A veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of great American thinkers who, well, think great things, I guess, got together in Washington a while back under the guise of something called The National Summit on Competitiveness and poured barrels of perfume on the U.S. manufacturing pig in an effort to pretty the thing up. Nobody there talked about factories, however. From what I can gather, that is probably because very few people in attendance ever really worked in one. Nobody there talked about Wall Street and the basic U.S. manufacturing finance model that creates incentives to build inventory, compromise quality and wage war on production workers, either. The subject of lean manufacturing never came up
The views of these great thinkers centered around the need for more ‘innovation’ and, naturally, the need for more and better educated people to do the innovating. I can hardly find fault with a recommendation that we put more money into education and beef up the skills level of the workforce and the number of scientists and engineers strolling out of the hallowed halls of America’s universities, any more than I can criticize your mother’s apple pie recipe. This is hardly going to fix American manufacturing, however. The thought process and values of the people tasked with restoring our competitiveness can be pretty clearly understood by reading the report that was issued from Senator Joe Lieberman’s office. The title tells it all: "Offshore Outsourcing and America’s Competitive Edge: Losing Out In the High Technology R&D Service Sectors". This year old white paper from the distinguished gentleman was deemed so important that the council reissued the thing. It basically says that losing production jobs is just a reality of the new global economy – get used to it – but when companies outsource computer geeks, now that’s a national crisis. (You can see that the scorn for factory workers is not limited to senior managers of the publicly held manufacturers. The esteemed senator is a lot more concerned about losing work done by educated voters too.)
The council really bought into the theory of the I-Cubed economy, as put forth by a think tank called the Athena Alliance. The I-Cubed economy is based on the notion that innovation, information and Intangibles are the core of the American economy. Factories, of course, are all about tangibles, however, but it does not look like there is room for them in 21st century America, according to these folks. The guy with the biggest brain at Athena basically says as much. According to Ken Jarboe, "At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I have to say that quality and lean production is sooo last century." I don’t think Mr. Jarboe sounds like a heretic, he just sounds like he is about sixteen.
One would think that NAM, the National Association of Manufacturers, would be the voice of reason at such a gathering but, sadly, this is not the case. The president of NAM is John Engler who has the same manufacturing resume as Senator Lieberman – that is to say, he is also a life long politician who could not tell you the difference between MRP and CNC. NAM, a good enough organization, does not actually exist to protect and advance the interests of manufacturing, it exists to protect and advance the interests of manufacturing owners, and there is an ocean of difference between the two. NAM lobbies hard and long for government tax breaks, regulatory relief and protection from foreign competition. In short, their goal is to increase the amount of money left over in the pockets of the company owners, and how that plays out in the factories and for workers is not their focus.
The disheartening conclusion of all of this is that there is nobody in Washington or at the national level in any capacity speaking for lean manufacturing, and pointing out the fundamental problems in our financial models and our basic precepts of management that are undermining lean manufacturing and are the true cause of our eroding competitiveness. In Rebirth of American Industry, there is a chapter titled ‘Call To Action" that attempts to tell these very folks what they must do to help reverse the course of manufacturing in America. I doubt that any of them will read the book however, because it is "sooo last century".
You’re on your own, folks. The only think tank you have assisting you in your lean manufacturing effort is the bathtub you collapse into after another day of swimming upstream at the plant. Take heart, though. Your kids won’t know what a factory is, but they will all have careers as ‘innovators of intangibles’, whatever that means.