Edmonton/As the daughter of an RCMP officer, she grew up in various locales throughout Alberta.
Married to Allan; mother to Tyler.
Bachelor degree from U of Alberta; Diploma in Economic Development from U of Waterloo.
Recognized as one of North America's premier economic development professionals by Site Selection Magazine.

During the 10 years she spent as a consultant in the private sector, Lori Schmidt learned what she believes to be the two most important lessons of her professional life: Attach yourself to top-notch mentors and pay close attention to the advice they dish out.

“I’ve been blessed in my career to find people who encouraged me in whatever I was doing. They helped me to develop a focus on strong planning processes. And not just one plan. You need a plan B, C and D, in case things go awry.”

Her academic background, hands-on experience and natural organizational ability combine to make her the ideal leader of GO Productivity, a private, not-for-profit corporation working to help small to mid sized industrial corporations improve their performance on a variety of fronts. Apart from her time as president of her own consulting company, where she focused on strategic planning and management techniques for professionals, Schmidt has also served as director of cluster and industry development for Edmonton Economic Development Corporation. She is a member of the Premier’s Council on Alberta’s Promise, and has had the opportunity to travel to and speak at productivity conferences in Seoul, Dubai and Washington, D.C. Schmidt was also featured as a keynote speaker at the Career Women Interaction conference on Leading Competently and has just been named to the board of the Global Federation of Competitiveness Councils. She is a loyal fan of the Edmonton Eskimos, enjoys singing and volunteers extensively within her church community.

1. Can you tell me something about the thought processes that went into the creation of GO Productivity?

When the major labour demand started hitting Alberta in the mid-2000s, there was an effort mounted to find new sources of labour. I had been doing some work with the province and at the municipal level, trying to impress upon them the importance of being more efficient with the resources we had, as much as simply looking for additional human capital. In 2008, the province brought me in to say, ‘OK, what does a productivity strategy look like?’ Immediately, we brought industry to the table, creating an industry advisory committee. We found there was an opportunity to serve as a connection point for industry, specializing in productivity knowledge. Around the world, experts were studying the problem of how to increase productivity but nobody seemed to be taking practical steps to address the problem.

GO Productivity is that one connection point that provides practical knowledge, tools and resources, that works with firms to diagnose their productivity issues and helps them to come up with an action plan to tackle and resolve these issues.

2. Your company was originally affiliated with the provincial government. Why was it decided to transform it into an independent, not-for-profit organization?

Well, a number of things. We wanted to be more of a service agency. And the government wanted to remain at arm’s length from that. They said, they’d be happy to support us but felt that the delivery of services should remain at arm’s length. Apart from that, credibility was an issue. It’s very difficult for government advisers to approach a private enterprise with advice on how to improve efficiency. Right from the beginning, industry leaders recommended that the agency should stand alone.

3. Did other factors influence the decision?

Independence allows us to be non-partisan. As a not-for-profit corporation, we can facilitate a number of conversations, we can bring lots of different groups and agencies to the table without having a political or other vested interest in the outcome.

4. Does the provincial government continue to supply funding for the organization?

Yes, they do. In essence, what we did was to ask to retain our former budget for five years. So we are following a sustainability plan. We would like to reach a point wherein the province provides no more than 25 per cent of our funding. The challenge is to bring this stuff to small businesses, while not making cost a barrier.

5. What is the annual budget of GO Productivity and what are some other sources of revenue?

We’re currently just short of $4 million a year. We get some revenues via fee-for-service contracts, we do a lot of training on our own, we have engineers in-house who are expert in a number of specialties and provide in-house productivity services such as Lean Six Sigma and other improvement methods. We have support through sponsorship for a lot of our work so we partner with other major organizations. A lot of our growth in revenue generation is now coming from other provinces, other agencies that are licensing a number of the tools and specific programs that we’ve developed uniquely here in Alberta.

6. Can you describe some of these services?

We license a range of things. For example, we’ve developed a train-the-trainer component. We’re able to train up organizations in other provinces. We’ve also developed an online productivity-assessment tool and we’re able to customize that for particular regions, modify it for their specific province or audience and then accepting a licensing fee in exchange for that. We’ll do everything, including setting up a productivity website for their region.

7. Which provinces have been the most responsive so far?

Nova Scotia is the biggest and we’re getting some other interest from the Maritimes. We’ve just started some pilot work in Saskatchewan and B.C. We’re also attracting interest at the international level. We’ve found that almost every developed country in the world has a productivity office of some type, but most are still just doing the research, studying the metrics within specific industries. We’re quite unique because we’re actually trying to bring tools and resources to the company level, to help build up capacity within that company to allow it to grow and thrive. I have spoken at an international conference of the Global Competitiveness Forum and we had some work published in their global best practices reports in 2012 and in 2014. We are recognized as offering a unique approach to tackling productivity issues.

8. You also receive some support from the federal government, don’t you?

Yes, we’re in the last year of project funding from Western Economic Diversification Canada. I think going forward we would approach them on a project by project basis. We would like to be self-sustaining through our own programs and services. We think where government can continue to play a role is where we find gaps, such as helping smaller firms to develop a culture of innovation.

Blaine Calkins, MP Wetaskiwin, chats with GO Productivity CEO Lori Schmidt.
Blaine Calkins, MP Wetaskiwin, chats with GO Productivity CEO Lori Schmidt.

9. Who is responsible for the development of your unique tools and systems?

Some have come from our own primary research. Our productivity-assessment tool, we developed inhouse and brought in leading content experts to build out the three streams of operational excellence, innovation and leadership and management. . . . And from that main body of work, we developed deeper programing in each of those key areas.

10. How does your home province score in terms of productivity assessment and what is your agency doing in response?

We did some more research in Alberta to find out why our performance is poor. We know a lot of it is inefficiency within our operational models, but we also found that we were lagging, in particular behind the U.S., in technology adoption, for example. We’re investing less in equipment and information technologies, as far as our business processes go. Many businesses, especially small businesses, weren’t necessarily making wise decisions when it came to the types of IT that they could use within their businesses. So we’ve developed a program around technology integration. So that’s everything from helping them do an assessment of their processes and then identifying where certain types of technology might be of value to them. We ask ourselves how we can help them understand their processes, how do we help them go through better processes to make wise decisions for their companies.

11. That’s kind of a surprise. You’re saying that Alberta’s productivity is actually poor?

Yes and no. There are plenty of measurements out there, but the most common is labour productivity. For years, Alberta has boasted that we have the highest productivity. But we have to keep in mind that the energy sector skews that somewhat.

12. How so?

When oil prices are high, with so much money invested in the industry, and when you compare that to the volume of labour input that goes into that process, it makes us look more productive than we are. When you start to break out the numbers, you find that we’re not as competitive as we could be in manufacturing and a number of the industrial sectors that support the energy industry including construction projects. We also discovered that for the last 10 years, Alberta’s productivity growth rate has been a cause for concern. Other provinces are continuing to increase and improve faster than Alberta.

13. What are your contacts in the business community saying about this?

We’ve spoken to businesses up and down the province, asking them whether or not we’re on the right track. They didn’t tend to speak in terms of productivity numbers. A typical response might be: ‘I’m at capacity but my margins are decreasing every year.’ They know that, despite all the effort they’re putting into their businesses, they’re not making as much money. In fact, a lot of them are starting to feel they’re not going to be able to compete into the future.

14. That sounds serious. Are all the province’s business leaders getting the message?

The challenge in Alberta is, the environment has been such that companies are able to make money in spite of the mistakes they may make. We’re blessed because we have had a thriving energy sector here, but we can tend to become complacent. Business operators may not even be aware that their margins are slipping and that suddenly they may find themselves out of the game. They’re seeing more competition coming in from other regions, or even from other countries. They may be losing bids that they would have won in the past. It’s a matter of trying to sell companies on a problem that they have yet to recognize as a problem.

15. So let’s get down to the fundamentals. How does this work? Are you primarily serving small and midsized businesses?

We are; that’s our main target. That means companies of fewer than 250 or 300 employees, which represent approximately 80 per cent of the businesses in Alberta. We focus on the industrial sectors. The reason we do that is because this sector represents a supply chain that’s vitally important to the provincial economy. This is an area we’ve identified where major gains can be accomplished.

16. Do you charge your corporate clients?

We do free assessments and provide free information regarding the tools and resources that are out there. Where we start to charge is if a client wants us to come in and do a demonstration project within their operation, which could entail doing a process map for them, helping them do a first implementation of a new system. We also charge for our events, workshops and corporate training programs. We have a supply chain program as well wherein we coach clients through productivity improvements through that process and there is also a charge for that.

17. How do your clients find out about the services you provide and what are their major concerns?

We do lots of public speaking through industry and other associations so lots of them learn about us that way. But most of them will come to us with a burning platform issue of some sort. Maybe a financial crunch, or a personnel issue. Sometimes they’ve lost key contracts or they’re recognizing that there is new competition within their space. Some companies have come to us because they’ve been awarded a new contract, maybe with a major company such as a Syncrude or a Suncor, and they’re concerned how they’re going to meet the demand of the new customer.

18. Do most of your clients come to you in something close to a desperate situation?

Usually, yes. The other clients generally come out of curiosity, looking for the leading edge. These are companies that are always looking for best practices, those early adopters who want to stay ahead of the curve.

19. Without getting into corporate specifics, can you describe a “burning platform issue” that you’ve dealt with fairly recently?

I alluded to this case before. We had a firm that was awarded a big contract with an oil-sands producer and decided they needed to set up an appropriate facility in Fort McMurray in order to service their customer. This is an industrial company that manufactures specific component parts. They needed to assure their customer that they’d be able to supply the product on a timely basis. We were able to help them figure out their processes quickly. It’s a matter of helping them through the processes that will help them make informed decisions as to what to do next.

20. Do you have the capacity to help a number of business clients at the same time?

At any one time, we’re probably working with as many as 50 companies. We go right into the business, find out what’s going on, come back to them with a game plan. It’s a matter of hands-on coaching. And if we don’t have the specific brand of expertise that is required, we partner with a large number of organizations and contractors who might be able to help them. The core of our expertise is industrial engineering. The most senior of our engineers has a master black belt of lean six sigma (an expert in lean enterprise strategies and concepts) and he is certified to train others in Alberta. We have another gentleman of the same quality who has a PhD, has worked with Honeywell and is an expert in product development as well as process improvement. We have MBAs and a CMA on staff. There’s a lot of talent within this group.