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A New Baseline for Leadership

PPG Senior Vice President of Automotive Coatings,  Rebecca Liebert, believes that achieving data-driven productivity across the industry will require leaders who learn continuously and are open to a host of new digital opportunities.

“Every business leader needs to be thinking right now about how they’re going to keep their company on the leading edge of data-driven productivity in the future.”

 Rebecca Liebert, Senior Vice President,
Automotive Coatings, PPG

Founded in 1883, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company was the first commercially successful U.S. firm to produce high quality flat plate glass, and the first to adopt the then innovative approach of fueling its glass furnaces with locally-produced, cleaner-burning natural gas. By 1900 it had branched out into new product areas, most noticeably paints and coatings, and had already become one of the country’s top producers.

Today, after a series of strategic acquisitions throughout the 1900s and early 2000s, and rebranding itself as PPG Industries in 1968, the company has grown into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and the second largest coatings company in the world with a global network of 150 production plants serving customers in 70 countries.

In our latest Dialogue with a manufacturing industry thought-leader, Rebecca Liebert, Senior Vice President for PPG’s fast-expanding Automotive Coatings division, talks to Manufacturing Leadership Executive Editor Paul Tate about the impact of digital transformation on the chemical sector, the imminent transition to the next generation of manufacturing employees, the need for today’s leaders to grow and learn every day in an increasingly digital world, and the importance of data-driven productivity to the future of the industry.

Q: In what ways do you see today as a time of transformation for the global chemical industry? How would you characterize that trend?
Think about what you do as an individual today. We’re all pretty busy, so we’re using a lot of new online ordering capabilities and digital tools to get what we need. I can order something. I get an email when it’s shipping. I get an email when it’s delivered. Sometimes I even get a picture showing that it’s sitting at my front door so I know it’s there. You can get almost everything delivered today. It’s a time of ease-of-use and ease-of-access for a host of products and services.

The chemical industry is now going through a transition where we’ve got to give a similar kind of service to our customers. Many of our manufacturing capabilities are not setup to be able to show when a shipment is leaving our warehouse, or where it is in transit, and when it’s going to be delivered. The chemical industry today is really just at the very early stages of going into that type of transition and having those kinds of customer-focused capabilities.

Q: How will this impact the manufacturing process itself? Do you see manufacturing becoming increasingly more digital in the future, often called Manufacturing 4.0?
That’s another key part of the transformation. It’s about tying big data more to manufacturing. So, being able to better understand and monitor things like the raw materials you’re buying and the specification of those raw materials. That helps you understand what’s going to be the quality of the product that you make. There’s still a lot of extra checks-and-balances done in chemical manufacturing today. If we can get to a point where there’s a better way to know what’s coming in, then we might be able to eliminate incoming checks and outgoing checks. That’s where we need to get to.

We also need more data-driven, connected machines and devices in our factories to be able to drive the productivity that’s going to be needed over the next decade, and the decades beyond. I believe that we will have more machine learning and autonomous learning in our factories and as part of our manufacturing capability in the years ahead to further enable what we do each day.

In the end, I’m all about waste elimination, so everything you do to test, or rework, or recertify, is ultimately a waste, and waste costs everybody money. It costs the producer money. It costs the customer money. As we think about the transformation that we’re going through in industry today, we need to understand that everyone is looking to buy more for less, or buy more for the same amount. That means you’ve got to eliminate waste and drive productivity across the whole enterprise. Digital tools will help, so everything we’re doing for the future has data analytics tied to it.

“Today’s leaders will need to push themselves more than ever to learn and grow every day because the manufacturing industry is changing super fast.”

Q: Can this digital wave also help transform the large existing production assets the chemical industry already has in place?
The chemical industry has big installed reactors and heat exchangers and many of those types of high-investment assets, so you won’t necessarily change the capital structure of those overnight. However, how you control them, how efficiently you can drive their operation, what type of feedback you can give your teams, and even being able to proactively predict a problem based on certain readings that you’re gathering from the equipment, these are all the kinds of connectivity’s that you can put into already-installed capital bases with the right algorithms and the right data scientists. You can drive a lot of learnings and again, productivities here.

Q: In your own sector of automotive coatings, do you also see significant changes underway?
The auto industry is going through a big transformation itself right now, one that the industry hasn’t seen in decades, with the shift to electric vehicles and new approaches to mobility. Change can be scary, but change also brings huge opportunity. At PPG we have coatings and technologies that can really not just do what we’ve done for a hundred years, which is to protect and beautify a vehicle, but now we’re able to create things like anti-smudge resistant coatings for touch screens and easy to clean coatings for sensors in a world where many aspects of today’s cars are becoming increasingly reliant on digital. We also have functional adhesives and sealants that can enable batteries and battery production to be more efficient and effective in managing heat and vibration.

We have also developed coatings that will help enable LiDAR and radar sensors to work more effectively in an autonomous environment with automobiles. If you think about paint, dark paint is an absorber. So, dark paint is not going to reflect those LiDAR and radar technologies appropriately, so you wouldn’t really be able to see a dark car. But at PPG, we developed technology that allows even dark paint to reflect those technologies making it nearly as visible as a white color to the LiDAR sensors. So, we’re definitely working on a lot of more advanced surface chemistry and paint technology for our future generations of products.

There are so many innovative advances around autonomous and electric vehicles today where we have a huge opportunity to grow. It’s a really exciting time.

Q: What other aspects of your role at PPG excite you?
Companies exist because of technology and shareholders and many other things, but it’s the people that make it happen. I have a strong passion for helping people grow and evolve in their careers. It starts with your input and cadence as a leader and how you think about the business and business leadership. When I joined PPG almost a year ago now, I realized that there were some opportunities for leadership skills and people training capability upgrades, so we established leadership programs and areas for growth for our employees. That’s what really motivates me.

Q: What challenges keep you awake at night?
The chemical industry is going through what they’re calling the “great crew change” right now. The industry had a huge resurgence after a cycle in the mid ‘90s and hired a lot of employees. I think every leader in a chemical industry today would say they’re going to have a significant number of retirees from that hiring cycle over the next five to 10 years. So we’re not only going to lose a significant number of long-term talent, but we’re going to be hiring millennials who think differently, work differently, are used to a much more digital environment and we’ve got to catch up with that. Right now I think the chemical industry is generally behind in its digital and big data capability. To attract the best of the best of this new generation we need to hire, we’re going to have to catch up there. That’s one of the areas that keeps me up at night.

Q: With this potent mix of extensive workforce change, rapid digital transformation in the industry, and innovative new market opportunities ahead, will leadership approaches have to change in the future?
A key pillar of my manufacturing management operating system is to move decision-making to the point of impact. Whether it’s an operator who has to turn on an old-fashioned mixer to start mixing the paint, or making sure that a new automated machine is totally maintained and ready for operation, I think either way, you want to make sure that your management operating system is driving to the point of impact. I don’t see that aspect changing much. But instead of many of the manual data plots and charts in use today, I think you’ll have a lot more automated flow of information, so, people can spend more time on driving the strategy for the future, versus dealing with some of those tactical areas of management that happen today.

Q: How important is cultural change to a world of data-driven decisions and automated information flows?
Change can be hard for some people. It can be very easy for others. But if taught correctly and shown why data-driven decisions are the way to go, employees should actually feel empowered by it. If we have the right discussions with employees and talk about how and why decisions are made based on data, they feel empowered because they know exactly what to do, when, and won’t need to ask as many questions or for approval because it’s very clear when a decision is going to be made.

I also think one of the first cultural shifts that has to happen is from being the hero that comes in and solves a problem, to when you’re the hero because you’ve prevented the problem. When you think about most businesses right now, people get rewards when they solve a big crisis. A customer’s got a line down and the service person goes in and fixes the problem. Or your plant has a pump or a valve that’s broken and the maintenance guy comes in and gets it fixed quickly. People want to come in and be the hero and solve the problem like Superman.

But I think in the future, the heroes are going to be the people that proactively prevent equipment from malfunctioning and make sure all of the digital and autonomous machine learning tools, are proactively thought through. We’re going to move to a state where, if you’re not proactively managing it, your crisis is going to be so much bigger and worse because you don’t have as many people there to run operations. As you get more productive and use more automation, then one issue can really multiply into a major crisis.

  “There are so many innovative advances around autonomous and electric vehicles today where we have a huge opportunity to grow. It’s a really exciting time.”


Q: So what would you highlight as the greatest business challenges and opportunities for the manufacturing industry over the next 5 years?
Digital journeys are both a challenge and an opportunity. I mentioned the great crew change we face where we’re going to have a lot of folks with a lot of knowledge leave the industry in the next five to 10 years. We’ve not been the best at codifying that knowledge in the past. It’s in somebody’s brain. It’s written on somebody’s notebook. It might be in someone’s email. But it has not been systematically documented as well as it should be. That’s the challenge.

The opportunity is that we now have a chance to use a lot of the new tools and digital capabilities we have to get that information documented and in a way that it’s very easy to transmit to the future generation of workers. They are going to be much more digitally enabled – to learn from an app., or transact with their cell phone or some other kind of digital media capability.

So as we look over the next few years, we will see a big change in our workforce, not just who they are, but also how they operate, their job roles, and how they interact with each other and with the customers.

Q: What new skills will leaders need to succeed in this fast-changing, digitally-driven future?
I don’t think that many of the core leadership skills are going to change so much with digital. Leaders will still have to be willing to lead, and take a stand and understand their area – whether it’s in manufacturing, or in business, or in sales – to really drive the right strategies and bring people along as part of that. We’ve also got to continue to prepare the workforce for the future, so manufacturing leadership needs to be open to all the possibilities.

So, today’s leaders will need to push themselves more than ever to learn and grow every day, because the manufacturing industry is changing super fast, and there’s always something new we can learn and deploy to our companies and employees. In the digital age, leaders will also be expected to understand the basics of the many digital capabilities and tools that are available. That will be the new digital baseline for future leadership.

Q: Will that require future leaders with more specific digital skill sets?
Ultimately, business leaders are going to have to be able to handle a lot of the digital things. But there will also be a need for deep, digital experts, like chief digital officers because there are going to be things like creating more effective digital customer experiences that are going to need very specific skills to actually get some of the digital stuff done.

In the end, leaders have to be leaders. It’s hard sometimes because there are a lot of demands on your time, there are a lot of challenges and concerns that are out there. But, being true to yourself and making sure that you’re always thinking holistically about the business, about the people, about the market, looking at things from end-to-end. I think that’s becoming more and more important for leaders, because you just can’t be in your little corporate silo and be successful today, not in the long-term, anyway. 

Q: Finally, if you had to focus on one thing as a watchword for the future of manufacturing, what would that be?
Data-driven productivity. I think there’s going to be so much data-driven efficiency and productivity in the coming years that if you’re not on the data and productivity bus, you’re going to be left behind. Every business leader needs to be thinking right now about how they’re going to keep their company on the leading edge of data-driven productivity in the future. M

PPG Headquarters, Pittsburgh, PA

-Location: Pittsburgh, PA
-Business Sector: Paints, Coatings, Specialty Materials
-Revenues: $15.37 Billion (2018)
-Net Income: $1.34 Billion (2018)
-People: 47,300 Employees
-Market Presence: 70 Countries
-Production: 150 Production Sites Worldwide


Title: Senior Vice President, Automotive OEM Coatings, PPG
Nationality: American
Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, University of Kentucky; Ph.D in chemical engineering, Carnegie Mellon University; M.B.A, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.
Languages: English
Previous Roles Include:
– President & CEO, Honeywell UOP
– Senior Vice President & General Manager, Catalyst Absorbents and Specialties, Honeywell UOP
– Senior Vice President & General Manager, Gas Processing and Hydrogen, Honeywell UOP
– Vice President & General Manager, Electronics Materials, Honeywell UOP
– President, Reynolds Food Packaging, Alcoa KAMA
– Business Director, Solid Polystyrene and High-Performance Polystyrene, Nova Chemicals
– Commercial Leader, Styrenic Polymers, Nova Chemicals
– Global Business Development Leader / Sales and Distribution Manager, Nova Chemicals
– Six Sigma Top Gun Development Engineer, Nova Chemicals
Industry Roles and Awards:
– Board Member, Corteva Agriscience



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