As a new academic year commences, the very large sculpture of a terrapin dominates one end of the quad at the University of Maryland at College Park. It’s the proud subject of the campus slogan, “Fear the Turtle.”

The College Park terrapin, however, is not the plodding turtle that serves as foil to an overly confident (and ultimately unsuccessful) hare in Aesop’s ancient tale. Rather the College Park terrapin symbolizes the enlightened application of knowledge, skills and energy that has taken the University to leading positions in the arts and humanities, science, engineering, information technology, and business.

More men and women in manufacturing companies across the U.S.—and in American companies overseas—would be well advised to emulate Maryland and make the turtle symbol of their strengths and achievements. Manufacturing managers operating in our dynamic and highly competitive world of commerce and capital literally cannot afford to dismiss the turtle as an academic curiosity, a symbol perhaps fitting for a university campus, but not for their companies.

Where to begin? (And how to continue?)

Although each manufacturing company and each manufacturing plant is in some way unique, three principles of operating excellence apply to all the best companies and plants:

  1. The creation of a culture of continuous improvement is as important as operator-led process control, LeanSigma councils, production cells and the other tools of continuous improvement.
  2. Seemingly good ideas sometimes fail. Learn from failures. Even Jack Welch, the legendary former chairman and CEO of General Electric Co, once (accidentally) blew up a plastics plant.
  3. Ask—and ask again and again—the critical questions about delivering customer value, working with suppliers to reduce costs and boost quality, and involving the entire workforce—including senior company management—in the relentless pursuit of excellence.

During many years of visiting manufacturing plants in the United States and abroad, and several years of judging North American facilities as part of The IW Best Plants program, I saw these principles in action. For the very best plants these principles were not—and are not—an academic exercise.

Even if you believe your company and its manufacturing plants are already doing a great job of applying these principles, study them again. Think about them not only in terms of the business challenges that you currently face, but also in the context of what’s to come. Sweat the small stuff, the big stuff, and all the stuff in-between. Create new practices. Prove their worth—even at the risk of finding their value is less than you thought.

The global competitive manufacturing race is still very much on.

Make the College Park turtle your symbol of continuous improvement.

Fear the turtle.

This is the first of a series of occasional essays by John S. McClenahen, who retired from IndustryWeek in 2006 and remains a keen observer of the global manufacturing environment.