Just In Time -- Running On Empty

June 8, 2008
The biggest problem right now isn't the energy crisis, but the lack-of-energy crisis.

There's an energy crisis going on right now in the United States, and not only is it getting progressively worse every day but nobody is even talking about it. Obviously I'm not talking about the country's dependence on fossil fuels and the dangers of greenhouse gases -- plenty of people are weighing in with updates every minute of the day with status reports (and you'll find several articles on those themes elsewhere in this issue). No, what I'm talking about is how easy it is today for people to get all worked up about the wrong things, investing all their time and resources on things that are out of their control to do anything about to the exclusion of everything else. To coin a phrase, I'm talking about a lack-of-energy crisis.

We certainly should've seen this one coming. With our attention spans constantly splintering thanks to the incessant drumbeats of media reports and updates blasted 24/7 through wireless devices, we no longer need to be afraid that we might be missing something in those torturous, disconnected moments in between leaving our offices and turning on our car radios. Those formerly "blackout" occasions in our life -- church services, kid's soccer games, candlelit dinners with your spouse -- are now just an extension of the rest of our workday. What we gain in information, though, we lose in prioritization. When everything seems to carry equal importance, it's hard to focus on what actually is important.

It would be helpful if somebody would create a spam filter for daily life, so that we could have the events of the day put into meaningful context. Or even better, a kind of "serenity prayer" filter, that would tell us what things are in our control to change and which are not. Instead, all too often we're wasting our time -- our most precious commodity -- on frivolous or ill-thought-out activities, to the point that we don't have the energy to devote to the tasks and the people that matter most. End result: burnout.

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See Chain Reactions: David Blanchard's blog about supply chain management.
The lack-of-energy crisis also manifests itself in another way, particularly in the adoption of an entitlement attitude -- how many people do you know who think that society owes them a job, a house, two cars, high-def TVs, you name it? You see them on the factory floor, but you also see them in corporate management roles -- people who have succumbed to the "silver platter syndrome" and believe that it's no longer necessary for them to apply themselves conscientiously to their work. Rather than developing their gifts, they've taken on an aura of self-satisfaction, and good luck getting them to shift from their "I've got mine" complacency. End result: stagnation.

U.S. manufacturing's future depends to a large extent on its ability to overcome this lack-of-energy crisis. "Continuous improvement" is a nice, sublime-sounding buzzword that looks good in a corporate brochure or on a plant's bulletin board, but how often do we apply it to ourselves? Just as tellingly, how well are we teaching it to our own children? Why is it so hard now to attract young people to manufacturing careers? Sure, it's easy to blame the kids for not wanting to get their hands dirty, but are we putting in the effort ourselves to make the industry more attractive?

So having described the symptoms of the lack-of-energy crisis, is there a cure? I would suggest the answer to the crisis can be summed up in one word: accountability. If you consider the work that you do honorable, if you apply your talents to the best of your abilities, and if you give back to your profession more than you received, then you're emblematic of the classic spirit of American manufacturing. If, however, you're just going through the motions every day, then you don't need to worry about the country running out of fossil fuels because you've already run out of gas.

David Blanchard is IW's editor-in-chief. He is based in Cleveland. Also see Chain Reactions: David Blanchard's blog about supply chain management.

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