On the eve of his 'leap' into a new phase of life, we snared former director Folkert van der Meulen for a look back at the NPAL adventure: over the past thirteen years, he and many dozens of companies built the Northern Productivity Alliance. 'This club is impossible to imagine without,' Folkert observes. 'With NPAL we have established a fundamental networking and improvement organization for our regional industry.'
'Personally, in working for NPAL all these years, I was driven by intrinsic interest in northern industry,' Folkert says. 'Constantly talking to large manufacturing companies and their technical service providers to hear what challenges are at play and where they want to go: that never gets boring.
It really earns respect and pride in the region when you hear and see what is being done in this sector. And I think it's wonderful that the NPAL companies are constantly improving themselves by learning from each other. They all ultimately do it themselves within the club. Certainly, a booster is needed, who puts common themes on the map, lines up and facilitates exchange. This is a role that I have enjoyed fulfilling and that my successor Ton Driesen is now taking over. Renewal also continues within NPAL.'
The value of NPAL was already apparent when the alliance started in 2009 as an NOM project with several dozen companies. 'To pick up much-needed productivity improvements in the northern region, a joint approach worked well,' says Folkert. 'Participants proved willing to open the doors for each other to share knowledge and best practices. No competitive issues, but common themes such as safety, process improvement, personnel policy and new technology. The approach has always been to share processes, methods and insights that have already proven themselves in practice. Working smarter has become increasingly important over the years, and the NPAL method (see box, ed.) has proven to be an excellent way to inspire and strengthen each other in these improvement processes.'
'Being stronger together is not a given in these times, but it is more necessary than ever,' said the former director. 'At the annual NPAL Day 2022 in March (where Folkert officially said goodbye, ed.) an important theme was the social polarization that is going on worldwide on all fronts. Then it's nice to realize that we, with our alliance, are connecting with that. In the past thirteen years, a solid foundation has been laid, thanks to the openness and trust of the participants. Because the companies get to know each other well, they learn from each other. Exchange is always about getting and bringing; that way everyone benefits. We do not have concrete figures - the impact is difficult to measure - but in surveys and interviews participants structurally report back that, partly thanks to NPAL, they are working more and more productively, safely and efficiently.
The growing numbers of participants speak for themselves. At the start in 2009, 37 companies hooked up; when NPAL became an independent organization in 2013, 54 participants helped make that possible, and by the tenth anniversary in 2019, the counter was already close to 100 participants. 'And in the past two years we have grown solidly,' Folkert says. 'There are now as many as 146 companies participating! NPAL has really become a household word for the sector in the Northern Netherlands. I see the year 2019 as a tipping point towards further professionalization. We then drew up the Industry Compass as an alliance; a vision document for the period 2020 to 2025 containing all the themes that participants consider important and in which they see a role for NPAL. In this way, the industry is working together on factories of the future in a competitive global market. A market that, because of turbulent developments - from pandemics to war - is in a state of enormous flux, and that too makes it attractive to seek out other companies within NPAL.'
That the productivity alliance meets a need more than ever may be recognized more strongly by regional politics as far as Folkert is concerned. 'Support is welcome. NPAL is a cost-effective organization thanks to the investment of the participating companies, but together they also strengthen the region. This may well be supported by the government, in order for northern industry to remain competitive in the future. Because of globalization and the high level of wages in our country, we have to rely mainly on productivity improvements. That is why that is the central theme of NPAL. Although we do see a revaluation of local manufacturing since the pandemic. All the more reason to keep talking to each other - also within the chain and with the environment - and together to keep northern industry in business in an appropriate way.'
Talk to each other
'With the recent addition of members, an expansion of activities and Ton as a new booster, there continues to be fresh energy in the organization,' the former director notes with satisfaction. 'We also saw last year how valuable the addition of Young NPAL is. The current generation of high potentials is network-oriented and has a strong commitment to new technology and sustainable goals. The proportion of women in the industry is limited; I still see opportunities there too. It is a man's world and then connection requires a bit more attention and
commitment. While the content gets more depth if you show genuine interest. Talk to each other, I always say. Especially within your own company. The fact that managers learn so much from company visits is largely because they ask different questions of employees and take the time to listen. These are learning moments that make it clear how much improvement always begins with connection.