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Collaboration: The key to our industry's future success

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WMCO by Mike Baker
Mike Baker is the Chief Executive Officer of the Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario. He can be reached at: mbaker@wmco.ca
In my previous column, I addressed the definition of industry clusters, what they are, how they operate, and how they are different from associations. I also explained how clustering is new to North America and not as well established in our economic development framework as it is in Europe. In the EU, industry clusters are common in most countries, and they are the hub of innovation and industry growth and development.
Industry collaboration between companies is a basic operational element of clusters. WMCO has made two trips to Europe for cluster training (2011 & 2016), visiting the wood cluster in upper Austria, to see first-hand how they operate.
It was interesting to learn that the government funding framework, and the project programming activities, were all based on collaborative projects and activities between the manufacturing companies in the cluster. Project managers employed by the cluster facilitate the development and execution of these projects. Examples of projects include mutual adoption of manufacturing technologies, export activities such as trade shows, and lean manufacturing and process improvement initiatives. The projects would often include competitive companies cooperating for their mutual benefit. That means going into each others manufacturing facilities for tours, training, kaizen events, and benchmarking best practices. The spirit behind the clusters is to raise the competitiveness 
of the whole industry to be globally competitive, rather 
than being preoccupied with domestic competition.  
I think everyone in our industry reading this knows that there really aren’t any trade secrets when it comes to building cabinets, commercial millwork, furniture, flooring, or other niche wood products. All of us are trying to make the best product we can, and to guarantee a decent living for ourselves and our workers.
Of course, there will always be those who are resistant to change.  They don’t feel a need to learn from others, sometimes because they feel they know it all already. It is something we see with some larger companies at times, especially with how they view smaller ones. In practice, it couldn’t be further from the truth. WMCO has large member companies working along with smaller companies with under ten employees on projects. Both have had their eyes opened to the potential to learn and share as much as they can from each other to become better.
One collaborative activity that WMCO facilitates are our successful Plant Tour Focus Groups/Kaizen events. These tours are hosted by companies that not only have some expertise to share, but also want to learn from others and improve. As part of the tour, the host provides an overview of their business and best practices behind their success. They then share a challenge they are dealing with and are trying to overcome. This could be a challenge that involves production, machinery, flow, people, culture, H&S, software adoption; anything that the host wishes to address. Cluster members attending the tour provide feedback to the host, and brainstorm suggestions and solutions. Shared ideas emerge and become valuable learning points for all in attendance.
The outcome is that visiting members learn from the hosts’ best practices, get to see another wood production facility, and gain insight to solutions for their own challenges by participating in a problem-solving exercise in another factory.
The host benefits because some fresh eyes provide valuable feedback on their challenge. This is a powerful experience, and manufacturing members say this is one of the most important 
parts of the cluster’s activities. It is collaboration at its best. Associate supplier members 
can only attend if they are 
invited by the host to contribute their knowledge and expertise to help solve the challenge. This keeps the activity very manufacturing centric, while leveraging the important expertise of our suppliers to help with the challenge.
Other examples of collaboration between cluster member companies takes place with government funded projects. Most levels of government that provide funding programs for industry like to work with clusters because they can benefit a number of companies at the same time.
In Europe, many government funded programs for industry are administered by the clusters.
The WMCO cluster has done several of these, often involving competing companies as well. WMCO is always working with government partners to find new programs and develop projects that can fit the cluster model to provide assistance and value to multiple companies at a time. More will be coming in the future!
Collaboration in the WMCO cluster takes many forms. Most recently WMCO hosted a Supply Chain Challenge Forum to facilitate dialogue between suppliers and manufacturers during this challenging time with COVID-19. Four product categories hosted their separate discussion rooms where manufacturers could move from room to room to discuss pricing and supply trends. 40 manufacturers participated, along with a dozen associate supplier members representing board and MDF, lumber, hardware and coatings.
This collaboration was extremely successful and engaging for both sides of the table to have constructive dialogue and build relationships. This is just one other example of collaboration between companies that takes place; and the list goes on.
The more we talk with each other, listen, collaborate, learn, and think of the big picture instead of our own agendas, the more our industry can move forward to be globally competitive. Our industry is now going through a culture change for the better!

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