Facility Planning and Layout, and Pick a Path.
Christian, who holds a B.S. in industrial engineering from Rutgers University and an M.S. in industrial engineering from Lehigh University, has worked with more than 300 clients throughout the United States in the areas of manufacturing improvements, information system selection and implementation, and project and product management. His more than 40 years of corporate experience includes accomplishments in areas like operational strategic planning, continuous improvement, lean manufacturing, facility planning, and supply chain.
That’s why when D2P learned that Christian had written a new book, What About the Vermin Problem? A Guide to Avoiding Damaging Business Practices, we were interested in hearing what he had to say about a number of issues.
Design-2-Part had an opportunity to speak with Christian recently about what he hopes engineering professionals, including those who are taking on new managerial responsibilities, can take from his new book. In a nearly hour-long conversation, Christian shared his insights on the challenges that engineers face when transitioning to managerial roles; the importance of honest and open communication to building trust; and his advice on how OEMs and contract manufacturing suppliers can work together in mutually beneficial ways to build strong, healthy customer-supplier relationships.
Although his words carry weight and meaning for businesspeople of all ages, irrespective of their eras, they are especially relevant at a time when geopolitical factors and the COVID-19 pandemic are leading many manufacturing executives in the U.S. to re-examine their supply chains and find additional sources.
Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Design-2-Part: What inspired you to write the book in the first place?
Peter Christian: Throughout my working career, and particularly when I got into consulting and started to deal with a lot of different people in a lot of different companies, there were certain things that struck me, where I said, someday, I should put that in a book. Because it was a good learning lesson for me, and I thought it would be a good learning lesson for other people, too, to see what companies, and executives of companies, or owners of companies, were doing—things that made sense and that really seemed to help their business. And then, things that didn’t make sense and were hurting the business.
I always felt [it would be a good way] to give lessons to other folks, whether they were personal, from my own experiences of things that I had done, or that I had seen. Because we don’t tend to help each other as much as we could or should, and, in a lot of instances, we don’t ask for the help that we could or should, to find out what people have experienced, and what businesses have experienced.
I wanted to share my experiences with others because I think that’s important. It always struck me that some people who would move into positions didn’t want to hear anything; they just wanted to do it their way. I thought that was a big mistake, that they weren’t trying to find out why things were the way they were. They were just critiquing them from their own viewpoints. And I felt that that might hurt their performance in one way or the other.
When you share with others, you hope that they take something good from it that will help them along the way. You want to see other people be successful. You don’t want to see anybody fail. It hurts you, especially if you’re a consultant to them, and they’re not following your advice, and they’re continuing to have problems. And you’re going, ‘Why are you doing that? You’re not listening to me.’
So, I saw this as a help to other people—to put it out there. And, again, we all have our decisions in life, whether we’re going to follow things or not follow things, whether we’re going to believe them or not believe them, whatever it may be. But if you can even influence some people, then I think that’s a big help, and it was all worthwhile.
I never got to it while I was actually still working full time, with my business, but once I retired, and had the time, then I started to sit down and put these thoughts together.
D2P: I understand that the title reflects one of the important points that you make in the book. Could you talk a little bit about that?
PC: Sure. First of all, when you write a book, you want it to kind of stand out. You want to get people’s attention. And whenever I would tell people I was writing a book—and now have written a book, and it’s actually out there—they would say, ‘What’s the title? What’s the name of the book?’ and I would tell them, and I would get that reaction, that surprised look, like ‘Huh? Is that about business or is it about extermination?’ So, it certainly gets people’s attention; it’s not something that you would normally see.
That [the title] is one of the examples that I use when I get into the section on communication or lack of communication. It refers to a situation that really struck me, where we went through a whole project with a company, we got to the bitter end, after months and months and months, we got hit with it. We—my colleague and I—had continually asked for information that we could use in doing our job, and it never came up until the bitter end. And it just struck me that you can ask people for information, you can do what you think you’re communicating well, and then things like this crop up and you go, ‘Aaaah!’ So, it’s attention getting, and it certainly has a point in the book.
D2P: Your intended audience includes more than engineers. But because D2P has a large engineering readership, what do you hope engineering professionals, including those who are going into managerial roles, can take away from your book?
PC: Sure, that’s a good point because I started as an engineer—an industrial engineer, and then got into more the operational role. So, I moved away from [being] an engineer. But I guess once you’re an engineer, you’re always an engineer. You always carry that tag, whether you want to or not. Especially when you tell people, or sometimes they ask, ‘Are you an engineer by background?’ So, there must be something about us—some aura that we have.
The book was written for businesspeople, and businesspeople are all different types—marketing, operations, engineering. But I think it has implications to life in general, if you look at each of the different sections that I wrote about—communications, relationships, trust, and so forth. And being an engineer myself, and having come up through the ranks, I think each of those areas is important because when engineers get into managerial roles, they’re dealing outside of just the technical arena. They’ve got to deal with other people, they’ve got to work with them, they’ve got to understand them, they have to be understood by them.
In a number of cases, I’ve run across technical people who try to remain as technical people [as they enter a managerial role]. They want everybody else to come to their level and understand what they’re thinking and how they’re thinking, and they’re not trying, necessarily, to relate to the other person and their needs, wants, or thoughts.
I think what’s important for engineers to do is, if you’re going to sell your idea, and if you’re going to work successfully with others, you need to put things in terms that they understand. Because without understanding, you don’t get acceptance. Without acceptance, you could have the best idea in the world, but it’s not going to move ahead, and that’s the big thing.
The reason I got into engineering, and, specifically, industrial engineering: When I first was a college freshman, we had orientations on engineering. I originally was going to be an electrical engineer—that’s where I thought I was going to head. But through these orientations, one day we got to this thing called industrial engineering, and I knew nothing about it, had never even heard about it. And after the presentation, I was really taken by it. I went home that weekend and said to my folks, ‘You know how I said I was going to be an electrical engineer? Well, I really think this industrial engineering is something I would like.’
And the reason was, a lot of the other engineering disciplines—whether it was electrical, or mechanical, or civil—were all very technically oriented. They all dealt with facts and figures, and drawings, and diagrams, and all that stuff. But when you got to industrial engineering, there was a big part about people, and about systems, and how you needed to make these things work together, and that really intrigued me. It was the people aspect. A lot of the course work I took then, while it was technical in nature, was also very people oriented. That always impressed me.
Because again, when you’re trying to sell yourself, trying to sell your idea, you’ve got to relate to people in terms that they understand, appreciate, will recognize, and will agree with, ultimately.
So, I think that’s the big thing as technical people, and engineers, in particular, get into managerial roles and are dealing with all those other functions. They’ve got to express themselves in terms that other people understand and appreciate, and where you’re getting a head nodding, ‘Yes, I understand where you’re coming from. I know what you’re talking about. I may not know all the science behind it, but I understand what you’re getting across, and I can accept that.’ I think that’s the most important thing that technical people need to do as they’re moving into the managerial ranks.
D2P: So, is industrial engineering, of all the engineering disciplines, one of the better routes to management because of the emphasis on people and systems that you mentioned?
PC: I thought so. And there are lots of other people—Lee Iacocca—well, actually, Lee Iacocca was an industrial engineer, by educational background. But I’m sure we could find a number of other people who were in various technical engineering disciplines [who successfully transitioned into management].
But I always found that whoever I was working with, and it was a variety of folks, whether it was people on the manufacturing floor, or people up in the C-level suite, you had to communicate in terms that they understood and could relate to. And I just felt that was easy through the background, the training I had in industrial engineering. So, I’m a big proponent of it.
D2P: You mentioned the importance of communication and being understood by people, and speaking in a way that they understand. If you had to boil it down to the essentials, what advice would you give to engineers who are entering into a managerial role?
PC: Listen to people, understand what their points of view are, how they understand things, and how they rationalize. Because you’re not trying to debate, you’re trying to convince. And the best way to convince is by understanding what the needs of people are, what they’re really looking for, and then relating what you’re trying to do, to how that can help them.
If you don’t do that, if you don’t listen, if you just tell them what you want to tell them, then that’s a big problem. They’re not going to appreciate that. In fact, they’re going to think that you’re either dictatorial or you really don’t care, or that you think that you’re smarter than they are, which is the worst possible thing.
So, you’ve got to convince them, and you do it, first of all, by listening and understanding where they’re coming from. Then you try to adapt and tailor your position to what their thoughts and needs are. That way, you can convince them.
D2P: What advice would you give to an OEM or product manufacturer as they work to build a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with their suppliers—which, in many cases, are contract manufacturers and job shops?
PC: The closer the relationship between supplier and “supplyee,” the better—where you’re both on the same page and it’s a fair relationship. In too many instances, the main company, the one who’s putting the order out, is trying to demand certain things from the supplier. They want the best quality, at the lowest possible cost, et cetera, et cetera. But it doesn’t help if the person who’s supplying it isn’t making a decent profit. If it’s hurting them, and they’re being squeezed, then that’s not a good relationship. So, there’s got to be a fairness between the two organizations, where at the end of the day, you both will benefit from working together.
Once you’ve established that rapport with the supplier and they understand that you’ve got their best interests at heart, and you’re not trying to squeeze them so much that they’re not going to make what they need to make to be successful, then I think that’s a good start to a great relationship.
How you get there is, you start by trying to find the best suppliers that you can. And that could be through your experience of having dealt with somebody for quite a long time, and they’ve dealt very fairly with you, and you deal fairly with them. If you’re just getting into it, it’s dealing with folks that you know. You trust their advice, and who they’ve dealt with, and you transact with people that they transact with. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the ‘name’ company in the industry.
So, you’ve got to find out who they are, and start a relationship with them. Sometimes the relationship starts slowly. You don’t just give them all of the business right off the bat, but you make them earn it through their performance—the fact that they provide great quality to you, they provide it on a timely basis, so you get it when you need it; they have a reasonable cost involved, so that you, in turn, can then price your products accordingly, and make the kind of profit that you’re looking for.
Then, as the relationship develops, and they prove themselves, you give them more [business], and you give them more, to the point where you’ve got such a trust with them that now you’re almost operating like one business. How you benefit, they benefit. You increase sales, they make more money. They do certain things to help the business, either through improving their quality while keeping the costs the same, or keeping the quality the same but reducing price, which is an advantage to you. If you make more money in some way, shape, or form, they benefit, too. You’re not the sole beneficiary of it.
By doing that, there’s fairness, and they understand that you’re looking out for them, too. You want them to succeed, even if it’s in your own self-interest, because they’re such a great supplier that they give you an advantage over everybody else, and your business has grown because of it. That’s fine, but then you reward them for that, maybe give them a bonus at the end of the year for doing that. You give them additional business that they didn’t have before–those types of things.
The ultimate is where you’re sharing so much that your strategic plan is tied to their strategic plan, and as you grow, they grow. They know exactly where you’re headed, and as new things come out, they’ve got first shot at being the supplier to you because you value them so much. They know what you want, how you want it, and when you want it, and they’re able to provide that to you. If they can’t, they let you know, and then they do whatever is necessary to accommodate the situation.
Sometimes you demand it, and you just can’t have it right at that moment. You might get it a day later, so you can accommodate that as long as you know about it far enough in advance that you can do that. But they understand that and they know that.
So, it’s really developing that relationship over a period of time, providing that fairness between the two, where you both succeed based on that relationship. Similarly, if things don’t work out, you both pay a penalty for that. You share both ways: You share in the gains, and you share in the losses.
It’s a matter of trust, and it shouldn’t be built on fear. The supplier shouldn’t be afraid that if they make a mistake, they’re immediately going to get booted out. But they admit their mistake, they correct their mistake, and they move on. There’s an open and honest conversation about things because we’re all human and we will make mistakes at times. We want perfection but we don’t expect perfection because we know that things can go awry. But if it’s communicated, if it’s resolved quickly, there’s an open conversation about it and corrections are made so that it doesn’t happen again, that type of thing, those are fair points. Then you just move on from there.
D2P: From the perspective of the supplier—a contract manufacturer or a job shop—what advice would you give them for establishing and building a strong relationship with their customers?
PC: It’s very much the same—it’s providing good value. When I worked for [a former employer], our president once said to me, ‘We’re going to be the lowest cost producer of this [particular item].’ And I said, ‘No, we’re not. I hate to disagree, but I can always find somebody who can do it less expensively.’ Particularly if you’re dealing in countries where they’re paying [extremely low wages]. There’s no way you’re going to compete with that and be the lowest cost producer, even if you automate.
Automation doesn’t cost you nothing. You’ve got depreciation and maintenance, and all that other stuff. You can always find someone who’s going to do it less expensively. The question is, what comes along with that? Because there are other aspects. There’s quality, there’s timeliness—you know, you get the product when you expect to get it, and in the right quantity, and, of course, the quality is there. You don’t just get the shipment and half of it’s no good and you can’t use it. If your quality is no good, and the timeliness is no good, what’s that costing you? That’s got a value, too.
So, if you’re a contract person, the first thing is to provide the value, which is a combination of those three things, and to perform once you get the opportunity to perform. It’s not just words on a piece of paper or contract, or promise, but you’re actually delivering to the company. Now, you’re building the relationship the other way. Hopefully, you’re dealing with a good organization and they’ll value that, and they’ll give you more and more business. Or they may become a reference for you to other people, so that you get more business that way.
So, it’s really performing, and being able to perform. And when a problem crops up, be open and honest with the company and the people you’re dealing with as to what those problems are. As I said before, we’re all human, we all make mistakes. Admit to it, correct it, move on. Tell them why it’s not going to happen again and then make sure that it doesn’t. You’re building that trust relationship that’s so important. So, it works both ways, and it’s got to work both ways.
The book, What About the Vermin Problem? A Guide to Avoiding Damaging Business Practices, is available for order on Amazon.
Peter Christian can be reached at (610) 554-6486 or via email at email@example.com.