Have you been spending more time on Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity or any of the other travel-related Web sites lately? While the lackluster economy of the past year has curtailed travel for many quality and manufacturing professionals, one can’t stay in their office forever if they are to improve their business.

First, there are numerous conferences, trade shows and similar learning events that are invaluable opportunities to see new products and learn about new technologies and processes. While the Internet does a great job at distance learning, webinars and virtual trade shows, there is no substitute for holding a new product in your hand, trying your part on a piece of equipment, personal interaction with an instructor or networking with your peers about new ideas. Person-to-person communication is still a critical and irreplaceable part of business.

As matter of fact, in our 9th Annual State of the Profession Study (July 2009, p. 46),QualityMagazine found that almost half of all job training has been conducted person-to-person on the job site and that more than 40% of training still comes from attending off-site seminars. And while the number of quality professionals using trade shows as a source of learning has declined, many of those events are widely viewed as excellent opportunities to see new products.

To continue with the findings in our study, 80% of quality professionals report their primary responsibility at work is to implement solutions to problems, 65% deal with customers and 60% deal with suppliers. Achieving any one of these tasks requires one to get out from behind one’s desk and personally interact with others. Much can be accomplished via phone and using Web conferencing technologies. But, how much more is learned when one actually meets face to face, or personally visits a factory to witness its operations and speak with its employees?

Granted, getting on a plane during 2008 and before was simpler because the economy was better. And, quality professionals have toldQualityMagazine that both budget cutbacks (59%) and time constraints (59%) are their biggest obstacles that will affect their job in the next 12 months. That may be tied to their concern about the economy (57%) but not wholly. Further questions about what concerns quality professionals most shows that while having a sufficient operating budget may be an obstacle, only 20% are truly concerned about it. And, in answer to their concern about the economy, certainly something that has confronted all of us, recent economic indicators point to recovery, albeit slowly, and expected expansion in manufacturing.

At the time I write this, the July 2009 Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) showed an increase for the seventh straight month. July’s PMI was also the third straight month above 41.2, which tends to indicate economic expansion. Breaking the 50-point mark-the point of manufacturing increase-seems inevitable by Labor Day. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the second quarter 2009, reported in August, came in at less than a 1% decline, which was better than expected and an improvement from the first quarter 2009 GDP drop of 6.4%. Analysts point to this as a sign of a stabilizing economy.

And finally, June 2009 manufacturing technology consumption numbers, as reported by the Association for Manufacturing Technology (McLean, VA), increased for the first time in nearly nine months.

So, as these concerns are given reason to be less so, and as obstacles seem to diminish in light of a better economy, manufacturers will find it necessary to return their focus to that which makes up 80% of their responsibility. And, while the Internet can help focus one’s efforts, make sure you also visit a travel site, buy a ticket and get on that plane as part of finding the best solutions. I’ll see you in the airports and at this fall’s events.

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