by Aislan Baer, ProjetoPack & Associados
When I received an invitation to write an article in Revista Integra Edición #47, the theme was to be something more technical. But, as this text evolved, I couldn’t concentrate properly, in part because during the last days of the year, my battery was almost exhausted—absolute physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion, a kind of subliminal countdown leading to the new year recess with the family to reinvigorate my energy. As I began to gather my thoughts, I realized that there was something relevant to be registered—something less technical that needed to be written at least once during the year.
Our country (Brazil) is experiencing a political, economic and social crisis without precedent. As a matter of fact, the world, civilization, the institutions and all sorts of protocols that regulate human relations within the environment are also collapsing. Industrial activity is in jeopardy. The same is true with the credibility of the media—printed or electronic.
And, amidst this disorder, all of us—entrepreneurs and employees, suppliers, customers and consumers of flexible plastic packaging, labels and tags—are passively watching the deterioration of a market.
In 17 years of providing consultancy and training to these industries, I can’t remember a more arduous moment, with so many disillusioned professionals, businesses closing or on the verge of closing, and the saddest thing of all: people losing the “Hots” they had for the profession.
For this reason, I shall present my vision of the five problems that we must tackle at any cost, in our businesses and market, in 2017. I sincerely hope that their reading may prove to be fruitful.
Believe: the world is not just a simple-minded dichotomy of ideas, a competition in which “least bad” is the option for all. Chicken drumsticks and mortadella, left or right, religion or science and so on.
Every time that we synthesize ideas or concepts in two diametrically opposed currents—antagonistic, auto exclusive—we run a serious risk of “polarizing” things. Polarization is a path that only leads to one place: violence and intolerance. It is the extreme defense of a position, concept or idea that simply does not allow or even conceive of something contradictory. Unlike physics, where opposite poles attract one another, in the social sciences they increasingly distance one from the other.
The two sides, isolated, believe that there is no middle term. Each considers himself the herald of the truth and sees the other as a detractor of the worst kind. In this antagonism of positions, as the Greek playwright Aeschylus (ironically, considered the father of Tragedy) well observed, “In war, the first casualty is the truth.”
I believe that social networks and mobile communication, while they facilitated communication in terms of comprehensiveness, are in great part responsible for the decline of their depth, quality and reliability.
In the pre-Internet era, issuing opinions publicly was a more complex operation— demanding reasoning on the subject, a minimum of research for your conceptual framework and a convincing outcome—that would almost always result in some lines printed on paper (newspapers, magazines and books), almost indelible, exposing the maker of opinions to the judgment of the readers, the experts and, last but not least, the judgment of time.
Publishing opinions publicly in the era of the Internet and mobile communication is so quick and easy that it can be done immediately—”in real time”—without any preparation and, if it runs into trouble, there is a simple click of the mouse and the commands delete or remove.
These constant clashes amongst people around the world on the Internet, principally in social networks, aggravates the problem of polarization. The result is the creation of factions, labels and stereotypes, and along with this comes prejudice as a form of prejudgment. Today’s polarization is a modern tower of Babel where everyone communicates, but nobody understands.
After all, do we always have to define ourselves as “left or right,” or would it be possible to be only in favor of civility and zeal for the “res publica,” the public thing?
From the business point of view, polarizing is, for example, defending a specific technology, a strategy that always worked, a business vision that was a champion in other times, but won’t necessarily continue to be today and/or tomorrow—wide or narrow, gravure or flexography, analogue or digital, solvent or water, monolayer or laminated, low price or differentiation, etc.
Organizations assume unique positions that are absolute, unquestionable and irrevocable. This is corporate polarization. However, servicing an interested public with a wide range of occupations and needs requires a business model and a thinking process that are open and flexible.
To produce flexible packaging, it is necessary to be flexible (forgive me for the pun). The marketing of packaging, tags, labels and printing requires pragmatic thinking in favor of a solution that addresses the needs of the end consumer, the retail supply chain, the owner of the brand, and the expectation of a return on the part of the shareholders and participants in the workflow.
Polarization weakens or eliminates one of the most important features of a company— the creative ability to deconstruct and reinvent the business. Looking at the extensive list of companies in our industry that went bankrupt or became insolvent in the last ten years, it is obvious that a significant portion of these names were held hostage by a management model rooted in the success of the past. The era of the raw material times five tenet is gone.
Today, a company that doesn’t control its costs and internal processes down to the last cent, doesn’t train or motivate its employees, doesn’t attract or retain talents, doesn’t care about the social environment, doesn’t consider local and global strategies, doesn’t deal with its suppliers as strategic partners, and doesn’t review or question constantly the pillars of its business model is unfortunately doomed.
Presumption is a trap as big as polarization. It’s a different blindness that generates an even worse result. And I’m not talking about presumption with the meaning of “having a high opinion of oneself, fatuity, vanity or affectation.” I’m talking about the presumption of things—of conjecturing, believing in something that is based on inconclusive facts.
When a company (or professional) starts presuming that there is nothing more to know about a subject, this marks the beginning of its (or his) end.
To paraphrase Aristotle: “Nothing better characterizes the man than the act of thinking.”
The presumption of full knowledge of something eliminates or reduces the need to think a lot. So, there are two facets of presumption that erode business: assuming you know everything about something and making decisions based on facts that are not conclusive—popular “speculations.”
As an example of how harmful presumption is, I’ll tell you a simple story. With the advent of social networks and mobile communication, professionals from various sectors and occupations organize themselves on a voluntary basis to exchange information—most of the time for benchmarking.
Currently, I participate in nearly a dozen groups in the Whatsapp messenger service, which deals with “printing” and whose audience is composed principally of gravure and broadband or narrowband flexographic printing operators from Brazil and from abroad. Members exchange varied ideas on production problems, maintenance of machinery, salaries and benefits, job opportunities and, astonishingly, the lack of training to carry out daily functions.
A lack of training makes them prey to vendors and consultants, often malicious, and victims of their own professional colleagues—usually older and experienced printers, who with good intentions give them tips and “recipes” on how to solve technical problems that are not necessarily absolute truths. These “recipes,” in some cases, may simply condemn a certain brand, product or technology.
I remember that when a company launched a new flexo plate technology, many “presumed” that the change of a round-point dot to a flat-top dot and the incorporation of a lamination process were detriments to productivity and quality in flexographic plate manufacturing. A short time later, however, the concept of a flat-top dot or plane-dot proved not only to be efficient, but was approved as a quality standard of the flexographic industry and something to be pursued by all flexographic plate manufacturers.
Less than two years ago, when we started a consultancy for the German chemical industry with the scope of helping gravure and flexography companies adopt propylic solvents (at the expense of ethanol), many professionals and companies “assumed” that the propylic solvents were a distant reality and impractical. Currently, the customer base not only grows exponentially and considers the propylic mixture as a benchmark of quality and cost efficiency.
How many opportunities is your company losing because of presumption?
Polarization and presumption go together and like each other. When their union is stable, corporate vices and notorious paradigms are born. Models of behavior are repeated, invariably and unconditionally, without questioning or until there is a revolution, a real “epistemological rupture.”
The parable of the emergence of a paradigm is old, but not all our readers may have heard it.
There once was a group of scientists that placed five monkeys in a cage, in whose center there was a ladder with a bunch of bananas on it. Each time a monkey climbed the stairs to grasp the bunch of bananas, scientists launched a strong jet of cold water on those who remained on the floor. Shortly after, every monkey that got ready to go up the ladder was beaten up by the others. In no time, even with an immense desire to taste the juicy bananas, no more monkeys dared to climb up the ladder.
At this point, scientists replaced one of the monkeys. Once inside the cage, the first thing the rookie did was to try to climb the ladder, which was immediately repelled by the onslaughts of his cell mates. After a few more tries and beatings, this monkey joined the scheme and didn’t try to climb the ladder anymore.
During the months that followed, scientists progressively replaced each veteran monkey in the experiment with a newcomer, until all five, even without ever having received a single jet of cold water, participated in beating any colleague who suffered a relapse.
In one version of the parable, the experiment was over at this point. In another, it is said that even when the lock was removed, the monkeys kept trying to climb the ladder and were happily beaten up by their colleagues.
If you could ask any of them on why they beat anyone who tried to climb the ladder, the answer would certainly be something like, “I don’t know, things were always like this down here …”
Every day for the last 17 years, our team of consultants goes into the field to assist entrepreneurs in our segment and train their employees, enabling them to perform their functions with skill, knowledge and at the lowest possible cost.
The goal of the consultancy and of the enterprises is to resolve problems, all the time, always. By the way, the packaging, tags, labels and printing sectors are real champions in the variety and quantity of problems.
The fact is that every problem has a solution. By definition, if a situation has no solution—for example and, at least for now, a death—it isn’t characterized as a problem. It’s just a reality, something factual. There is no way out, but to accept the fact. Everything that is not a fact but an anomalous result, unexpected and transitional, is a problem and has one or more alternatives for its solution.
Most of the complaints from businessmen about their problems—when they are willing to think about them and not just “presuming” that they already know their nature and all its aspects—is that they are repeated and worsen year after year.
This happens when the problems are dealt with in a superficial way. It’s like witnessing the beginning of a fire every day and keeping a fire extinguisher handy, rather than repairing the bare wire. Problems, when treated superficially, are like a badly cured virus—it comes back a short time later, stronger and more resistant to the usual medication. Most of the time, the businessman is completely oblivious to the problem—simply paralyzed. He doesn’t look for the fire extinguisher, much less repair the wire.
I often say that miracles, when they occur, reward the “physical person and never the legal one.” It is common in our industry that when the captain notes that the boat is sinking and water is entering the hull, he uses his time to blame the weather, the crew and the manufacturer of the vessel.
Passivity is the third big problem that we must avoid at any cost, in 2017. We cannot sin by inaction.
Procrastination in Time Management
Our industries don’t sell products or even services, be they packaging, tags, labels, or outsourcing of manpower. They sell hours and fractions of hours; therefore, we can’t afford to lose even a single unit.
Among the best-known management tools and the best utilization of time indicators in the industry, the OEE – Overall Equipment Effectiveness is used worldwide. The values commonly revealed are low compared to other areas of industry. Often, we find converters with 30 percent efficiencies or even less.
Too often, companies spend more time making adjustments, rather than properly producing. They stop hundreds of times over the course of a production shift, for a myriad of reasons that are either badly or not even investigated. They run the machines at speeds below the mechanical specification and conform themselves with the restrictions of the raw materials, the product features and the technical limitations of the workforce. They even get to produce parallel indicators, that are purposely worsened, so as to justify the low levels of productivity, assigning the blame on the small size of the lots, the excessive amount of setups and high sophistication of products, as if these three things were mere casualties and not the fruit of their own choices.
And, worst of all is that many of the companies not only don’t manage their most precious asset—along with the people, and the available time—or even attach importance to this measure. One out of ten Brazilian converters disposes of a monitoring system for the use of its resources (machines and people) in the factory. Ignorance, indifference and all the “P’s” mentioned before, explain the phenomenon.
The last, but no less important P, is the lack of purpose. When an organization does not anchor itself to a purpose—an authentic mode through which it will make a difference in the world and in history—she is adrift in the ocean.
The first consumers that a company should engage are not the buyers of its products or services (or better, the buyers of its available time), but its employees. If they “buy” the purpose of the company in which they work, they will give something beyond their lifetime in exchange for salary and benefits: engagement or commitment, the “owner’s look,” the desire to see the company thrive, the spontaneous promotion of their company outside work hours to their families and friends. They will become the customers of the products, services and the company values.
Creating an honest and stimulating purpose, transmitting it to the old and new employees and keeping it aligned with social changes and values is difficult, especially in a society that does not evaluate or even learn from the past, can’t see the future and remains stuck to this one constant, with an additional complicator—new generations whose world view is quite dissonant with that of their parents and grandparents, born in a context where there is no hope, they “came to the world on a tour,” focused on a day’s journey and not on winning a marathon.
It’s hard to say that they are generations “without a purpose.” Their purpose may well be not to create roots with institutions which, as we mentioned at the beginning of the article, are suffering a crisis of confidence.
Either way, companies without a purpose will have more and more difficulty in forming a team of excellence, retain talent and extract the best, the exceptional of its employees. Even with total automation, the Internet of things, the adoption of robots, positronic brains of the last generation and transhumanism may not, in the short term, fill in the lack of sensationally creative people in companies.
Professionals without a purpose won’t thrive either. This information is hard to digest, and, like everything that has been said before, it’s just an educated guess by this author. A lack of purpose makes it impossible for the professional to reach the pinnacle of his/her professional maturity, precisely because for that to happen, a genuine sacrifice is needed. It takes an extra unpaid effort, training, reading and practicing the métier.
This only happens when the professional sees the work as an end, an enriching activity, and not only as a means of obtaining financial resources so as to enjoy leisure activities. When there isn’t a clear distinction between work (profession) and leisure, there exists a purpose.
Part of the problem could be mitigated with the restructuring of an institution called school. Students could, from a very early age, be awakened to discover pleasure in work, in entrepreneurship and in the use of creativity to solve problems. However, with the educational methods actually in vogue (not only in Brazil, but in a great part of the globe), the commodification of education brought to extreme levels and the lack of preparation of teachers (now called “educators”), learning is not pleasurable, undertaking something is not to be encouraged, and creativity is not even suggested in the classrooms.
We must undertake a conscious effort, focused on our business and market, to avoid the polarization of ideas, the presumption that we know everything and have nothing more to learn.
We must avoid passivity in the face of a recessive market and a troubled internal reality full of problems, and the waste of time under any circumstances.
But, most importantly, we must avoid getting up every morning to work minimally during one third of our lives, playing a professional role without a real purpose. We must focus our efforts so that organizations, before being run by indicators, targets or goals, should be faithful to a purpose, and that the same should be propagated to all involved and adjusted as the company and society evolve.
A purpose is not, on the whole, something timeless. Get it, revise it and disseminate it, ad perpetuam, Yes.
Aislan Baer, CEO of ProjetoPack & Associados, a consulting and training leader company for flexible packaging and printing industries.