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The Missing Element in Manufacturing Success

June 17, 2020
Lessons from COVID-19

This could have all ended horribly.

As I have argued many times in this column, manufacturing is an industry run on long-term strategies, on careful plans, on slow and steady progress. Chaos, uncertainty and inconsistency run counter to the fundamental mechanisms that make manufacturing work.

If this position were strictly true, however, then the unprecedented wave of global chaos, uncertainty and inconsistency stirred up by the COVID-19 outbreak would have sunk us. It would have all ended horribly. But it did not.

Instead, we saw manufacturers across the industry and across the world lean into the fight together. We saw workers show up despite the risks and we saw leaders transforming their plants to keep them safe. We saw companies shift industries overnight, innovating at a speed and scale I never thought possible to produce the goods first responders, medical workers and global citizens needed most to survive and endure the crisis. We saw countless acts of collaboration and ingenuity erupting everywhere we looked, all in effort to keep this critical industry moving and to do some good in the world.

My favorite example of this came from a short conversation with Dan Moore, CEO of DTM Co., which operates a wide portfolio of small and midsized manufacturing companies. Several of these companies serve the auto market, which was one of the earliest industry casualties of the COVID-19 response. With no orders coming in and no way to guess when business would return, Moore was left with an army of talented engineers and production workers idled in silent factories. And none of them were satisfied sitting still.

“They wanted to do something to help,” Moore told me. “I wanted to do something to help.”

So they did.

Moore pulled together a team of his top engineers, tapped their collective innovative genius, and in one week created an entirely new breathing assist system needed to treat COVID-19 patients. In collaboration with area hospitals, the team was able get these devices certified at astonishing speed and has already delivered dozens of them to facilities in need—and launching a whole new company under DTM in the process.

This kind of thing has become a common story in the past few months, but that shouldn’t diminish its impact. Despite all the careful calculations that are so integral to this industry, manufacturers like DTM have stepped up and delivered.

“There are a lot of really smart manufacturers out there who don’t want to sit back and wait,” Moore said. “We know we have to do something.”

And this is where I think my assessment of the absolute need for consistent strategies falls short. As I examined the structure necessary to maintain the business of manufacturing, I neglected to account for the nature of the humans involved—particularly their ingenuity, their grit and their innovative resilience.

This has been perhaps the most impressive positive result of the COVID-19 crisis so far. The disease (and fear of it) didn’t just hit our businesses, it affected each of us personally. It leveled us out in a way—we’re not in this as executives or frontline workers, as essential or non-essential classes, we’re all just humans trying to fight through it together. This has the potential to be the greatest equalizing force the world has seen in quite some time.

And I hope it lasts.

As Laura Putre notes in her cover story for this issue, this human-centric mindset could set the tone far into the future. The power of executives addressing workers directly, of cross-department collaboration, of real caring and concern that has driven us through the first leg of this crisis could be the elusive “new normal” we’re all looking for.

And I hope, I desperately hope, this sense lasts even after the careful plans and long-term strategy components of this business snap back into place. If the past three months are any indicator, it is the ingredient that will make manufacturers, and the communities they operate in, truly unstoppable.

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