Why and how manufacturing leadership must change in 2021

The Manufacturing leadershiptop down management style of old school "captains of industry" isn’t fit for purpose in 2021. New challenges are driving change at the highest level of our organisations.

Goodbye to all that?

Think of the Victorians and their ‘dark Satanic mills’. Factory owners fining workers for waste and late arrival. Or the industrial tycoons of the 20th century and their testosterone fuelled ‘bawlings out’ in boardrooms - the mantra of “my way or the highway”. Magnets and manufacturing leaders, like Forrest Mars  were legendary for their ‘extreme temper, and fanatical behaviour.”

But by the 1970s these old management paradigms were unequal to the innovative competition coming from abroad. The ideals of Lean manufacturing exemplified in the Toyota Production System were promising a different way of doing things and creating new industrial leaders in challenger economies. 

New world - new challenges

In the intervening years, rapid technological change and the internet revolution have transformed the world.  There have been exciting new opportunities for entrepreneurial UK manufacturers in a globalised economy. 

“the UK’s manufacturing industry is the world’s ninth largest. It employs more than 2.7 million people spread across the country, and accounts for 69% of the UK’s research and development spending” 

From the Manufacturer Magazine

Industry 5.0

Industry 5.0 and IoT have fuelled a fast moving, on-demand economy. 

In the UK we are levering new international opportunities to make our companies more competitive and agile.  Carefully calibrated global supply chains are now delivering more customised solutions to meet customer demand more efficiently and at the right price. 

We are adding greater value to clients through automation, AI and additive manufacturing.  We are bringing in skills and materials from around the world whenever and wherever they are needed. Machine learning is making smart factories capable of optimising performance on the fly.  They are predicting demand and switching production instantly when required.   

But this new model of production needs different skill sets, a highly trained workforce to analyse big data, design and drive innovation - rather than simply operate machinery.

Designing a new product? You might want to read this

Brexit and Covid-19

Meanwhile, new problems loom large in all this.  It’s a globalised world, but Brexit and Covid seems to have shut much of these benefits off for manufacturers. They’ve throttled supply chains and disrupted ‘just in time’ manufacturing models while creating shortages, spikes in demands and wildly fluctuating pricing.   


The environmental and sustainability agenda is also impacting on everything we do.  Manufacturing must respond to new regulations, customer demands and commercial realities. We have to balance our carbon footprint with the drive to reduce production costs. We have to develop new materials and new strategies to meet pressing targets.   

We need new thinking and highly trained engineers to bring fresh solutions to the table, but there is a pronounced skill shortage in this area.

Who has the answers?

Answers do not lie with single individuals.  The top-down model of management will not answer the multi-pronged challenges of Industry 5.0, climate change, technical disruption and chronic skills shortages.  

Our leaders need the ability to marshal different kinds of teams, foster innovation at every level of an organisation.  They need to bring in fresh talent from below and nurture it.  

But with new management concepts and tools like the Entrepreneurial Operating System manufacturers have begun to embrace more agile mindsets.  These are the business systems that require the focus of everyone in a compnay to power growth and momentum.  

In these new regimes highly focused teams are mobilised to hit key objectives.  They set goals and achieve targets. They assess progress and remove obstacles in time limited weekly meetings:

“This is the rhythm by which the company achieves “traction”: by continually measuring itself against its goals, by ensuring accountability, by solving issues, by maintaining communication, by establishing routine and by achieving results.”

Crucially, teams do it together, not under the orders of one individual.  They have a shared agenda and benefit from a collective appraisal of their efforts.

It’s very different from the paradigm of a ruthless, single-minded leader licking everyone into shape around them.

We need more diversity

But it’s also going to require a correction in other imbalances to find answers to long standing problems.  While we try to change mindsets, we’ve got to be focused on diversity of gender, age and thinking in the ranks: 

“At present less than 10% of the U.K.'s engineers are women, which compares unfavourably with most of the rest of Europe. In the world’s  industrial super China more than a third of the engineers are female.  Women are grossly under represented in UK engineering, a fact that leads to a loss of talent and innovation in the industry”

FTSE-100 Women in Manufacturing

And what about those millennials and Gen Z? The young people who will break the mould and change the world?  At present there is a lack of enthusiasm amongst this group for careers in manufacturing.  But as numerous studies have shown, these groups are desperately needed in the workforce to bring competitive energy to our operations.  

Is the manufacturing industry ready for Generation Z?

Leaders need to change their mindsets to attract much needed diversity into the workforce if we're going to find new anwers to entrenched problems.

What will mark out the great leaders of 2021 and beyond?

In this great article about the future of manufacturing leadership in Industry Week, Laura Putre talks about what characterises a great leader today.  She argues they need to:

  1. Build trust 
  2. Have high expectations
  3. Inspires passion 
  4. Have strong entrepreneurial skills 
  5. Be a change agent
  6. Tell it like it is
  7. Encourage strong, cross functional teams 
  8. Understands millennials and creates a culture around them
  9. See the competitive advantage in tech
  10. Have a strong vision for the future

We are working in a heavily disrupted and highly competitive globalised economy right now.  Our teams and markets are in shock from the pandemic.  We are adapting to new and often unfamiliar ways of working.  But there is also new generation and new demographics in the mix from whom we can and should learn about coping with disruption.  They need encouragement and nurturing to unleash their talents.  We need to set up the systems and processes to make them part of the solution.

Executive Guide to Outsourcing Your Electronics Manufacturing


Written by Neil Sharp

Neil has over 25 years’ experience in Electronics Manufacturing Services and Component Distribution. During his career, Neil has held a range of leadership positions in sales, marketing, and customer service. Neil is currently part of the ESCATEC Senior Management Team and is responsible for setting and delivering the overall Group Marketing strategy. Neil heads up the marketing department and is responsible for both the strategy and the implementation of innovative marketing campaigns designed to deliver high quality content to those seeking outsourcing solutions.