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Case Study: Micro Motors, Inc.
A look at how one company "reinvented" itself in order to prosper in the 21st century

By Patrick Johnson, MBA

Micro Motors Inc. has been providing high-quality, low-speed handpieces to the dental industry for more than 30 years. The company's history is the classic entrepreneurial story of a young engineer who came up with the right product at the right time for the right customer and built a successful company around that single serendipitous moment. Unfortunately, entrepreneurial stories often end in the ultimate demise of the fledgling company, not able to repeat its original success and, quite possibly, not understanding what made it successful in the first place. Such was the case of Micro Motors. After more than 25 years of doing basically the same thing, the same way, for the same customers, the success waned and the company lost its way. But, for Micro Motors, that wasn't the end of the story. Armed with not much more than the intention to succeed, Micro Motors' current leadership team has reinvented the company and, in doing so, returned it to its successful ways. What follows is the story of the key steps they took in "reinventing" the company.

From the beginning
Entrepreneurial companies are usually founded on the provision of a single product or service. It may be that, over time, the single product or service grows into a "family" of products or services, but the key success of the company is derived from a single "invention." When a single invention becomes such a defining force in a company, the company has a tendency to personify that key product or service. In other words, the company "wraps" itself around the key invention and literally becomes an extension of it, defining its every aspect through the original product or service.

In Micro Motors' case, the original "invention" was a miniature five-vane rotary air motor, a motor that found its way into most of the low-speed air handpieces sold in the last 30 years. The motor also found its way into several industrial and medical applications, but the majority of the company's sales came from dental products containing that motor. As a consequence, Micro Motors built a reputation as a "low-speed dental handpiece company" and the company managed itself around that definition.

Unfortunately for entrepreneurs and Micro Motors, the world changes and what was once successful can no longer sustain the growth of a company. Adding insult to injury is the fact that when the world changes, it has no consideration for the foundation on which the company is built, particularly the pervasiveness of the company's original invention in everything it does. Having built the company around that single original defining success, the company quickly discovers that its ability to respond to change are very limited and is restricted by the self-definition the company has created for itself. In a way, the company is now a victim of its own success, unable to respond to a changed world.

Looking ahead
Recognizing this fatal flaw in organizational design, the first step to "reinventing entrepreneurial success" is to create a new "vision" for the company, a vision that will lead it to its future successes and a vision that will not depend on a particular product or service, past or present. A "vision" for lack of better definition is how you want the company to occur to the world
out in the future. It's what you want your customers, your vendors, and your employees to say about the company in the future. As such, the vision becomes an energy source that draws the company into the future instead of it being pushed by what it did in the past. The vision is the thing that won't change, even when the world does. While "vision statements" are nearly cliché in organizational management and seem to be the mainstay of every management consultant in the world, it's crucial that a company go through the process of peeling away the outer layers of the company's persona and define "who the company is going to be" in the future. Without a future-based vision, the company will continue to be consumed by the circumstances it finds itself in today, attempting to solve problems with yesterday's solutions.

What was done
In an effort to create a new vision for the company, the Micro Motors' leadership team spent two-and-a-half days, in an off-site workshop, struggling to define a new future for itself. Central to that struggle was "letting go" of what the team already knew about the company - what the company did well, what it did poorly, what worked, and what didn't. While all of that might have something to do with managing the company in the present, it was equally as possible that it had nothing to do with leading the company tomorrow. The creation of a new vision requires ignoring what you do know and examining what you don't know - it's an inquiry into what is possible.

After more than two days of being "stuck" in their past, Micro Motors' leadership team began to let go of what they already knew about the company, a knowing that restricted any creative thought about the future. In examining what the company really did and more importantly, what the company did really well, irrespective of any particular product or customer, the leadership team started to expose the true essence of the company, the company's core competencies, the things that set it apart from its competition, and the things that were valued by all of its customers. And, in doing so, it began to formulate the new vision for the company.

It was clear to the company's leadership team that "new product development" was at the core of the company's strengths, but not just any new product development. What Micro Motors did well was develop new products very quickly, utilizing versatile technology platforms, most of which encompassed some type of rotary drive systems. This approach to product development resulted in getting new products to market much faster than expected, allowing the company's customers to realize revenue from new product sales sooner.

In a brainstorming session intended to capture the essence of the company in a single phase or sentence, one of the team members suggested "rapid innovation," as in doing things quickly and creatively.

Fortuitously, the person who was writing the suggestions down on a flip chart wrote "rabid innovation," a phrase that stopped the group in its tracks. The two words describe the essence of the company perfectly - "rabid innovation" - as in foaming at the mouth, bouncing off the wall, spinning like a tornado, acting unpredictably, and defying the laws of convention. What Micro Motors did well and what Micro Motors was as a company, was a willingness to act unreasonable in the face of reasonable expectations, creating "extraordinary results" in the process and creating real value for its customers.

Empowered with the new vision of "Rabid Innovation ... Extraordinary Results," Micro Motors has spent two years redefining and retooling every aspect of the company, including the leadership team itself. Transforming a company is a challenging process, requiring that no stone be left unturned and that no belief be left unchallenged. While organizational transformation can offer new beginnings for a company as well as to the people who compose it, it also signals the end to many of the things that have made the company who it was in the past, including its people; a sometimes painful, but rewarding process.

The current situation
With the momentum created by its new vision, Micro Motors has successfully launched several new products for many of the top names in healthcare, including Medtronic, BioMet, and Smith & Nephew. These products are used in orthopedics, neurosurgery, maxiofacial reconstruction, as well as cranial and spinal surgery and were delivered quickly to market, incorporating Micro Motors' proprietary rotary drive system technology - "Rabid Innovation . . . Extraordinary Results" in action.

At the same time, the company has reestablished its presence in the dental industry, both on the branded and the OEM side of the business. To kick off 2003, the company appointed 12 independent sales representatives to promote the sale of the company's branded product line, a product line well-entrenched in the company's reputation for providing high-quality, low-speed handpieces.

In addition, Micro Motors has recently established several new OEM relationships, most notably with Curozone USA. In conjunction with Curozone USA, Micro Motors developed the HealOzone, a revolutionary device that treats dental carries with the concentrated delivery of ozone gas, eliminating the need for the traditional "drill and fill treatment. While not yet approved for use in the United States, the Healozone is available in Europe through KaVo. This project is a further demonstration of Micro Motors' vision to bring innovative products to market quickly, using unconventional means to achieve extraordinary ends.

During the life of a company, it will likely go through cycles of creation, disintegration, and reinvention, sometimes over the course of 20 years and sometimes over the course of 20 days. To a great degree, the events that trigger the individual phases of the cycle are out of the control of the individuals entrusted to lead those companies. However, how the company responds to changes in the world around them is completely in their control and it is incumbent on those business leaders to recognize when change - sometimes radical change - is required to sustain or recapture the past successes of their companies. This is the substance of visionary leadership.

Patrick Johnson joined Micro Motors in April of 2000 as vice president and general manager and was later promoted to president of the company. Johnson is now the president and chief executive officer of Pro-Dex, Inc., the parent company of Micro Motors, Inc., and continues to serve as president of Micro Motors. Prior to joining Micro Motors, Johnson served as general manager of Analytic Endodontics, a division of Sybron Dental, Tycom Dental, and Dabico Inc.

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