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.

Putting that process in place, moving to a new headquarters, breaking the frames it had before and creating a stronger leadership team has changed the company, Gillespie says.

The 90-day execution cycles also help Gray Matter Systems fail faster when a new initiative isn’t working.

Gillespie says last year, even with the disciplined selection process, at the end of a 90-day execution cycle, they hadn’t made progress on one of the top focuses.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s just stop doing that,’” he says. “Having a stop-doing list is almost as important or more important, arguably, as a start-doing list.”

Again, it takes discipline to admit an idea isn’t working, because Gillespie says you optimistically keep thinking: “Just a few more cycles and we’ll get this nailed.”

Developing leaders

Gray Matter Systems has identified about 10 people who help determine the strategic and execution goals. Gillespie says everybody’s vote provides direction for the company.

Some people have stepped up, while others have self-selected out because the accountability level is higher.

The group meets every morning for 10 to 30 minutes to discuss what happened from yesterday to today, he says.

“When the outside facilitator suggested that to me, I told him he was crazy,” Gillespie says. “There’s no way we’re talking every day. It’s ridiculous. We’re too busy to talk every day.”

Now, it’s part of the DNA. When a team member is with a customer or out sick and misses the daily meeting, he says it feels unnatural.

By developing stronger people to run new initiatives, Gillespie says, delegation is easier. This is something he’s also personally worked on, and as a result, he has gotten better at getting out of the way.

“I’m spending more of my cycles working on the business, instead of working in the business, which is something you read about all the time, but it is extremely hard to do,” he says.

Even though he’s a good sales guy and a reasonably good engineer, Gillespie has to remind himself those aren’t areas he needs to work in. His job is to work on the business and help it grow.

“It’s the ‘on’ versus ‘in’ percentage,” he says.

Today, not only is he better at delegating, Gillespie also has gotten better at growing the team around him — because an environment where the team holds each other accountable can set your business up for success.