Al Diggins has retired, passing the Post-it notes to Shawn Casemore.
There has been a changing of the guard at the Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium, a hand-off to the next-generation leadership of the not-for-profit group that, in its official capacity, has been helping manufacturers for the past 21 years help themselves by tackling common issues and challenges together.
Al Diggins, the president, general manager and one of the founders of the Owen Sound, Ont.-based organization, has retired (sort of) at 71, to golf and generally kick-back, although he’s keeping his hand in as EMC’s chair. Jim McCoubrey, also a founder and president of Troy Life & Fire Safety in Owen Sound, is moving from the chair to a director’s seat at the board.
Diggins has passed the Post-it notes (more on this later) to Shawn Casemore, 44, who began transitioning into the lead role at the organization in February.
Casemore comes to EMC with a strong background in manufacturing, plus several years as a member. The Owen Sound native scored a part-time job at a Magna plant during his second year of college and after his third year was hired full-time. Other opportunities followed at Arvin Meritor, Pilkington, NCR, Bellwyck Packaging and Bruce Power where he handled senior leadership roles spanning supply chain management, project management, operations and distribution. For the past eight years he has consulted, helping manufacturers with training and team building, and he wrote a couple of books (Operational Empowerment, published by McGraw Hill, October 2015 and The Unstoppable Organization, published by Career Press, December 2017).
His first exposure to EMC was at a strategic interest group (SIG) event about 15 years ago. These collaborations focus on specific areas of interest, such as continuous improvement, safety and human resources, and provide a forum for manufacturers to tackle common issues by either sharing best practices or coming up with new ideas.
“I found these SIG events to be very powerful because they allowed me personally to be more productive, but more importantly, to bring proven best practices back to my plant. That’s what drew me to EMC. SIGs are at the core of EMC and will continue.”
The organization is now coast-to-coast with 60 regions serving 13,000 consortium and online member manufacturers and will stick with its grassroots approach, which stretches back to the mid-1980s, coalescing in the early 1990s and formalizing in 1997.
It all began for Diggins as a banker in Mississauga, Ont. (1968 to 1976) serving manufacturers, before striking out on his own for a few of years (1978 to 1983) to run a manufacturing business in Burlington that made aluminum windows and doors.
When a storm forced a layover in Collingwood, he decided he liked the Georgian Bay area and settled in Owen Sound. By 1986 he was working for Georgian College delivering a provincial skills program that involved training for businesses.
“I decided early on to focus on manufacturers, because they had a better opportunity to create wealth than other sectors such as farming,” Diggins says of his debut.
Within six months he was friendly with about 18 companies, and during his first year noticed many of them were hiring expensive consultants to handle training, much of it similar. Ever the forward thinker, Diggins came up with what was at the time, a novel idea: centralize that similar training in one manufacturer’s building, source the best trainers, and do so with funding from the Ontario government. “The key was manufacturers allowing their trainees to be in a room together, which was unheard of.” By 1987, he was pulling things together with his manufacturing partners, beginning with the collaborative training, adding plant tours and helping them realize their common issues would be best dealt with as a group.
Diggins was running the informal network out of his basement, where he came up with the SIG idea. Get each of the 12 members to send their health and safety, quality and production, plant and human resources managers to participate in 90-minute plus sessions that would involve collaboration and prioritizing of issues. This is where the Post-it notes come in. Participants in each of the groups would answer three questions: what’s going on in your plant that needs to change to make your business more successful; how can we help each other as a group; and what can you do in your plant beyond your job to help the business?
That was good for four walls of Post-it notes, roughly arranged in topic areas called “clouds,” then refined by the participants, with each group prioritizing what to work on first.
“We had an agenda for the groups to get together once a month to do their own problem solving. They were the experts, we facilitated. Then they went back to their plants to share the ideas and apply them.”
Diggins says this eventually worked its way up to senior management who recognized the process as a very powerful tool that today is still powered by collaboration, ideas and sticky notes.
By the end of year 10, Diggins, plus five of the Owen Sound multi-nationals, were looking at ways to enhance the program. Meanwhile, the provincial government was planning to wind it down. Jim McCoubrey, who at the time was with Edwards of Canada, a fire alarm manufacturer, got the five companies together and suggested they formalize what they were doing into some kind of organization.
The result was the Owen Sound Area Manufacturing Sectoral Group in 1997, the first official consortium. In 1998, Bradford added a consortium, the first outside Owen Sound. Others followed in Ontario and by 2003 EMC was expanding into other provinces, starting with a consortium in New Brunswick.
As the membership grew and programs were added, EMC hired staff and moved out of Diggins’ basement to a house in 2007. Today there are 27 team members supporting the organization.
Scott McNeil-Smith joined in 1999, initially to manage a large, six-month job creation project for the Owen Sound-Grey Bruce area. He also developed communications materials and he notes that as EMC entered new communities and worked with new companies – at their invitation – the need for new initiatives became apparent.
“It’s been my role to put arms and legs on a lot of those initiatives – what’s the strategy, or business plan – to get industry to engage and people in the community to buy in, and that goes right up to the provincial and federal governments.”
Indeed, Diggins says McNeil-Smith has had his hand in most EMC initiatives, while helping to grow the membership, he’s always astute when helping to develop ideas, providing critical strategic thinking, writing up the projects and finding funding for the programs, which is all channelled to benefit members, none of it to EMC. Companies pay a core membership fee that hasn’t changed for 20 years.
The national director of projects and partnerships, and the energy programs lead, has attached many arms and legs to an expanding repertoire of programs, that include (among others): managing the EMC end of an energy purchasing and management initiative with ECNG Energy LP, a management and procurement solutions provider in Burlington, Ont.; creating Manufacturing GPS with Jean-Pierre Giroux, a labour market intelligence tool; and the Manufacturing Essentials Certification program, also developed with Giroux, EMC’s national director of skills and talent development. And he keeps the wheels turning when EMC collaborates with governments, departments and agencies.
Looking head, Casemore is focusing on making a good thing better, and maintaining the supply of Post-its. Short term, the priority is to focus on growth, “to become more known and to be of help anywhere in Canada, even in remote areas where there are no SIGs. Short and long term, the plan is to ensure SIGs are as valuable 10 years from now as they are today.” And he wants EMC to be nimble enough to respond quickly when something new comes up.
These are interesting times for manufacturers, what with technology disruption, the Trump factor, developments in global trade flows and the competitive pressures that are sure to arise. Nimble will be a useful attribute as EMC, under its new leadership, helps manufacturers meet these and other challenges.