John Berkmortel: Navigating Challenges, Fostering Growth, and Achieving Excellence in Manufacturing

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Unveiling Insights on Leadership and Problem-Solving in Manufacturing

Technical expertise alone will not guarantee success in manufacturing. Leaders like John Berkmortel, an engineering professional with 36 years of hands-on experience in operations, maintenance, and automation, embody the additional qualities that drive results. With deep knowledge of quality and lean engineering principles, John currently serves as Engineering Manager at Attica Manufacturing in London, Ontario.

In his interview on the Accelerating Operational Performance podcast, John shares his invaluable insights on leadership, tackling complex problems, and building a culture where continuous improvement thrives. From the importance of understanding that employees rarely intend to make things difficult to the power of valuing teamwork and proactively seeking out new learning opportunities, John offers wisdom that can help any manufacturing professional level up their game. Listen to the full episode here or watch the video here.

                                                             “No one is deliberately trying to do the wrong thing.”                                                             

Understanding Human Behavior and Motivation

A fundamental yet often overlooked principle is the inherent goodness in people’s intentions. No one is deliberately trying to do the wrong thing, this foundational belief lays the groundwork for a compassionate approach to leadership that eschews blame and guilt in favor of fostering growth and improvement. By avoiding guilt, leaders open pathways for innovation and creativity. This means that when leaders refrain from blaming or shaming their team members for mistakes, it creates an environment where individuals feel empowered to explore new avenues and solutions. This fosters a culture of innovation and creativity, two key components for any organization’s continuous improvement (CI) and growth.

However, understanding human behavior is more than acknowledging intentions; it touches on motivations and incentives. John underscores the importance of aligning actions with mutual benefit. He believes, “If they see you working with them and understand… you’re actually there to help… it’s amazing what you can get done.” This is the essence of effective leadership: the ability to engender trust and collaboration by demonstrating genuine support and concern for others’ wellbeing.

Drawing from his own experiences, John reflects on the significance of portraying oneself as a supportive figure rather than one driven solely by self-interest. This authenticity cultivates strong interpersonal relationships and fuels collective endeavors toward organizational objectives. By recognizing the inherent goodness in people’s intentions, advocating for a guilt-free environment, and prioritizing mutual benefit, leaders can harness the full potential of their teams and propel their organizations toward sustainable success.

Key Insight: The inherent goodness in people’s intentions is the foundation for a compassionate approach to leadership and avoiding blame and guilt.

Strategy: Refrain from inducing guilt in team members and demonstrate, through your actions,  mutual benefit with your team.

Impact: Leaders can foster a culture of innovation and creativity within their organizations. This improves collaboration, stronger interpersonal relationships, and collective endeavors toward organizational objectives.


Integration of Leadership and Practical Tools

John believes true leadership means combining a strong vision with the practical tools and skills needed to bring that vision to life. True transformation cannot happen without aligning leadership development with clear, actionable strategies.

However, many modern companies operate on short timelines for advancement. “You stay in a role maybe only for a year and a half or two years, and then you have to have accomplished something notable.” This can pressure leaders to prioritize quick wins over long-term, sustainable changes.

John’s advice? Focus on making a positive impact with every action, no matter your title or the length of your current assignment. He believes “you’re actually there to help,” whether it is improving efficiency, building stronger teams, or offering solutions to a client. This mindset shift from self-promotion to creating tangible value ultimately leads to more fulfilling and impactful leadership.

Key Insight: Combining leadership principles with practical skills maximizes your effectiveness. It helps you translate ideas into real-world results and navigate the pressure to deliver quick wins without compromising on long-term value creation.

Strategy: Intentionally choose leadership development that helps you build specific capabilities, such as communication skills and team development techniques. Actively look for ways to apply these skills to current challenges in your role.

Impact: By consistently demonstrating the ability to both lead and deliver results, you build a reputation as a value-driven leader. This fosters an environment of continuous improvement and prepares you for greater responsibility within your organization.


Learning from Career Challenges

Even seasoned leaders like John face setbacks. He candidly shares a time when his collaborative style clashed with a large Canadian company’s intensely results-driven culture. “There was an expectation to have all the answers and drive hard without necessarily taking the time to build team alignment,” he reflects.

John found himself in a situation where the pressure to achieve results often meant pushing forward without ensuring everyone was on board or fully equipped for change. “It was always on to the next thing, even if the last thing wasn’t quite finished or working smoothly yet,” he recalls. While John learned a tremendous amount about operating within a fast-paced, demanding environment, this experience ultimately was not a long-term fit for him.

The pressure-cooker environment made him reflect deeply on his own leadership values. “I realized that while I’m absolutely results-oriented, true success for me also means taking the time to guide the team, ensure they understand the ‘why’ behind decisions, and give them the support they need to perform at their best.” This experience reinforced the importance of finding not just technical alignment but a company culture that values your leadership approach just as much as your technical skills.”

Key Insight: Even the most successful leaders experience clashes between their personal leadership philosophies and company cultures. Finding alignment between your values and the company’s environment is crucial for long-term satisfaction and the ability to drive meaningful results.

Strategy: Leaders should be prepared to reflect on both positive and negative experiences honestly. Analyzing what worked and what did not clarifies core values, paving the way for greater intentionality.

Impact: Companies benefit when leaders are genuinely aligned with their culture. This drives positive employee engagement, leading to higher retention and better performance outcomes.


Strategies for Continuous Improvement

Pursuing continuous improvement emerges as a fundamental imperative, driving progress and innovation. John’s experience in manufacturing highlights the importance of cultivating a culture of continuous improvement (CI) – a philosophy where making things better is not just a project; it is a constant way of life. John emphasizes building this culture through a two-pronged approach: fostering proactive employees and creating a supportive leadership environment.

“Treat everything you do as a process, and observe, observe, observe.”

The foundation of John’s approach lies in developing a keen eye for process observation. This is not about micromanaging; it is about truly understanding how things work – the flow of materials, information, and how people interact with the tasks at hand. John’s experience managing a critical launch project underscores this point. When a key equipment vendor went bankrupt, a deep understanding of the overall process allowed John’s team to brainstorm solutions and keep stakeholders informed, ultimately ensuring project success. By actively observing and questioning how things are done, employees become more aware of potential bottlenecks, inefficiencies, or areas ripe for innovation.

Encouraging a proactive, solution-oriented mindset is another key strategy for John. He believes that “when you see a problem, try to be helpful and come up with an idea or a solution.” Owning improvement empowers employees and demonstrates initiative to company leaders. John recalls how a team member once identified a purchasing decision that, while cost-effective upfront, led to quality issues downstream. By proactively proposing alternative solutions, the employee not only saved the company money in the long run, but also demonstrated the value of looking at the bigger picture.

Leaders play a vital role in fostering this CI culture. They need to create an environment where employees feel safe raising concerns, suggesting improvements, and even experimenting with new ideas. As John highlights, “It’s not about having all the answers and driving hard, without necessarily taking the time to build team alignment.” Leaders who actively listen, encourage input, and recognize employee contributions to improvement initiatives will nurture a more engaged and innovative workforce.

By fostering a culture of continuous improvement, companies can reap significant benefits. They become more efficient, eliminate waste, and are better equipped to adapt to changing market demands. John’s approach, centered on building a team of observant, solution-oriented employees empowered by supportive leadership, provides a practical roadmap for any manufacturer seeking to gain a lasting competitive edge.

Key Insight: True continuous improvement happens when companies cultivate a culture where employees actively observe processes, identify problems, and are encouraged to propose solutions.

Strategy: Leaders cultivate a continuous improvement culture by emphasizing process observation, celebrating proactive problem-solving, and creating a supportive environment where employees feel empowered to experiment.

Impact: Companies embracing this approach experience increased efficiency, improved adaptability to market changes, and a more engaged and invested workforce.


The Power of High-Performing Teams

A career highlight for John was leading a critical team in a new pickup truck launch. Despite the project’s size, complexity, and relentless deadlines, it was a resounding success.  John credits this to the “stacked team” dynamic: “Everyone brought their distinct skills, we respected each other’s contributions, and shared a ‘we will overcome’ attitude.”

This was not just feel-good camaraderie. John recounts a moment that could have derailed everything: a key equipment vendor going bankrupt midway through the project. It would have been natural to panic, but instead, as John recalls, “We regrouped, brainstormed solutions, and proactively kept the customer updated.  Our team stepped up, each person going above and beyond, and ultimately we delivered.”

Diversity drives resilience, and a team with diverse skills is better positioned to solve complex problems and recover from setbacks. This team’s success during the vendor crisis was due to a blend of robust problem-solving skills and effective communication with stakeholders. Respect creates a foundation of trust. When everyone feels their expertise is valued, they are more likely to share their best ideas, challenge assumptions constructively, and collaborate for optimal results. A shared purpose fosters tenacity. Clarity about the team’s mission, coupled with a collective resolve to succeed, drives teams to overcome significant challenges. Proactive communication, especially during a crisis, builds trust and enables collaboration to find solutions.

When asked how he maintained a “we will overcome” attitude within his team, John emphasized that while it was important to acknowledge the gravity of any setback, the key was to immediately shift focus to what his team could control. He would remind them of their past successes and highlight their collective strengths to reinforce their ability to find creative solutions together.

This is the impact of strong team dynamics. It reminds us that technical expertise alone is not enough; true success often hinges on the “soft skills” of collaboration, respect, and a shared belief in achieving goals together.

Key Insight: High-performing teams are built on a foundation of diversity, respect, a shared sense of purpose, and proactive communication. These factors allow teams to solve problems creatively and overcome major obstacles.

Strategy: Leaders foster high-performing teams by intentionally assembling diverse talent, promoting a culture of respect and shared purpose, and encouraging transparent communication, especially during challenging times.

Impact: Companies that prioritize these strategies will benefit from improved problem-solving capabilities, increased resilience, and an overall positive and productive work environment.

“Attica Manufacturing is committed to delivering top-notch custom machining solutions… Our focus is on quality,                                                                        precision, and exceeding customer expectations.”

John’s Advice for Young Engineers

John shares his top tips for those seeking success in manufacturing:

  • Focus on the People: Your success comes through your team. Invest in relationships, support their growth, and celebrate their wins.
  • See the Process: Train yourself to observe deeply how things flow: material, information, and how people interact with the work. This is the foundation for spotting improvement opportunities (and a key practice of the lean practice known as a Gemba Walk).
  • Bring Solutions, Not Problems: If you spot an issue, take the initiative and come to your manager with suggested solutions.
  • Say Yes to New Things: Volunteer for cross-functional projects, even if they are outside your comfort zone. You will expand your skills, gain valuable perspectives, and build a network that will serve you throughout your career.


Connecting with Attica Manufacturing and John Berkmortel

John’s career story sheds light on both his leadership philosophy and the values at the heart of Attica Manufacturing, a company known for its complex custom machining and engineering services. Attica prioritizes continuous improvement, a commitment that John exemplifies in how he leads and collaborates with his team.

He believes that “it’s not about being the boss; it’s about showing your team how change benefits them and actively supporting them on the journey.” This emphasis on building partnerships and buy-in underscores Attica’s commitment to empowering its employees. This fosters an environment where everyone feels invested in driving the company’s success.

John’s journey is a powerful example of how technical expertise, curiosity, and a passion for improvement drive personal growth and company-wide results. As he puts it, he is always looking for ways to “make this process better.” This type of leader helps companies like Attica maintain their reputation as an industry leader in manufacturing excellence.