The Association for Manufacturing Excellence held their AME 2010 Conference this past week in Baltimore Maryland. 

I had the opportunity to coordinate two Microsoft University Learning Labs delivered by Global 360 design and process solution experts; one on “Getting Started with Business Process Improvement” and an advanced lab on “Continuous Process Improvement.” We had an enthusiastic turnout and my thanks to all of the Lab participants for your time and interest! I’ll blog more about the Labs in a follow-on post, but for now I’d like to share my observations on the overall conference.

 I attended a number of the conference sessions – the quality of the presentations was outstanding, but as always the opportunity for informal conversation and discussion were perhaps most illuminating.  Here are four trends I observed:

 1. There is a New Normal, Deal with it.

During the conference there was ample evidence of the “new normal” economy and equal evidence that companies are past denial and anger and well into the acceptance stage – dealing with the new economic order.  I had discussions with people who are dealing with plant closings, off-shoring and production cut backs from 24×7 operations to fewer shifts, fewer days. But the current economy notwithstanding, participants came from more than 20 countries with some companies sending delegations of 20, 30 or more. There were close to 2,000 delegates in total, an indication that even in the current economy – or perhaps because of it – companies are invested in and investing in process improvement.  

 2. Catalysts for change are making a difference.

All the delegates seemed highly focused on enacting process change to drive business improvement. I spoke with lean practitioners whose industry segments are contracting and are applying lean process improvement to remain competitive. Also to continuous process improvement leaders who are taking advantage of the market conditions to profitably grow their companies.  One breakfast session the discussion spanned Harley’s to healthcare, currency, and “green” paper mills. These are dedicated and informed practitioners who are catalysts for change in their organizations.

Coincidently I returned from the conference to read Forrester Research analyst Alexander Peters’ post Is Your Organization Ready For Business Process Change? directed to business process change agents and architects, who drive business transformations and continuous improvement initiatives.

 “Sometimes our conversation starts from methodologies and technologies like Lean, Six Sigma, ERP, CRM, or BPM, but it almost always ends up with questions about organizational design, governance, change planning, and execution. I believe that each process change initiative should start with a readiness assessment of the target organization. With that in mind, Forrester has developed an online self-assessment and survey tool that can help you get a feeling about where your organization stays with respect to four must-have process change capabilities: 1) strategy; 2) process execution; 3) structure; and 4) culture of performance.”

I’ll be very interested in hearing the results of that survey. The companies and their “catalysts for change” who presented best practices at AME2010 certainly seemed to me to have all four in good measure.

 3. Transformative Change is happening beyond the factory.

Lean and value stream mapping are driving some spectacular results not just on the Factory floor, but in the way materials, information and financials move along the value chain. And the “factory” is anything from a classic manufacturing operation to a hospital.

One of the most compelling sessions was delivered by St Joseph Health System  who is transforming healthcare delivery through the power of lean.  There was so much in this session that was inspiring – process improvement saving lives! St Joseph are quick to acknowledge that they have learned through other healthcare systems and manufacturing partners, and in turn they generously share their valuable lessons learned and best practices.

Two of their biggest challenges are leadership engagement and sustaining change.  To achieve both they focus on involving all stakeholders in the change process. They view educating their leaders as critical, they drive the team forward as a whole via the lean approach and they settle for nothing less than transformative change. One of the employees in a video said she now realizes she is ‘a bigger part of what happens here – it is all about improved patient care and outcomes. This gives us a motor on our boat instead of rowing to get the job done.”

 4. Charm City really is all that.

 One final observation on the PEOPLE side of things…The conference organizers were outstanding and so many of the people involved are volunteers, working practitioners from member companies and consultants – very impressive.  And every person I met at the Baltimore Convention Center, the hotel, restaurants and along the way were friendly and helpful.  Kudos to the association and to Baltimore who proved itself to be Charm City.