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First Person: Manufacturers: Disrupt or Be Disrupted

Area Development’s staff editor, Lisa Bastian, recently posed some question to American Crane’s CEO & President, Karen Norheim, about how overcoming pandemic challenges has strengthened the company for what lies ahead, as well as opportunities for women in manufacturing.

Q4 2022
AD: What were your company’s major challenges caused directly by the pandemic, and how did you handle them?

Norheim: Our major challenges matched those of many other companies, including supply chain hurdles, remote workforce management, and obstacles caused by operating during the pandemic since we were classified as an essential business. But our workforce rallied. We persevered and overcame many obstacles in our path, even though it was difficult.

AD: Do these problems continue to be “pain points” for American Crane and other manufacturers as well? Will the industry get back to “normal”?

Norheim: The pandemic was a painful experience to endure, but it also presented us an opportunity to grow and innovate our skills to meet the challenges before us. For example, we implemented digital transformations that were at least three times faster when compared to what we would normally accomplish in a year, giving us more tools to better meet our customers’ needs.

Leveraging several technology partners as well as internal innovation teams has helped us remain focused on the future, while appreciating the “now.” That, coupled with our amazing people and culture, remains integral to our success. I want to build upon what we have learned and the advancements we have made. Our growth as a company has prepared us to not just survive the future but also to thrive among whatever challenges come our way.

AD: What problem has been most difficult for manufacturers to overcome in a timely manner due to the pandemic, and why?

Norheim: As businesses and individuals, we are collectively brought out of our comfort zone, but to remain at the top of our game, we must expand our comfort zone. This leads to an incredible speed of innovation and creation of organizational and digital transformation.

A new business landscape was unfolding before COVID-19, with a 10X speed increase on digital advancements affecting industry. We’re in a period of time where you either disrupt or you get disrupted. This, coupled with workforce issues, means companies need to double down on developing culture and planning their digital transformation road map. Our company’s culture — our secret weapon — gave us the strength to endure, adapt, manage, and leverage disruptive change.

As a mentor to young women (and men), Karen Norheim can speak to the great jobs and quality of life the manufacturing industry can provide.
AD: What is the most surprising lesson you’ve learned as the leader of a U.S. manufacturing company to help your company stay competitive?

Norheim: The most surprising lesson I learned is that many of us do not have a good work-life balance — or, as I like to say, a work-life integration. The pandemic shined a light on this and provided an opportunity for us to become more aware of needing self-care and boundaries, myself included.

You’re no good to your people or your company if you’re burnt out. We must encourage our people to take care of themselves and practice disconnecting. That means taking time away from work and devices to recharge, refresh, refocus, and rejuvenate. This often provides new perspectives, creative boosts, and enhanced clarity that improves productivity and other key measurable results.

Leveraging several technology partners as well as internal innovation teams has helped us remain focused on the future, while appreciating the “now.” AD: The future of manufacturing includes AI and other new and evolving technologies. What tech innovations are you most excited about and why?

Norheim: As manufacturing companies, our need for embracing and leveraging technology is evident. I think the very best companies, the ones most successful at implementing and leveraging technologies of the future, will do so because they value technology and humanity. It’s not “either/or” but the merging of the two that will grant us a prosperous future.

I’m most excited about how we’re embracing technology versus which one we’re focused on. At American Crane we created an Innovation Lab in 2019 to give us the framework to stay on top of not just the emerging technologies of today, but also those of tomorrow. I believe it’s very important to experiment with new technologies, remain ahead of the curve, and allow space for your team to learn and find ROI.

AD: Fewer than one in three manufacturing professionals today are women, despite representing nearly half of the overall U.S. workforce. Why is that, and what can be done to get more women professionals into the industry?

Norheim: Our biggest hurdle is that many women are just not aware of the opportunities available in manufacturing. There is significant overlap between what women want in careers and the attributes of careers in manufacturing. That’s why we need to educate others about the opportunities and benefits of a manufacturing career.

Creating an inclusive and diverse workforce brings different perspectives together. That’s why I invite women already in manufacturing to be role models to inspire the next generation of women (and men) to enter our industry. I encourage them to promote their pride and passion for manufacturing by sharing why they love their jobs, their companies, and this industry.

AD: In what ways can women proactively help solve critical problems that could negatively impact the future of U.S. manufacturing?

Norheim: Creating an inclusive and diverse workforce brings different perspectives together. This builds an environment fostering the appreciation of all members’ creative diversity through trust, respect, and openness.

Leveraging our company’s creative diversity also can be a competitive advantage by its ability to improve management, communication, and teamwork throughout our organization and to increase our company’s efficiency. All of these things help create cognitive diversity to solve problems more effectively. The greater perspective gained on an issue, the better the solutions will be. In the end, employees will be more engaged and eager to come to work as a result of the welcoming environment, and productivity and overall profitability will go up.

It has never been more important to communicate with your people in order to adjust your [operational strategies] and keep your team engaged and productive. AD: How can American Crane and other manufacturing companies best prepare for the next national or global crisis?

Norheim: In the recent sea of chaos, we all have been touched by tsunami-like waves in our personal and professional lives. And while often overwhelming, among the waves of change we find our direction. We cannot direct the wind, but we can raise our sails and adjust as needed.

It has never been more important to communicate with your people in order to adjust your [operational strategies] and keep your team engaged and productive. Leveraging the growth and skills you have obtained from this crisis helps maintain agility and responsiveness to manage the coming crests and troughs. Rough seas make stronger sailors. Tough times build greater people. And storms don’t last forever.

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