Quality Magazine

Manufacturing Excellence: World War III

July 31, 2009


I am sure everyone at General Motors (GM) is thinking about how everyone else is using GM’s misery as an opportunity. It is okay to learn from others’ mistakes. Does that mean GM is the only one that made mistakes? Absolutely not. The GM that was brought to glory by Alfred Sloan remained an icon of American manufacturing for many years. When GM fell, we all fell a little, and we hope to rise again with GM soon. But what did we learn from this experience?

GM fell from the powerhouse it once was for many reasons, including strategy, union, leadership, benefits and labor cost, according to experts.

We must look back to replicate our best times. In the 1950s to 1970s the slogan “Made in America” made all of us proud. Even when I was in India, a simple plastic bag or shower cap with “Made in America” on it made me feel I had possession of something very precious. “Made in America” was the best in class, globally and competitively, because there was no one better. Even when the products were inspected for quality, waste was 30% and shoddy products were shipped, U.S. products were still better than the rest of the world. Exports were high, the world happily paid for American products and we prospered.

However, since the 1970s we have started to face the competition that set a target for excellence to beat “Made in America.” We were flattered by the competition, but imitation is not flattery when it’s chipping away at our economy. We cannot blame the competition as we proudly promote free market and capitalism. In fact, we should be proud that the rest of the world started becoming better and we, as a nation, enabled it. Then, what went wrong?

We, as a nation, must wake up to the reality that we are outnumbered by our competition. Our contribution to the global economy seems to be slipping. How can we win it back?

The mindset of mediocrity is haunting us. Excellence is a prerequisite to innovation. Our innovations will not be successful unless we first overcome the barrier to excellence. Then, why don’t we learn to excel?

I hear people claim that we all are doing our best, but nobody knows what excellence is. Our number one challenge must be to get rid of mediocrity in everything we do. We need a national campaign for excellence in America.

Imagine this to be World War III except this is an economic war. The rest of the world, or at least our competition, has realized that the power of military lies in a strong economy. We must understand that the strength of our military lies in our economic success. This time, our war must be against our mediocrity. We must not just expect excellence, we must passionately produce excellence.

How do we begin? To wage this war against mediocrity, a major commitment from organizations, government and citizens is necessary. I challenge everyone to look into his daily or hourly performance to see how well he has done or the value he has produced.

The first step is to notice mediocrity in our daily work. Be on the lookout for meetings that begin without a clearly stated purpose or agenda and end without any action items. More importantly, watch for how many of the expected action items are completed before the meeting.

Look into the marginality of our quality management systems, whether certified to some standards or not. Think of what a best quality management system would accomplish. Let’s not just implement any quality management system. Instead, let’s implement the best quality management system.

We must move away from “I am doing my best” to “I am doing the best in the world with clear targets.” This desire to excel is not top down, bottom up or middle out in an organization. Instead it is a matter of personal and national pride, thus citizens understand, accept and perform to perfection with attention to details.

To me, GM is not General Motors nor Government Managed, instead it is Generally Marginal. To rid ourselves of mediocrity, the word “acceptable” must be removed from our manufacturing dictionary.