What I Learned: Lessons from a leader in manufacturing

Long gone are the days when manufacturing simply meant setting up assembly lines and cranking out widgets. It has evolved into a polished discipline where marketing, publicity, customer service and sales intersect with laser-like precision

If you think those four worlds should exist in separate silos, you haven’t spent time with Howard Leonhardt. A pacesetter in the manufacturing world, Leonhardt holds 21 U.S. patents for products that treat heart and cardiovascular disease.

Leonhardt also wears many hats at UCLA. He serves as a board advisor for UCLA Extension's bioengineering programs and as a judge for the UCLA Business of Science Center's Inventathon. And in February, he launched LABioHub, an incubator and accelerator for bioscience startups that’s based in Santa Monica. 

Here, Leonhardt shares six key lessons he learned in manufacturing that helped him rise to the top of the field. 

Rapid prototyping is a must. Leonhardt says that with the prototype process, it’s crucial to stay ahead of the pack. Testing, trying out with customers and reiterating need to happen quickly. “Fail, adjust and try again in rapid loops, over and over again,” he says. “Send out lots of trial balloons to get feedback.”

Get operational quickly. Leonhardt advises that manufacturers “get a simplified version of your product or service to market quick.” He’s learned to follow up later with the advanced version because “it takes more money and time to get to market. You will often find the market prefers the more simplified version anyhow.”

Learn to solve your customers’ problems. Leonhardt prefers a highly interactive approach where customers can help guide manufacturing in unexpected ways. “You’re far more likely to identify solutions to their problems if you are with them at their place of business.” He adds: “You’re also far more likely to develop a meaningful relationship that leads to business when you meet them in person rather than by email. So spend as much of your day out with customers as possible. Get away from your computer.”

Tell a compelling story. It’s much harder to have success with a manufactured product if there isn’t a story behind it that attracts interest. He notes: “In many ways your product, your service, your company is nothing but a compelling story to your customer — or not.”

Getting orders means survival. As Leonhardt puts it, there’s no product to produce if the sales team can’t generate revenue, though he favors a more team-oriented approach. “Everyone must be focused on getting purchase orders in the early days of a company,” he says. He cites the example of Medtronic: “They made money fixing broken equipment at hospitals while they waited for their pacemaker to finish development. Do whatever it takes to engage your customers and sell them something.”

Improve your company, product and service a little bit every day. Listen closely to customer input and use it to make improvements; this is the basis for a bottom-up orientation as opposed to a top-down one. “Engage everyone in the company in a ‘we are serving the customer’ mentality,” he stresses. And though he’s a boss himself, Leonhardt notes: “The only boss we’re all serving is the customers. Without customers, we have no business.”

Lou Carlozo for UCLA Extension

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