Improving Business Practices

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-By Claire Suttles

The Association of Manufacturing Excellence (AME) started in America as a movement to promote operational excellence in the manufacturing industry. When word reached Australia about the organisation, a grass roots movement headed by a handful of manufacturers interested in business improvement was born. As local interest grew, the group approached the North American AME and arranged an Australian chapter.

Originally, the AME’s goal was to keep Australian manufacturing globally competitive. The core focus has shifted in recent years, however. AME President Dr Peter Campbell explains that today, “There is a lot more interest from service industries. So now we are losing that focus on manufacturing and becoming more about general business excellence.”

The AME’s primary purpose is to run educational events that benefit members. Until recently, these events utilised local speakers and were somewhat low key. “But lately,” Dr Campbell says, “we have moved to having fewer events of higher quality. We’re bringing in world experts.” Recent big name speakers include Lean IT author Michael Orzen and Lean consulting expert John Kim. Mr Orzen “is a world expert in the application of Lean in the IT function of firms,” Mr Campbell reports. “It is a real emerging area, so that was really interesting.” Mr Kim “is a leading expert in applying Lean across multiple sectors, including mining, oil and gas, which is obviously very relevant to members in Brisbane and Perth.”

Roadshow events are repeated in locations throughout the country to give all members a chance to attend. A typical speaking tour might include Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, and New Zealand. Conferences are short – one day or less – so members can easily stay for the entire event. Interested parties pay a small yearly fee to become members and in return receive discount rates on all AME events. Non-members are also welcome to attend conferences, “But they pay a little bit of a premium,” Mr Campbell says.

In addition to speaking events, the AME offers members an opportunity to tour best practice sites around the country to witness business excellence in action. Members also receive Target, a quarterly publication produced in the United States. Target uses American case studies to help members better understand and utilise best practices for their businesses. “A lot of the basic principles of [business] improvement seem fairly simple on the surface,” Mr Campbell admits. “And if you [look at] the textbook example it all seems very straightforward.” But, applying these concepts to individual situations in real life is not quite so simple. “Obviously those principles need to be adapted to their environments,” Mr Campbell explains. “So case study information is really helpful to see how people apply the different [business improvement techniques] to different scenarios, and what kind of results they were able to get.”

Australian AME members also get discount rates to the annual AME event in North America, the largest business improvement conference in the world. “They probably get 3,000 delegates a year,” Mr Campbell reports. “And they get some very good speakers.” One of last year’s speakers, for example, was the renowned bestselling author and autism advocate Temple Grandin. In 2010 she ranked number 31 on Time’s Magazine’s 100 “Most Influential People” list. “It’s a very high quality event,” Mr Campbell reiterates.

Mr Campbell points out that another important benefit to members is the opportunity to network in a non-competitive environment. “One of the things that really characterises a process improvement community,” Mr Campbell explains, “Is intense collaboration amongst peers within different industries and firms. So everyone is freely sharing ideas, and people collaborate to try and make other businesses successful, with no commercial reason to do so. They just do it out of a good community spirit. That’s really what the AME is all built on.”

The AME is a not for profit organisation. “The cost to members is merely there to cover our day to day administration costs and the costs [associated with hosting] international speakers,” Mr Campbell explains. The AME “is not there to make money,” he says. “We would charge nothing if we could.” The team works hard to keep member fees as low as possible. “We are very well supported by Epicor and KPMG and the benefit to our members is cheaper access to events,” Mr Campbell reports. “And the benefit to our sponsors is the association of their brand with what is a very well intentioned organisation that is really trying to promote best practice for no ulterior motive.”

The organisation strives to operate within a not for profit mindset at all times. “We make sure that we don’t have a commercial agenda,” Mr Campbell explains. “We are very careful not to promote any particular for-profit businesses more than others. So everything is done for the benefit of members.” The organisation’s altruistic agenda extends to events that are not associated with the AME. “We will promote speakers and events from other parties if we think it is worthwhile for our members to attend,” Mr Campbell says. “[If] anyone has similar objectives to us we will quite happily promote and support [them].”

The AME is run by a small group of dedicated volunteers. The organisation hires a secretariat to take care of some basic administration duties, “but the bulk of the work is done by volunteers in their spare time,” Mr Campbell reports. The volunteer board members put the events together themselves, and it is a complicated and time-consuming activity. First, there is the initial networking to attract new speakers. Much of this is done by attending the AME conference in the United States each year to meet with keynote speakers and AME North America board members. After recruiting the speakers for the next AME Australia event, the team must coordinate times and dates that accommodate all parties. Then, venues and sponsorships must be organised. Finally, all the necessary marketing and promotional materials must be sent out. “And then we host those events,” Mr Campbell says. “And then we do it all again.”

The association has a marketer that it relies on for some promotional needs, but a lot of the promotional work is done in-house. The team utilises their own mailing list, sponsor contacts and networks, as well as social media. “We haven’t gone to print media yet, but we’d like to,” Mr Campbell reports. “It’s just a case of the expense involved in that.” Marketing has become increasingly important because, as the group shifts focus from manufacturing to general business, there has been more difficulty filling events. “The challenge for us,” Mr Campbell explains, “is that, as we move from a manufacturing focused organisation to a broader business focus, we don’t have a relationship base… so we find it hard to get attendants from that sector.” Having big name sponsorship has been a tremendous help, however. “When we have a sponsor like KPMG who has good relationships in that sector, we get really, really good attendance. Some of the leaders in Australian business turn up.”

The AME has always had a strong relationship with the manufacturing sector, and the change in focus has not been by choice. The GFC has forced the association to broaden its reach. “The manufacturing industry is under a lot of stress at present,” Mr Campbell explains. “Their capacity to spend money on attending events is severely diminished.” Another problem, he reports, is that “some of the [most important] best practice sites in Australia… are shutting down and moving their operations over to China. So examples of real life best practices in Australia are becoming few and far between.”

AME membership in the United States remains in the thousands, but with the loss of manufacturing, the Australian roster has dwindled to around 350 members. “What we’re finding as we move more into the corporate sphere,” Mr Campbell reports, “is that people are happy to pay a bit more for the events and just turn up as a member of the public rather than as a member [of the association]. That’s been a bit of a shift for us.” Interest in events is coming most heavily from the service industry, including banks, insurance and wealth management. “It’s equally applicable in those sectors,” Mr Campbell says, “but we need to transition as an organisation to develop relationships within that new market.” And, even though the board is responding to the current economic situation, they haven’t forgotten their original base. “Ideally, we’d like to see manufacturing have a resurgence,” Mr Campbell reports. “That’s where our roots are and that’s ultimately the sector that we are passionate about.”

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January 18, 2019, 3:37 AM AEDT