Ron Voigt encourages transparency, continuous improvement at Hyperion

 

We’re all a product of our experiences, and Ron Voigt is no different.

The CEO of Hyperion Materials & Technologies has been responsible for global industrial businesses that were essentially divisions of large publicly traded companies. He’s taking that background and applying it to running a private equity-owned business, where he has more control, more influence and a broader set of challenges.

“My experience is that organizations will eventually mimic what they think the priorities are of those people who are leaders,” he says. “If leaders portray an environment where they don’t want to hear bad news, well, they will not hear bad news, and things will slip away without them even being aware of it.”

Voigt says he has had his head taken off for saying something someone didn’t want to hear, and it doesn’t take long to realize there’s no upside in being transparent.

“Companies and people ought to be all about understanding what’s wrong and use that to help frame what they’re going to go work on to make a situation right,” Voigt says.

This concept — which he calls embracing the red — has been a central message since he joined Hyperion in July 2018.

The Worthington-headquartered business, which specializes in base materials, tool maker components, engineered products and process tools and solutions, was sold to global investment firm KKR at the same time.

Always improving

Hyperion began as part of General Electric, where it produced synthetic diamonds. After becoming an independent company in the 2000s, the Scandinavian conglomerate Sandvik purchased the business and combined it with its cemented carbide group. In 2017, Sandvik went through a corporate reorganization and decided to divest the business.

Voigt, who’d already been working with KKR, was drawn to Hyperion’s industrial markets and global nature — it has 11 plants around the world, with its largest portion of revenue coming from Europe. He felt he could offer value to Hyperion in terms of improvements to operations and the strategy and commercial processes.

“A lot of my prior experience was quite deep into Lean within a couple of organizations, so I felt I had the opportunity to help the company focus on the right priorities and to make sure that the pace and the depth of improvement were consistent with our expectations,” he says.

The business is still finding its cultural footing after the Sandvik carve-out and ownership change, with KKR emphasizing employee engagement, community involvement and ownership. All of KKR’s industrial companies include broad-based employee ownership; a percentage of the company’s ownership is set aside for the workforce, so that employees receive a financial reward or upside when KKR eventually exits its ownership.

Voigt has been encouraged by the energy the employees have put into making improvements in what was already a very good business.

He says, by embracing the red, Hyperion can have a clear focus. It will be able to recognize problems and challenges, take responsibility for those challenges or problems, and then work hard individually and as teams to resolve those issues.

“We want to be a company where, when a metric is red, when we’re behind the level of expectation that we’ve set for ourselves, people think about red as an opportunity to embrace and to improve, and I think that message has resonated,” Voigt says. “People across the organization have shown a strong willingness to adopt that or to operate in a way that is consistent with that philosophy, and that’s allowed us to drive some great improvements.”

Through 35-plus years, Voigt has been in organizations where people didn’t like to talk about problems. There was an active culture focused on not talking about what was wrong.

“To me, one of the most important things to do is to make sure that you have a culture supported by systems and processes to focus on the areas that aren’t exactly right, to make sure that people feel they have the ability and the freedom and the empowerment to embrace the red and to drive improvements,” he says.

Consistent management

Hyperion already had an outstanding approach with regard to employee safety and quality, Voigt says. Those things were templated, supported centrally and executed locally.

However, he’s helping expand that into daily management, bringing a set of metrics in a very common way to every part of the plants and operations, and having a consistent way of reviewing, reporting and driving improvements.

For example, early in KKR’s ownership, the executive team rolled out a daily management process.

Over a six-week period, they installed a consistent process across 55 value streams in plants around the world, by bringing representatives to a common location for a workshop.

“It’s a great example of driving consistency across the organization,” Voigt says.
Whether it’s in Taiwan, Barcelona or Worthington, the facilities now all have a similar approach, set of metrics and reporting process to help drive improvements, and the daily management board looks essentially the same.

Over time, Voigt also has been able demonstrate the power of continuous improvement — the power of embracing the red — to drive results, which builds buy-in and creates momentum.

“When you provide evidence and proof points that are tangible and comprehensible for people, that leads to a cycle of engagement and involvement that is almost unstoppable,” he says.

In one particular plant, high demand in the market was a driving force. Hyperion did a series of continuous improvement, or kaizen, events intended to take waste out and reduce lead time in the manufacturing processes.

By moving from a cellular approach to a one-piece flow, Voigt says the company improved the capacity and throughput, which in turn allowed it to win significant incremental business simply because Hyperion could deliver faster than its competitors.

An organization that’s given the challenge to improve, while being provided the right set of tools, continuous improvement philosophy and approach, can do absolutely terrific things, he says, adding that this isn’t his first time going through this process.

“Hyperion has probably embraced and driven improvements as fast or faster than any organization that I’ve been associated with in the past,” Voigt says.

It’s better to be fast than perfect

Making tangible improvements also should be mutually supportive; it’s not a choice between today’s issues and tomorrow’s improvement, Voigt says.

“Our improvements are focused on both helping today, as well as helping us get to where we want to go in the future,” he says.

Of course, as with any continuous improvement process, when you’re trying to improve, you’re going to get three things right and one or two things wrong, Voigt says.

“Certainly, we’ve tried things that have not worked,” he says. “That isn’t a reason to stop trying things.”

When things don’t go right, the most important thing is how you react to that information — even when it’s information you don’t like.

“It’s more important to react to that in the right way and focus on getting better, than it is to consume yourself with thinking about all of the reasons why something went wrong or to self-loathe,” Voigt says.

It’s better to roughly right and accelerate your learning cycle, than trying to be perfect, which in and of itself is a fool’s errand, he says.

“Rapid improvement cycles are how you build a sustainable competitive advantage,” Voigt says. “It’s not a matter of getting to the perfect solution.”

This is one of the biggest lessons he’s learned over his career, and when he talks to people who are earlier in their careers, he emphasizes this point.

“You can change your trajectory by figuring out how to go faster roughly right and adjusting, rather than waiting for perfection,” he says.

 

Takeaways:

  • Embrace your mistakes in order to fix them.
  • Transparency starts with leadership.
  • Aim to be roughly right, not perfect.

 

The file:

Name: Ron Voigt
Title: CEO
Company: Hyperion Materials & Technologies

Born: Saginaw, Michigan
Education: Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Kettering University (GMI at the time) and an MBA from Dartmouth University Tuck School of Business

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it? My first job was working for my father. He owned a small tool-and-die shop in Essexville, Michigan. I started when I was 12 or 13 years old and spent a good part of my summers and some of the school year working as a laborer or toolmaker apprentice.

Seeing a small businessperson in action, you quickly understand that every interaction with a customer is an opportunity to improve your position or move backward. My father was fanatical about the importance of doing things right, treating customers the right way such that we were always advancing the relationship and we weren’t moving in the wrong direction. That was imprinted on me from an early age and on a very fundamental level.

Where might someone find you on the weekend? Just about everything outside of work is with my family — my wife and I have two children. They’re 19 and 21, which means it’s increasingly difficult to call them children. We enjoy doing things with them.

In the summer, it typically involves water sports. We love to ski. We love to participate with them in their college experience and such. So, on a weekend, you’ll find me with my family.

What would you do if you weren’t a CEO? I would be a history professor. I think that there’s little you encounter that doesn’t have a parallel or something that you can learn from what someone has experienced in the past.

So, I’m guessing you’re a history buff? Yes, absolutely. Dwight Eisenhower’s my reference point for someone who dealt with an incredible diversity of challenges, an incredibly difficult environment, but handled it with modesty, great thinking and resolve.