Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The road to manufacturing success

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
--Alvin Toffler, writer and noted futurist

The quote from Toffler ties in well to whether or not, manufacturing in Maine and by extension, the U.S. can be saved. The answer to the implied question yesterday, “Can Manufacturing Be Saved?” would be a hearty “yes.” At the same time, a caveat, or two, would be in order.

Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine, deserves a great deal of credit for her tireless efforts to promote manufacturing in Maine. This association is a multi-industry organization, focused on economic, financial, educational, and business prosperity for all members and workers. Their first summit, “Saving American Manufacturing,” featured Michael P. Collins, national manufacturing guru and author.

Collins keynote address, last night, touched on a number of issues, and painted a picture that I would characterize as optimistic. Stating his personal mission as, 1) to educate people on the importance of manufacturing, 2) convince policymakers that we can’t allow manufacturing to decline, and 3) convincing manufacturers that they can compete, Collins’ efforts were successful, from my perspective.

One of the points he made to his audience of around 100, is one that is rarely made any more, in discussions pertaining to economic growth, and prosperity—manufacturing is the foundation of our economy! Collins emphasized that there are only three wealth-creation sectors within our economy:

  • Agriculture
  • Manufacturing
  • Extraction (natural resources)

All the rest, like the financial sector, healthcare, and education, merely transfer wealth and result in a finite supply of wealth. In a state that is struggling with revenue, his take on wealth creation is worth heeding by policymakers of all political stripes.

One of the issues that Collins touched on is that manufacturing has always had a built-in market, domestically. Because of this, thinking beyond our borders has been hard, because 20 to 30 years ago, this wasn’t necessary. Globalization has forced manufacturers to begin to consider new markets, for the first time. Like any industry, or sector in the 21st century, those that are successful are those that have the capacity and willingness to adapt and transform themselves. Manufacturing is no different.

Granted, change isn’t easy and it poses challenges. However, Collins’ points indicate that for small to midsize manufacturers (SMMs) to compete in the future, they must be willing to change their focus from the internal processes to the external customer environment. In fact, countering many of the naysayers, American small and midsize manufacturers have a big advantage over their foreign competitors — the domestic market, because they are close to the U.S customers and markets and have led the world in innovation and services.

How is this done? Not by sitting back, or wringing one’s hands on the sidelines. Collins talked about the need for SMMs to go on the attack. This means adapting a market or external orientation and changing the organizations from being a defender- to a prospector-type organization. It will mean learning methods to profile the best customers, find new markets, select the best sales channels, develop new products, offer new services and change to an organization that can find the new opportunities.

During today’s morning session, Collins walked a group of small and medium manufacturers through a Visual Information Mapping (VIM) Report Card, based upon a turnaround business he was involved in a decade ago. This was a practical and prescriptive plan, which if implemented, offered some key tools to help manufacturers succeed.

The morning session was sponsored by an innovative, small manufacturer, from Auburn, Mountain Machine Works. Owner Bruce Tisdale, happens to be a member of our Local Workforce Investment Board. Tisdale spoke briefly about the business services that the Manufacturers Association of Maine offers to its membership, all services that have been helpful to Tisdale, in building a successful business model, as a small job shop.

While I’m not intimately involved in manufacturing, I fully understand the key role it plays in our state’s future, and am pleased that the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board continues to do all that it can to support its long term health.

Interestingly, much of what Collins talked about had applications across the spectrum. His points on tracking sales quotes, diagnosing problems, and then offering a prescription, as well as marketing materials, all could be applied with other industries.

I’ll end with an excerpt from an article that Collins wrote, back in August, 2007, for Manufacturing.net, as well as a link to a positive article pertaining to U.S. manufacturing.

"Contrary to the doom-and-gloom scenarios brought on by the tightening grip of globalization, American manufacturers can compete in the new economy and against foreign competitors — but not as we competed in the past. To find the new market opportunities, we must change our companies and go on the attack.

The most fundamental change will be adapting the company to the new demands of the marketplace. This is not a matter of simply hiring some extra sales people or spending more money on promotion. Becoming market-oriented is changing the company from an order taker to an order maker."

No comments: