As the year 2013 begins, the first question every manufacturing manager needs to be asking and answering is “Why do we exist?”

The existential question is as ancient as the writings of the early Greek philosophers and as modern as the demands of contemporary global manufacturing. In manufacturing today, only after executives have established compelling reasons for their companies to be in business do they have a responsible basis for asking and answering such operational questions as: What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? What is market demand—and how is it changing? What are our human resource needs and our capital requirements? Who are our competitors—and where are they? And where does this company need to be in one, two, three and five years?

At each company—or in each manufacturing plant—the answer to the question “Why do we exist?” may be called a mission statement, or a purpose statement, or some other kind of statement. The label doesn’t matter; the content does.

During nearly four decades as a writer at IndustryWeek, I read several thousand manufacturing company mission statements. More than a few were hollow. They left me wondering why the companies were ever established and how they could possibly remained in business.

During my years at IndustryWeek, I read hundreds of IndustryWeek Best Plants Award applications. And in decided contrast to some hollow statement, a carefully crafted and concise statement of purpose characterized virtually every one of those applications. Significantly, many plant managers candidly confessed that writing a proper purpose statement—a precise statement justifying the plant’s existence—was both the most challenging and the most rewarding part of the application process.

For some, it meant delaying their applications by a year.

It’s easy to be preoccupied with the present in business and in life. It’s with us every day, for better or worse. However, even when today is fairly comfortable—and for most manufacturers in North America today is more uncomfortable than comfortable—the present is not the place from which to begin. Starting with the present arrogantly presumes that current manufacturing policies, practices and processes are best performers for producers, their suppliers, their customers, and the communities in which they operate and market. Starting with the present avoids confronting hard or unpleasant underlying truths about a manufacturing plant’s operations and a manufacturing company’s existence.

Instead, ask that most basic of questions, “Why do we exist?” And ask it not only at the beginning of 2013 or any future year. Only by periodically asking—and answering—with authority the existential question does there exist a rational basis for executing all the responsibilities for which manufacturing managers are rightfully held accountable in a world of business challenge and change.

This is another of a series of occasional essays by John S. McClenahen, who retired from IndustryWeek in 2006 and remains an interested observer of global manufacturing.