Manufacturing Excellence: Still the Best

December 1, 2009
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American manufacturing has been taking flack for more than 20 years. The funny thing is that nothing has changed, and there may even have been some improvement. Still, our problems remain the same.

When our automotive industry started facing challenges around the 1970s after the oil shock, they tried a variety of solutions such as quality circles, Six Sigma and Chapter 11. It seems like nothing helped. Evidently, quality must not be the only reason for Big Three failures. There must be something else.

The Big Three must not have asked their customers, dealers, suppliers or employees what should be done differently. Their actions primarily have been determined by the board of (random) directors in selecting CEOs without a long-term vision, CEOs utilizing hacksaw techniques to cut cost, forcing suppliers to pay for internal problems and producing cars in response to their internal marketing genius.

Think about it-Toyota is known for quality, Honda for innovation and Volkswagen for safety, but what are GM, Ford and Chrysler known for? They used to be known for something, but not any more. One can say that the inability to adapt to changing times may be one cause for the auto miseries.

This is a serious question, and my intent is not to criticize any stakeholder of the industry. It is a problem beyond the power of the one, but it may be the problem without the power of one.

During his years of leadership at Motorola, Bob Galvin would tell his shareholders that if they did not like what he was doing for the company, they could sell their shares rather than do something random every quarter to increase the share price. It is well understood that if we take care of the business, the market takes care of the share price. Main Street determines the fate of Wall Street.

Ultimately, the number one customer of a business is the user, not the shareholder. But, when we just take care of the share price, we wonder what happens to the business. Today’s leadership is more interested in market performance than the performance of its products and service to its customers.

It is really frustrating for a common person to see how highly decorated individuals in leadership roles do trivial things and ignore the crucial acts. It looks like the intellectual capability or ability to think decreases with promotion in an organization.

We should look at sports teams as an example. The normal way of using improvement tools has become stale. Instead of teamwork, I suggest team huddles. The difference is that in teams nobody is connected, yet while in the huddle, everyone is connected. Teamwork has become a cop-out for poor performance, and huddles can overcome that deficiency by improving the team chemistry and making interdependence more visible. We could have daily leadership huddles, management huddles, departmental huddles or operator huddles to energize everyone for a specific common objective and finishing it well. Instead of having many projects lingering on the horizon, huddles can get the job done.

At the leadership level organizations need the right focus. Pursuing the strategy of sustained profitable growth instead of cutting cost or somehow showing quarterly profit can help every business.

During a PANIIT 2009 keynote address, Tulsi Tanti, CEO of Suzlon Energy Ltd., a global wind energy company, said that America has the best manufacturing infrastructure in the world. It was refreshing to hear from an executive based in a country that is a destination for outsourcing jobs.

I hope this helps in recognizing that our true challenge is the ability of our leaders to build trust and mobilize the American workforce to produce the best in the world performance. People will always do their best. So it must be listening to the customers, design of product or service, design or organization, and design of processes that must be paid attention to. With this foundation a good engineering mind at all levels will do a lot of good.

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