Gray Matter Systems develops its processes, people for systematic growth


Gray Matter Systems has connected people to their assets since the company launched in 1991, but now a hip buzzword describes what it does — industrial internet of things.

CEO James Gillespie says the firm helps companies become more efficient, because often you can either cut head count or run what you have smarter through the use of technology.

Gray Matter Systems solves complex data and control problems for manufacturers, oil and gas producers and waste and wastewater facilities.

As the company has grown rapidly over the past few years, he says, it has focused on developing partnerships with long-term customers that are willing to co-innovate. They might monitor things that haven’t been monitored before and put sensors in new areas.

But Gray Matter Systems, which has about 65 employees, doesn’t just help others run smarter, it has innovated its own processes to become more disciplined and grow systemically.

Rhythms of strategy, execution

“We’ve been successful in starting new initiatives inside of our current business,” Gillespie says. “But it takes some discipline to take the risks to go into those new growth areas, so you have to have a playbook on how you’re going to do it.”

First, the company ensures a new initiative is complementary to its brand identity, which is “transforming operations, empowering people.” The new area also needs to fit with current customer needs and the right subject matter experts and leaders in the company.

Once an idea has been selected, it goes through a pilot or validation step.

For planning purposes, Gray Matter Systems follows the typical three-year strategic plan. But it also has a one-year execution plan that gets broken up into 90-day chunks. This strategic and execution process was inspired by business books and Gillespie’s Vistage networking group.

The leadership team has five execution priorities for those 90-day blocks that it holds each other accountable on. Then, it gets together to discuss what’s changed and what should be the execution imperatives for the next 90 days.

“That’s how we respond to market conditions — respond to conditions that are changing — we have that 90-day template,” Gillespie says.

Gray Matter Systems has followed this strategic/execution rhythm for three years, and he says it has made a major difference.

Every 90 days, an external facilitator helps the team run the planning meeting.

“We facilitated it ourselves for probably a year or so, and it’s not as effective,” Gillespie says. “If I facilitate it, it biases the discussion, and if somebody else facilitates, it still biases it a bit.”

But hiring a facilitator wasn’t an easy decision to make.

“We struggled with that investment, but it’s been a huge transformational thing for us,” he says.