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JW aluminum equipment

3 Lessons for Startups from 40 Years in Manufacturing

It’s not all about a company’s innovation—it's execution that will elevate its production, processes, and people.

Most entrepreneurs dream of building the next big thing and, as a result,  600,000 startups are created each year. Some of these startups have a lot of potential; they can solve real problems and improve people’s lives, filling an unmet need. Yet despite their best intentions, 90% of startups fail.

It’s clear that the standard tech startup approach of going full steam ahead and causing disruption doesn’t work for every business. In fact, this approach tends to ignore lessons already learned the hard way by traditional businesses that have stood the test of time. These businesses have taken a smart, steady approach to growth, rather than racing out of the gate. And that approach empowers the people in the organization to take charge, think, act like owners, and take responsibility for outcomes.

With steady, controlled growth, companies can find and take advantage of more opportunities and prevent tunnel vision. Time allows companies to make more strategic business decisions, such as honing processes and cultivating employees, to become an industry-leading employer and provider.

While startups and established companies in need of a turnaround are in different stages of their growth, both circumstances require strong leadership and change management. After all, the track record for turnaround situations is not much better than startups.

So, whether you’re starting up or turning around, how do you overcome these daunting odds? In either case, a company needs to drive significant internal transformations with limited resources and time. The following are three lessons culled from JW Aluminum’s 40 years of existence, all of which are of potential benefit to startups or established companies in need of a change.

1. Invest in processes early

It’s tempting to go from 0 to 60 in a hurry, but without well-defined processes, companies can lose focus, easily fragment, and fall into the train wreck category. Taking the time to invest in processes first and foremost lays the groundwork for sustainable, scalable growth. Tried-and-true processes provide discipline and continuity, especially when the pace in the organization ramps up. Including the team in creating processes is absolutely essential, as its members have the experience and knowledge to establish best practices.

JW Goose Creek plant

It is imperative to deliver a standard product. If a company doesn’t unite its processes it will be challenging to deliver consistent quality products.

This is true even for established companies. For example, in 2009 to grow in a global environment and sustaining American manufacturing jobs for the long term, JW Aluminum realized it was essential to focus on processes. The firm had four locations, which were essentially operating as separate entities, with separate processes. Delivering a consistent quality product is imperative to customers and company growth. This was accomplished by uniting all facilities with reliable, repeatable, predictable processes.

But companies can’t just hand down processes created by upper management. Companies must empower its people from the beginning. “We asked the teammates who are hands-on with the work to create ‘living documents’, outlining both the process and safety requirements in detail,” says Stan Brant, JW Aluminum’s chief operating officer. These documents are reviewed and updated regularly to improve efficiency and ensure safety.

2. Embrace small innovations

Innovation doesn’t always come with a big bang and disrupt an entire industry. Sometimes, it’s more subtle and builds upon small improvements over time to create big benefits for the bottom line. These small innovations can prove to be very valuable as the company grows.

JW aluminum equipment

Small improvements and growth should not be underestimated. Saving time, improving safety with better documentation, in-line inspections, improved maintenance, or other projects could grow overtime to find new value, or accumulate time and cost saving over time.

A culture of active engagement and continuous improvement is fertile ground for innovation. It requires using data and analytics to uncover opportunities, performing formal and informal Lean Six Sigma activities to innovate and making incremental step changes that produce the figurative fireworks.

3. Provide autonomy and ownership

It can be empowering to employees to give them autonomy and ownership over their work. They’re often the ones who are closest to the equipment and product and on the front line facing the day-to-day challenges of the business. This gives them a unique perspective on what it takes to make improvements, and they need the autonomy to do so.

JW Aluminum mechatherm furnace

Hiring and empowering workers enables them to do their jobs uninterrupted. Additionally, this ownership or freedom gives employees the freedom to navigate around problems a designer or manager that isn’t in the shop each day might not be aware.

Investing significantly in Lean Six Sigma practices, where shop floor teammates spearhead rapid improvement events, can create immense value for companies. These events have led to better quality, higher throughput, world-class safety performance, and an exponential reduction in waste.

The common thread that runs through these three lessons for startups is to rely on your people. When you empower them to help create processes, embrace innovations that let them act, and provide autonomy and ownership, you create a strong organization that can pivot with changes in the business or in the marketplace. That’s the enduring lesson above all else: that people are the most valuable resource.

Nicole Snyder is communications director at JW Aluminum.

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