Perfect Chemistry

An operations manager focuses on how to stand out in a competitive market

“Traditional product differentiators lose their effectiveness in overcrowded markets,” says Thaddius Ratliff. “Held hostage by a stagnant economy, many products are facing commoditization”—a product cycle phenomenon in which products become so similar in the minds of consumers that they seem interchangeable. As the Louisiana operations plant manager for Evonik, a specialty chemicals manufacturer headquartered in Germany, Ratliff is charged with mitigating the effects of commoditization, such as lower product prices, eroding profit margins, and loss of market share.

To do his job well, Ratliff says creativity is key. “In the chemical business, it’s smarter to compete through innovation than through mass production,” he says. To better lead his team in the rigors of continual innovation, Ratliff earlier this year completed Louisiana State University’s Manager to Leader Program, now known as the Executive Development Program. The executive-level curriculum offers professionals practical instruction for transitioning from a management role to that of leader.

The campus-based program includes expert lectures, simulation exercises, and relevant case study analysis. Students work on their own current business projects while receiving feedback and assistance from faculty and colleagues in the program. Ratliff says the course helped him to embrace change, focus on critical thinking skills, and develop greater respect for leading in the face of uncertainty. He attributes his plant’s market-leading innovations to the following lessons he learned in the course about driving innovation:

Reject conventional thinking. “Conventional thinking is the enemy of innovation,” Ratliff asserts. During brainstorming sessions he provokes unorthodox thinking in his team by constantly asking “What if?” and “Why not?” Ratliff routinely challenges his team to identify ideas from unrelated business areas and modify them for the plant’s portfolio of compounds that includes carbon black, which is used in rubber products. “To achieve real creative brainstorming, you have to help the team reject a constraining, status quo mentality.”

Scrutinize the obvious. “Innovation is not predicated on invention,” Ratliff says. In other words, innovation isn’t limited to invented or improved products; it occurs when a new use for an existing product is discovered, he explains. Before initiating the innovation process, Ratliff makes sure each team member understands all facets of the existing product: each phase of its life cycle, the customer value proposition, and its revenue structure. The process, says Ratliff, often helps to quickly uncover simple opportunities.

Apply insight. “Even after the analysis, information without insight is useless,” Ratliff warns. He works closely with his team to define the context and significance of all the collected data. In addition, he requires each team member to be prepared to offer greater understanding of the data from his or her unique perspective as subject-matter experts. “Insight is the linchpin,” Ratliff asserts. “It enables us to craft a strategy and plan the execution all while minimizing our chances of failure.”

For more information about the Executive Development Program, visit www.bus.lsu.edu/executive.

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