Inside Jabil’s competitive culture, a global contest to maintain its edge

10/27/2014 9:400 commentsViews: 23

Many use “lean manufacturing” and so-called “Six Sigma” methods to stay efficient and remain competitive.


Jabil and Lean ManufactoringRepresentatives of the winning teams in Jabil Circuit’s annual “Deliver Best Practices” contest, the finals of which were held in Jabil’s St. Petersburg headquarters, from left: Elaine Zhou, Erendira Landeros, Amy Shen and Ami Warren. In back are the Jabil executives who judged the contest. From left are Bill Muir, Joe McGee, Scott Slipy and Forbes Alexander.

When Forbes Alexander started working for Jabil Circuit in his home country of Scotland more than 20 years ago, the scrappy U.S. electronics manufacturer had little more than 1,000 employees and revenues approaching $200 million.

Now Jabil’s chief financial officer at its headquarters in St. Petersburg, Alexander helps run a vastly larger and more complex enterprise. With more than 142,000 employees and annual revenues near $16 billion, Jabil ranks 155th on the latest Fortune 500 ranking of largest public U.S. corporations. And it is clearly the most global business based in the Tampa Bay metro area.

Few businesses can boast such a dynamic track record. Going global in pursuit of the best workers and top talent at the least cost is a key part of that. From Mexico to Vietnam to Hungary, Jabil operates in 23 countries with 90 plants that boast more than 38 million square feet. The vast majority of that space is in China.

But, as Alexander explained in an interview, there’s another factor driving success: Jabil’s obsessive focus on “continuous improvement.”

What that means is Jabil works very hard to find lots of small ways to make gains that add quality or cut costs. That’s hardly an unusual tactic for technology companies. Many use “lean manufacturing” and so-called “Six Sigma” methods to stay efficient and remain competitive. But few companies take the extra steps of Jabil employees.

“It is very much embedded in our culture to have people think a bit out of the box on problem solving,” Alexander says. “It helps us build a better product. It helps us better serve customers. And ultimately, that is good for Jabil overall.”

Here’s proof. Earlier this month, Jabil invited me to observe the multiday finale of its sixth annual “Deliver Best Practices” competition, an annual contest and a cool example of “continuous improvement.”

Worldwide, Jabil employees form teams whose members often are spread across different plants on different continents. They unite to come up with new ways to improve a Jabil manufacturing process, reduce waste, make workers’ lives better or improve ties to its business customers.

Is this just some feel-good exercise, some HR stunt to inspire corporate loyalty in a far-flung corporation? That’s a small piece of it, but then that’s what all well-run businesses do.

Yet Jabil is quick to point out that it acts when it sees clear benefits. So far, 53 of this year’s projects have been adopted in other plants. And last year’s “operational excellence” project — one that proposed automated guided vehicles to streamline manufacturing at Jabil’s Shanghai plant — went on to win the 2014 Institute of Industrial Engineers’ “Lean Best Practice Award.”

In this year’s companywide competition, 952 teams made up of thousands of Jabil employees from 21 countries participated and were judged locally and regionally for the quality and creativity of their projects.

The top 32 teams sent one member apiece to compete in the finals this month at Jabil’s headquarters in St. Petersburg. Company executive Beth Walters calls the annual gathering “Jabil’s United Nations.”

For many of those workers from afar, this was their first trip to the United States and often a first opportunity to meet senior Jabil executives or its board of directors.

At a recent speed dating-styled evening in St. Petersburg, for example, each visiting team member got a chance to quick-pitch his or her team’s project to such Jabil directors as former CEO Tim Main, former Tech Data CEO Steve Raymund, onetime Eckerd Drugs CEO Frank Newman and Jabil’s sole female director, Martha Brooks, among others. For most of these young employees, English was a second language.

That same week, the representatives of the 32 teams formally pitched their projects to a panel of judges. Twelve teams made it to the final round. On a recent Friday, those 12 then presented their projects to a room full of enthusiastic Jabil workers and were questioned by a four-man panel of judges that included Alexander and other Jabil executives.

“It’s very humbling and fantastic to see such young people representing their teams with such enthusiasm,” Alexander says.

The photo of the winners for the top teams in the four categories is telling. Four young, ambitious women — two from different Jabil plants in China, one from Mexico and another from Hungary — stand smiling with hefty team trophies in hand. Behind them are the four senior Jabil executives — all middle-aged white guys — who judged the final round.

Alexander laughs, acknowledging the photo’s message: Times are changing. Of the 32 teams that made it to the St. Petersburg rounds, 11 were represented by women.

“I am the father of two daughters soon to enter the age of employment,” Alexander says. “Long may this continue.”


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