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Mistakes are a Gift

Bye, Bye Big Daddy

March 17, 2020
Being wrong is a gift… if we’re willing to learn from it. Failure expands our horizons even as it reminds us of our own limits.

Part of an ongoing series celebrating IndustryWeek's 50th anniversary.

I hate these kinds of stories.

Some talking head you barely remember (or never heard of) blathers about how he used to live in a mud hut down by the river until he discovered fire, or the internet, or lean, and now he wants you and your millennial or Gen XYZ ilk to pull up your Aeron chairs and listen while Big Daddy tells you how it really was, back in the good old days, before everything sucked.

Please. I knew that guy and his kind back in the day, and let me just say that the word “genius” is not the first that comes to mind in remembering them.

Here’s the thing: Despite what you may have heard, manufacturing—and life in general—is better now than ever. Two years from now, it’ll be even greater. In a decade? Almost unimaginable.

Back in Big Daddy’s day, of course, we worried that Japanese manufacturers might overwhelm their American competitors, at least until we believed that Chinese manufacturers would do so instead, and then the BRIC economies, etc. We thought the Y2K computer bug might END CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT, so we spent more than $300 billion worldwide to save ourselves. At IndustryWeek, a staffer picked up his mouse during computer training and tried to speak into it. Our Big Bosses, the silver-haired Neanderthals of Executive Row who controlled our budgets and paychecks, asked us in a meeting if a website was really necessary for our magazine, presumably because we still had access to (landline) phones, a printing press and the U.S. Postal Service.

Well: American manufacturers are still thriving; Y2K is a synonym for “expensive, self-induced panic;” the simplest computers and phones have voice recognition; and all those Big Bosses stumbled into retirement communities where they can complain about The Facebook even as they harass grandchildren to fix The WIFI.

In short, we got a lot of things wrong.

But we got some stuff right, too. We understood that technology—ERP, mobility, artificial intelligence, analytics, virtual reality, 3D printing—would massively improve manufacturing and the world, even if we eventually realized (duh) that every whizbang advance takes longer, costs more money, and has more unexpected consequences than you think. We learned that sharing data—benchmark metrics on performances and practices, the IW Best Plants Awards, etc.—makes everybody better. And we were reminded, again and again, that technology alone wasn’t enough; people are still the essential ingredients in any solution, as long as they’re smart, humble, open-minded, well-trained, and engaged. That’s why IW has invested so much time, effort, and money over 50 years into exploring the human side of manufacturing and improvement methodologies; nothing else makes as much difference, as quickly, for good—or ill.

Thankfully, we’ve all enjoyed five decades of mostly “good,” as manufacturing and life in general continue to improve, although not always at the speed we hoped, or in the ways we originally imagined. That’s what makes being wrong such a gift, if we’re willing to allow and learn from it; failure expands our horizons even as it reminds us of our own limits. Here’s wishing that the next 50 years are full of enlightening mistakes for you, too.

Oh, and that Big Daddy finally puts a sock in it.

John Brandt joined IndustryWeek as associate editor in 1994. He was promoted to editor-in-chief in 1995, where he served until 2000. He is the author of Nincompoopery: Why Your Customers Hate You—and How to Fix It (HarperCollins, 2019).

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