By Judith Munson  

 Travel U.S. 53 from La Crosse through Eau Claire to Duluth/Superior and you’ll see how changing economies have
driven changing cityscapes, with service, tourism and high-tech replacing resource-based commerce.
River walks, parks, specialty boutiques, restaurants and other tourism-friendly attractions have supplanted the smokestacks and lumber mills that once loomed over our waterfronts. Steve Blue is well-aware of how communities and the businesses that live in them have to embrace change or fail to thrive.

Blue left Chicago 20 years ago to become CEO of Miller Ingenuity in Winona. At the time, the company was called Miller Felpax, manufacturer of locomotive and freight car parts. While it still makes some of these products, the mission of the business transitioned to developing safety solutions for the railroad industry. It needed employees with the technological training to design and create these products. Employees with this kind of education and related skills require a different kind of culture to succeed.

As Miller Felpax evolved into Miller Ingenuity, Blue wanted his staff to embrace creativity—something they were not necessarily told or encouraged to do in years past. He brought in the chief creativity officer from the QVC channel. You read that right. An executive from the world’s largest TV shopping network traveled from Pennsylvania to Winona to help railroad-parts workers tap into their right brains. And it worked.

“I didn’t want manufacturing-speak—I wanted creativity, and he taught the staff how to brainstorm,” says Blue. “You can’t implement new ideas if you don’t have them.”

Miller Ingenuity now has clients such as GE and Maryland Transit Administration using its safety components. But embracing a digital mission is not enough anymore with AI, IoT and Big Data altering the way we work once again. It’s why Blue has developed a business program called “Innovational Potential®.”

“Every company has the potential to innovate, but they stack the deck against it because of stupid policies,” he says. “These policies are designed to control instead of free employees. Control how people think, how they behave. Business today needs to create an environment that allows people to explore.”

Blue installed what he coined a “Creation Station” right in the middle of the plant’s manufacturing floor. “It’s like an oasis,” he says. “Employees are expected to go in there whenever they want to fix problems or create opportunities. All the resources they need are there.”

Blue says businesses have to respect the perspective of today’s employee—a perspective that is a far cry from that of a generation or two ago.

“Millennials watched companies break the social contract with their parents when they were laid off or lost pensions. Younger workers today are not going to be as obligated to the company as people were in the past.”

Millennials are also known for seeking work that matters and that they have a stake in, so Blue empowers his staff to be completely responsible for projects from the moment the idea is generated to invoicing the product once it leaves the plant. “The employees own the process, not the managers,” he says.

Blue has written five books related to the subject of embracing change, including “Metamorphosis: From Rust-Belt to High-Tech in a 21st Century World,” just published by Celebrity Press. He has a podcast called “Transform. Ignite. Disrupt.” that features innovators in the leadership field. He also travels the world presenting his leadership principles, because, as he puts it: “There are too many companies not making this innovational shift.”

Blue says he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world and is bringing his passion home as Winona State University’s first-ever “CEO in Residence.” He describes the role as “bridging the gap between staff and students to the business world.”

For more information about Steve Blue and his business writings, go to www.stevenlblue.com.