The welding robot looked like something out of a science fiction movie.
On one side of a cage, a massive shell opened like a claw. An assembly worker placed the suspension for an all-terrain vehicle inside and the robot rotated over a wall.
The welding sparks flew in all directions as I stood safely behind a piece of plexiglass with goggles over my glasses.
I was at Polaris Industries in Roseau, Minnesota. The company is known for their snow machines and all-terrain vehicles and headquartered near the Twin Cities, about five hours south of this assembly plant.
I'd never seen a welding robot before. I didn't know welding robots even existed. The machine saves time because the worker can place parts into the shell on one side, push a button, and start loading up parts as the robot finishes the job. According to Kurt Bickler, the manufacturing systems manager, the company now has 30 of the robotic welding shells. Over the years, Bickler said the plant has grew and adapted, adding robots and new methods of assembly.
In my tour, there was one main finding that led me to think Polaris is one of those rare "great" companies, one that has around $4.5 billion in annual sales.
Everyone I met at the plant seemed to have an open mindset they were not stuck on one way of doing things. A willingness to embrace change and not insist on doing things "the old way" is the one differentiating quality that great companies (and great leaders) always share.
Without this willingness to embrace radical change, companies tend to spin their wheels and get stuck in one gear.
Indeed, the entire Polaris assembly plant seemed to be in a state of constant flux. Multiple delivery robots roamed around the warehouse. Workers could summon them from the warehouse with the parts all loaded. A new trash compactor squashed up boxes into squares to make them fit more logically into a semi-trailer to save space. Engineers had developed a new app for a Dell tablet that workers used to photograph parts to make sure they conform to a quality spec. A computer installed at terminals around the plant used 3D schematics to show workers how to install parts. When an ATV rolled off the assembly line, a worker could drive one up to a machine to test it out and make sure it works perfectly.
Bickler told me these changes were all one of the primary reasons Polaris has an edge over the competition, which includes companies like Can-Am and Arctic Cat. There's even a Strike Team situated in one corner of the lunchroom that seems to live and breathe change.
On the surface, they appear to be a transition team, discussing changes with workers and introducing new processes and procedures. In meeting them, glancing at the whiteboards in the office and a picture that showed a "before and after" picture of the plant, it's obvious they are making sure the changes happen smoothly and efficiently. My guess is that not every motorsports company has a Strike Team or, even if they have one, introduce changes in fits and starts.
Sticking to what works is the one major factor that can kill success. I remember watching the electronics company Circuit City go down the tubes. The stores had stayed the same for years, insisting on using pressure tactics for people whopping for televisions and DVD players. The stores stayed the same color, followed the same routines, had the same weird return policies, and seemed to shun the idea of an open floor plan. Meanwhile, retailers who do embrace change, who launch new product lines and adjust their policies to changing consumer demands, those are the ones that stick around for decades and have the most loyal customers.
After my tour, Polaris reps took me on a ride to test the finished product. It was a blast. We cavorted all around a state forest and let the mud fly. The machines are made to take abuse. On one trail, we dived into a mud pool the size of my backyard hardly spinning a tire. It was the ultimate before and after--how the products are made, followed by how they perform.
Greatness could be defined simply as a willingness to change and grow. When companies resist change, it's essentially a way of saying: we're right about how we do things. Yet, what's become clear to me lately is that the way of doing things that led to success in the past might not be the same things that lead to finding more success. What needs to happen? The people running a company need to be willing to adjust their thinking. You might call it a pivot or some other business term, but what it really means is a willingness to accept that you might have been right in the past but now you're wrong. Now you are stuck in the mud.
In leadership, we tend to take pride in our past accomplishments. We relish in them. Yet, everything around us is changing. We're in the middle, patting our own backs. At Polaris, I didn't see any of that. All of the people I met--the assembly line workers, the engineers, the managers--all had an attitude that everything is ephemeral. No one seemed tied to one way of doing things--using a certain welding bot, a testing machine, an injection molding process. That is the one sign in any company that separates the good from the great.