Justine Burdette took over leadership of the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West early this year after the organization’s long-time director, Bill Small, departed to pursue a career in education. With a background in liberal arts and art history, Burdette — who worked as an executive assistant to Small — brings a new perspective and problem-solving skills to guide MMTC-West through the next evolution of manufacturing. Burdette believes manufacturers will need to integrate new connected technologies, cybersecurity and other measures to compete in the future. She spoke with MiBiz about what skills she brings to the table and her long-term outlook for the organization.
What skills and perspective are you bringing to the MMTC given that you haven’t spent a career on the shop floor?
In Bill’s (Small) role previously, he was doing all of the internal driving for our teams and their products and services that we sold, but he was also meeting with clients on a daily basis. That is not something that I’m doing in this role. We cut that out of what I’m doing. We have our business development specialists that are meeting with our clients face-to-face. Certainly, it’s much more of a strategic and organizational focus for where our internal MMTC team is going, what we’ll be offering in the future, things like how do we reach more manufacturers in West Michigan. Then our business development specialists are doing more of that one-on-one working directly with our manufacturing clients. I do see some of them, but it’s much less direct than what Bill was doing.
People probably don’t associate a background in art history with a career helping manufacturers. How will that outside-the-box training influence your leadership strategy?
That liberal arts education, I think, was very helpful in terms of just educating me on the problem-solving process. There’s a lot of discussion and how do you back into the same thing a different way than someone else does — a lot of scientific process. Yes, I have an art history degree, but I had to take biology and chemistry and lots of other science-related things where we were using that very standard scientific method, which is pretty much what we do on manufacturing floors. What’s your current state, what do you want your future state to be, walk me through what you do now, and then let’s figure out how you can do it differently.
Talk about your exposure to the manufacturing industry.
My parents owned an apparel manufacturing business. They still do. Growing up around the dinner table listening to those thorny business problems was just kind of the norm for our family. Those were certainly my first jobs in middle and high school. I really woke up to the fact that I appreciated what my parents did and the role their business played in their community. Getting a job with MMTC was really a homecoming for me and it’s been such a joy.
It’s interesting that you and your mom have ties to manufacturing, which is still such a male-dominated industry. Do you see that as a challenge?
Seeing my mom so active in her business on a daily basis with my dad, it was always very natural for me. I don’t know how people feel on the other side of my handshake, but I’m just really here to help you succeed. I don’t think that makes me any different from any of my male counterparts.
Where do you see MMTC-West right now and where would you like to see it going forward?
This is a really exciting time for manufacturing. There are all kinds of new things happening out there. Automation certainly is going to change the face of manufacturing in the next five years, greater than what we’ve seen in the last 10 or 15 for sure. Everything having to do with cybersecurity issues, autonomous vehicles, using connected machinery on your shop floor connecting to your front office, any data intelligence you’re gathering from that to drive your business decisions — that’s all a very new space for manufacturers.
How does that compare to the innovations in the past when we look at the lean manufacturing movement, since these technologies are more cerebral and all-encompassing?
It is definitely different than any other iteration of new things that impacted manufacturing previously. I would completely agree with you. But there are lots of folks out there, MMTC included, who are really trying to do that front-end research, get a handle on what’s out there and then help guide manufacturers throughout that process so that it’s less daunting to them.
In the past, the parent MMTC organization seemed to take a hands-off approach to its regional entities, giving them autonomy. Is that still the case or is the relationship evolving?
In the past, that has been true. Each regional office has operated largely on its own with its own product and service offerings. As a statewide organization, we are trying, going forward, to operate more like a statewide organization. This whole idea for cybersecurity, in particular, is something that we’re tackling as a statewide organization. We have one uniform product that you can buy across the state, no matter where your manufacturing location is.
What types of challenges do you expect to encounter in your new role for MMTC?
I think it’s definitely speed to market. Things are happening so rapidly for our clients. We need to make sure that we are right there, lockstep, offering them the support they need. We want to do that in a way that we’re offering the right stuff at the right time. You can’t just slapdash something together. Speed to market is really important.