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Leading Edge: In praise of innovation

So, Matt, what are the best ways to innovate in tough market conditions? How do you continue to motivate and challenge staff to perform at top levels?”


November 2, 2010
By Stacy Bradshaw


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So, Matt, what are the best ways to innovate in tough market conditions? How do you continue to motivate and challenge staff to perform at top levels?”

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Talk about a baptism by fire. My first trip to the Canadian Aviation Maintenance Council’s annual Forum and AGM and I already had something serious to chew on. Before formulating a worthy response, Claus Eisenschmid, my tablemate who queried me, sent me a hearty smile. “Don’t worry, Matt, that’s what we’ll be discussing in our ‘Innovating in Difficult Times and Educating for the Future’ session tomorrow. . . . it’s going to be interesting!”

Eisenschmid and fellow panelists John Leroux, director, Technical Training and Development, at Winnipeg’s StandardAero; Don MacDonald, dean, School of Transportation, Aviation & Manufacturing, at Red River College in Winnipeg; and Gary Gross, manager, SMS & QA, for Blackcomb Aviation in Richmond, B.C., certainly delivered on his promise. In a thought-provoking session, the quartet explored key training issues affecting the aerospace industry: how businesses have been affected by the downturn; how the industry will deal with an influx of retiring workers; preparing the managers of tomorrow; and what learning techniques work with today’s students.

For Eisenschmid, vice-president of operations at Richmond’s Vector Aerospace, developing productive teams and finding ways to innovate have been important career achievements. He has spent more than 30 years in the aerospace industry, and in his current role, is responsible for all operational areas of the facility, with more than 220 highly qualified team members.

In detailing his framework for innovation, he stressed the importance of a patient approach – developing specific, attainable objectives, managing costs, providing ironclad training and clearly communicating goals with employees. Training, he stressed, cannot be a knee-jerk reaction; it must be an ongoing commitment. At Vector, focusing on innovating processes has been an important goal.

“We have been very lucky in that we have shown a fairly consistent growth rate between 2007 and 2010,” he said. “At the same time, our head count has been stable. So, you might think that we are going around high-fiving each other. But, that is not true. While we have shown growth, we were pushed to accomplish this goal.”

Leroux agreed that a slow, steady approach to innovation is critical, but cautioned against losing sight of the people principle. “In the end, we’re in the business to make money,” said Leroux, who has spent the past 14 years at StandardAero as a technical training development specialist, production manager and project leader. “But, you can’t make money if you’re shrinking all aspects of your business all the time. You have to have a system; sell to the leadership team that you can’t train everyone all at once. It’s a slow, arduous process.”

Economic downturns can give management teams an opportunity to focus on training, and prepare teams for periods of growth when time is at a premium. Downturns are also a good time to analyze key competencies, invest in new technologies to make processes more efficient, expand in complementary markets, and invest in infrastructure – but you can’t neglect your people, added Gross: particularly important when you consider staff reductions.

“There is a price we are paying because when you reduce staff, it puts tremendous pressure on those that remain. We’re doing more with less, which can be a recipe for disaster. That’s the time to start celebrating any of the small victories. Never forget to say ‘thank you’ to your key folks; never forget to celebrate the small victories.”

Preparing employees for future management positions, and relying on antiquated learning approaches were also hot-button topics throughout the session. Panelists agreed new models are necessary to plant the seeds of innovation. . . .and it’s going to take creativity and commitment from management teams and support from a variety of levels – colleges, universities, industry and government – to pave the way for future innovation.

“The old model of training through assimilation simply doesn’t work anymore,” said Leroux. “You can’t just follow someone around and assimilate their knowledge. You need real learning objectives, and fundamental skill-based knowledge before you start your objectives. The colleges provide that. . . .our industry needs to provide that as well.”


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