We are facing critical times in the USA Manufacturing: a perspective

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As the founder of a Fortune 500 manufacturing company, I view the future with great optimism in terms of what it offers for business. But I also see that the edge of our prosperity is wearing thin. Our manufacturing base is eroding, and our technology is being used more fruitfully in other countries.

We will also see a dampening effect on the world economy as our economy becomes second rate in the next decade or two.

I am not talking about technology and manufacturing directly. What I have in my mind is the quality of our workforce and how it interacts with technological advances and manufacturing methods.

How do we achieve a skilled workforce that is dedicated and committed:

That will seek to eliminate inefficiencies?

That will be flexible in the face of rapid product changeovers?

That will be open to new ways of doing things?

That will strengthen America’s reputation for quality?

I cannot generalize about what everyone relating to this topic should do. But I can tell you about what can work for us now – and shows great promise for the future.

At the company I founded, J.P. Industries, we had a philosophy called “Better Makes Us Best.”

Let me take just a couple moments to describe the background of this philosophy and then I will share with you some of our success stories.

“Better Makes Us Best” is a philosophy I have followed all of my life. I have overcome adversities throughout the years by believing the following: By striving to perform better each day than we did the day before, and by setting realistic, attainable and yet worthy goals, we can be more successful and more fulfilled. Goals stimulate us to move forward. Goals are the yardstick by which we measure our growth and performance. I have discussed this philosophy in an earlier article published in the Business Thinker, see: “Better Makes Us Best”–The power of a simple idea.

 

My goal was to apply new technology to old manufacturing processes, to transform underperforming companies into profitable ventures. As we grew, some of the underperforming companies we acquired were in danger of losing supplier status with their customers.  You can provide machinery and technology but if you lack employee commitment the formula won’t work. The buildings, the machines, don’t really do much unless people have the motivation, the desire and the know-how to do a good job. They turn it around. We at corporate head quarters provided leadership and creative management.

I wrote and published a book, describing the “Better Makes Us Best” philosophy, which was distributed to all of our employees – over 7,000 people at the time for free.

That was important because it got the word out on the plant floor that we were serious about this philosophy. We wanted everyone to start thinking about how to be better. Then we backed up this effort by encouraging managers and supervisors to stimulate discussion at the plant level along the same lines.

We also asked our managers to file reports describing their efforts. The responses were gratifying. People actually began thinking about how they could perform their daily tasks better, about how they could improve working conditions, about how they could increase output and make better products.

They began to understand that job security is a two-way street. As a corporation, we provide jobs. The employees1 responsibility is to perform those jobs to the best of their abilities, to acquire training (which we provide) and to be flexible in the face of change.

I would like to interject here that one of the things our employees learned was economic literacy. That is important because the traditional employee in the United States is economically illiterate. He / she does not understand how his / her performance affects the company or the economy. If the employee is careless the company can lose a customer; that customer may go abroad for suppliers if he can obtain better quality parts overseas. But if that employee is careful, his company may win more business, achieving its security in the global marketplace — which, in turn, gives the employee job security.

Well, we built on the “Better Makes Us Best” philosophy and the rewards were substantial. I would like to describe a few of our success stories.

A little over a year after we began to implement the philosophy  our plant managers decided there was a need for change – to meet the demands of the marketplace and remain competitive. We provided them with opportunities to review alternatives and they eventually selected a program the called “Real Participative Management” – or RPM, which is rather apt in the Transportation Products industry.

The crux of the program is actually an extension of “Better Makes Us Best” because it teaches employees to consider the needs of three groups:

* The investor: wants good returns on his (or her) investment;

* The customer: wants on-time delivery, high quality and cost efficiency;

* The employee: wants job security, better wages and fringe benefits and

involvement in decisions affecting him / her.

If the employees perform better each day, they influence all of these demands in a positive way. And dramatic changes occurred. In a six months’ time that the plan was operative profits increased almost 100 percent at the plant level; the cost of quality   decreased by 20 percent; and productivity increased 10 percent.

Of course, one of the keys to these successes is having the proper management talent because while employees have the opportunity to influence management, the final decisions remain with management. You have to have in place or be willing to train management to have the proper attitude to influence these cultural changes within the organization.

Another key to the program’s success is employee willingness to spend time in extensive training. Employee involvement requires education in learning to accept responsibility for change and improvement on a personal level. Again, I believe “Better Makes Us Best” provided the framework for our employees to move forward.

We negotiated with the unions to achieve a single classification for all of the   employees in the unionized plants. Thus, all of them became salaried and received the same benefits. Supervisors worked as part of a team with everyone trained to perform the electrical, mechanical, set up, maintenance and operating jobs.

We provided the training –I think more corporations are going to have to take on the task of backing training programs again for prospective employees if we are going to attain the kind of skilled labor we need in this country to compete in the global marketplace. In some cases in the future, corporations may even have to assume the responsibility for educating their employees in basic skills, either on their own or working with schools in their areas or regions. And I’m not just talking about vocational skills which can become outmoded more quickly than we’d like to think. I’m talking about basic skills of reading, writing, mathematics and geography.

If you can’t read, how can you operate computer controlled machinery? If you don’t know geography, how can you understand the global marketplace?

While we experienced some start up problems with new product lines, we achieved in having dedicated employees. There was no much of turnover. We did not measure absenteeism because there wasn’t any. Employees worked to help improve the speed of the line. And employees worked with management to set up their own shift schedules.

The managers and supervisors  completed 18 weeks of training as a first step toward getting everyone involved.  I need to emphasize, however, that to accomplish this goal, you must provide direction from the top and be sure the proper atmosphere is communicated to cultivate acceptance because this is a scary idea for some employees «they have to learn how to want to be responsible. And you have to let them believe they can and should be.

We worked to help our employees understand that “Better Makes Us Best” is not distant or abstract. It begins as a personal and individual commitment that blossoms as people who believe similarly work together each day to perform better than they did the day before.

Employees working together who truly believe “Better Makes Us Best” can be a driving force in energizing the workplace across the United States.

This is not just a personal desire; it is a belief that we can change the course of what is happening in our industries, in our manufacturing plants and laboratories. If we provide leadership, education and training – and the spirit to be better every day — we will remain competitive in the global marketplace.

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