I'm sure the European explorers of old were startled to find the Americas squarely in the middle of the path heading west from Europe to Asia. The millions of aboriginal people already living in the Americas knew it for centuries, but the Europeans were absolutely gob smacked to learn what the least intelligent of the aboriginals held as an obvious fact. That's usually the way of it. Most amazement comes not so much from discovering something new to everyone- just something new to you.
So here we have The Atlantic expounding on " the startling, sustainable, just-getting-started return of industry to the United States." Just because The Atlantic, GE and are "startled" it doesn't mean much of anyone else in the manufacturing community is. It is actually a pretty good article and I recommend reading the whole thing, but when you get to the part where GE discovers employee engagement and design for manufacturability you have to scratch your head.
"By considering the workers who would have to put the water heater together—in fact, by having those workers right at the table, looking at the design as it was drawn—the team cut the work hours necessary to assemble the water heater from 10 hours in China to two hours in Louisville."
"So a funny thing happened to the GeoSpring on the way from the cheap Chinese factory to the expensive Kentucky factory: The material cost went down. The labor required to make it went down. The quality went up. Even the energy efficiency went up."
"Time-to-market has also improved, greatly. It used to take five weeks to get the GeoSpring water heaters from the factory to U.S. retailers—four weeks on the boat from China and one week dockside to clear customs. Today, the water heaters—and the dishwashers and refrigerators—move straight from the manufacturing buildings to Appliance Park’s warehouse out back, from which they can be delivered to Lowe’s and Home Depot. Total time from factory to warehouse: 30 minutes."
The big error in the article is "What is only now dawning on the smart American companies, says Lenzi, is that when you outsource the making of the products, your whole business goes with the outsourcing.” Lenzi is the guy in charge of GE design. The mistake is the rather self-serving assertion that this is dawning on "smart American companies". Actually it is dawning on the slow learners – the not too terribly bright ones. The "smart American companies" have known this for a very long time, but the big corporate mentality is that, if they are figuring it out, it must be a new insight.
In this regard GE is a whole lot like Apple, the leadership of which is convinced that America doesn't have the manufacturing know-how to make iStuff. It really means that Apple doesn't have the manufacturing know-how. Mainstream American manufacturing knows quite a bit about it – much more than Apple's vaunted Chinese buddies, but these big companies are so insular, so full of themselves and convinced of their own genius that they honestly believe that, if they don't know something no one else could know it either; and that when they learn something, the whole world must be learning it for the first time too.
How insular are they? Consider "Lean management is not a new concept, but outside of car making, it hasn’t caught on widely in the United States." I can't think of a more erroneous assessment of the state of lean manufacturing in the United States. In fact, the US auto companies are laughable lagging the rest of manufacturing, but I have yet to see anyone from GE at the serious lean events, so how would they know? In fact, lean management has caught on very widely – just not at the big off-shore outsourcing cheap labor chasers – an approach for which GE has set the gold standard. But to know that, the leadership of GE would have to attend a few learning events and visit a couple of of their potential suppliers to learn something … and GE doesn't learn from suppliers - it dictates to them; and GE doesn't learn at conferences - it sends keynote speakers to them.
It is great that GE is learning what so many already know – much, much better late than never. But to read articles such as this one, barely masking GE's sheer giddiness at discovering lean 101, it is like eavesdropping on teenagers who just discovered sex for the first time. They are convinced that they invented it for the simple reason that they cannot imagine how they could have been so completely oblivious for so long to something that wonderful.