Profile: Maricel Cabahug, CIO, Yaskawa Electric America

Three years ago when CIO Maricel Cabahug took the reins of the world’s largest manufacturer of inverter and servo drives, servomotors and industrial robots, she knew she had to blow management away from the very first day on the job.

In the skill-charged halls of Yaskawa Electric, perfection is an automated certainty; quality a surety driven by unerring engineering; and business processes an exacting path calculated by some of the finest minds on the planet. In this environment, even the “best” work of most professionals can be seen as woefully lacking.

“When I got promoted to CIO, part of me was excited about the possibilities but I also knew I had a very short time to make a difference,” she said. “Yaskawa let go two of my predecessors, a very good indication that the business was very dissatisfied with its current IT organization.”

But change for change sake wasn’t going to fly with upper management or the rank and file. The steps she needed to take had to be precise, accountable and solid. Surprisingly, she opted for a cultural upheaval as her first move.

Cabahug rose through the ranks and had been working with essentially the same people since 1995. She said she knew first-hand how bad it feels to be “unappreciated” and labeled by the business as “project killers.” Beyond hurt feelings and low morale, she knew the disconnect between IT and business created a strangle-hold on both sides of the fence that was dampening company profits.

There was within the walls of IT, a sense of helplessness, of being “snowed in” and “buried” under tons of backlog. “We were accused of having ‘no sense of urgency,’ ‘no clue about the business,’ ‘being uncaring,’ etc.,” she said. “Today, it is very rewarding to hear our president talk about how our revenue grew 65% since 2001, our headcount decreased 35%, our fulfillment rate and customer satisfaction ratings continue to climb year after year. The productivity gains he attributes to how we’ve leveraged IT tools and systems to streamline our processes and enable our employees.”

But leveraging IT tools and streamlining processes takes more than technical skill. Ultimately, people have to actually use the technology. This meant people skills came into play first. The much-needed culture change required strong management skills, an increasing need in the CIO makeup as IT continues to shift from technical support to business partner.

“It’s a matter of changing how we view ourselves and how we are viewed by the business,” explains Cabahug. “Hence, I came up with the following rules. They’re mostly common sense, simplistic even, but they work … ”

IT’s main reason for existence is to provide service to our customers.

We’re here to make their jobs easier through IT tools.

By the way, they’re customers, not users.

We are technology professionals, not order takers.

It is our responsibility, not the customer’s, to find the best way to apply technology to a business opportunity.

“No” or “not possible” without an explanation is not acceptable. There’s always a solution, understand the reason for the request and you’ll find it. Present the solution and alternatives and let the business decide. If you do your job right, you should be able to convince them. “If it is still an issue, come to me.”

Designing a solution exactly like a user requested it is not “doing your job.” If they change their minds later on, they’re not being difficult, the business might have changed. They’re not deliberately hiding details from you, it may just be too obvious to them and they did not think it was important to mention. You did not ask the right questions or anticipated the scenario, you did not take time to understand the business need, and you’re partly to blame. Better yet, it’s nobody’s fault, just fix it and learn from the experience.

When they don’t understand technology that does not mean they’re less smart. You don’t know how to sell our products, but you obviously are not stupid. You know IT, they know the business process, work together and you’ll come up with a great solution they’ll actually use.

“I pointed them to the direction I wanted them to head towards; the rest is up to them. I cannot forge a partnership between IT and the business on my own,” she said. “It has to be nurtured consistently at all levels. Ultimately, they’re the ones that make it work. I have the easy job of just setting the strategy and the direction.”

Cabahug said company executives now brag: “We have the competency to implement IT projects successfully,” “adoption is not a real issue,” and “our CIO knows a lot about how we do business.